The World Must Rally to the Cause of Afghan Women


The terror unfolding in Afghanistan is taking me back to my childhood growing up in Iran and then suddenly leaving the country with my family just months before the Islamic Revolution. If you ask any Iranian-American, who lived through those days, or Iranians yearning for freedom within Iran, they’ll tell you the same story. Iranians and the Afghan people share the same language, have similar cultures and are now facing the same struggles.

Iranians, no matter where they are in the world, know all too well that when all of the television cameras and journalists covering the chaos leave Afghanistan, the people who will suffer the most under Taliban rule are women and girls. Why do they know that? They’ve watched Iran’s Islamic Regime terrorize women and girls for more than 40 years. Many Iranian-Americans believe the world’s silence when it comes to these atrocities has been deafening.

The world’s been able to see more horrifying images out of Iran during the past decade because of social media. Some of these images include women receiving lashes for not wearing a scarf and men being executed for speaking up against the government. We see the videos and testimonials because of the brave people living in Iran. Many risk everything, even their own lives, in order to post a graphic video online or to get it to journalists and activists abroad.

Sadly, The Taliban have an even more brutal record when it comes to violating the rights of women. We saw that when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the Terrorist Attacks on September 11th. During the most heart-breaking period in our own history, our eyes were opened wide to the cruelty of the Taliban.

During the first Taliban regime, women weren’t allowed to work. Girls couldn’t attend school and could be forced into marriage at the age of 12 or even younger. Women couldn’t go out in public, either. They had to be accompanied by a husband, brother or father. The Taliban enforced all of these rules under their version of Shariah Law. In their world, disobedient women could face severe punishment and even death.

An Afghan-American woman, who didn’t want to be identified, recently told me she hasn’t been able to sleep watching what’s become a nightmare in Afghanistan. She says the heart-breaking images on TV and social media haunt her and take her back to her childhood when she lived under Taliban control. She remembers the Taliban coming to her neighbor’s house and kidnapping a young girl so she could be married off to a man. She painfully recalls how she had to intervene inside a house of worship to stop the Taliban from beating up her mother.

Women in Afghanistan thought those terrifying days were behind them. But it took a matter of days for the Taliban to take over their country and send women back to the dark ages. For 20 years, women in Afghanistan have been able to attend school and go on to university. In fact, they’ve earned higher grade point averages than their male counterparts. They became women’s rights activists, doctors, judges and journalists. Even today, as the Taliban takes control, it’s the on-air female journalists who stand strong, calmly asking the Taliban the tough questions.

TOLO News is Afghanistan’s 24-hour news channel. The female on-camera reporters and anchors there continue to work despite fears the Taliban will crack down on them. Brave on-camera TOLO News reporter Zahra Rahimi tweeted a photo of herself surrounded by a large male crowd, interviewing a man. In the photo, she stands tall, her arms crossed, wearing a simple scarf to cover her hair. During the old Taliban days, what she did would have been forbidden and could’ve had her facing serious punishment.

Then on Tuesday, the head of TOLO News tweeted a picture of a female anchor and wrote, “We resumed our broadcast with female anchors today.” The station also tweeted a photo of a female anchor sitting on a news set across from a Taliban spokesperson, asking him if the Taliban would respect a woman’s right to work.

On Wednesday, a Taliban spokesperson claimed women and female journalists would have the right to work but within the framework of their version of Shariah Law. Whether strict limitations will be placed on women in the news still remains to be seen. The Taliban could force on-camera female journalists to cover themselves from head-to-toe on the air. Or, they could only allow female journalists to interview women. No one knows. The messages coming from the Taliban are unclear.

The problem is Taliban edicts are random and arbitrary.  For instance, the Taliban say girls will be able to go to school but that they’ll decide what girls can and can’t learn. Then, while TOLO News female reporters and anchors continue to work, a female anchor at Afghanistan’s state-run news station was barred by the Taliban from entering her office. However, her male colleagues were allowed inside.

The lives of women in Iran are governed by random decisions, as well, made by men who claim they are operating within Islamic Laws. A woman in Iran can receive 74 lashes for showing her hair, wearing too much makeup or kissing a man she isn’t married to. While the United Nations has condemned lashings, the world and the U.N. continue to turn their backs on the persecution of women in Iran.

The Taliban, though, now claim to be a new and improved version of their old selves. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini sort of came on the world stage the same way. He promised women would be respected in Iran. History has shown that hasn’t been the case.

My father recently asked me, “do you remember running around the house pretending to be a television reporter back in Iran, interviewing your friends?” Yes, I remember it clearly.

Nearly 40 years later, I am lucky enough to have worked for ABC, CBS and NBC. Throughout the years, I’ve covered heartbreaking stories and events that have changed the world.

As a journalist, I’ve had the privilege of being a witness to history and for that I am grateful. But I often wonder what if my family and I hadn’t gotten out of Iran? Where would I be today? What if my father wasn’t American? What if I didn’t have the privilege of leaving Iran? What if I was one of those girls in Iran who couldn’t leave and had to stay behind?

On a fall day in 1978, my parents decided staying in Iran was no longer an option. Our exit from the country happened fairly quickly. We left our home and belongings and got on an early morning flight headed to the U.S. with six suitcases in hand. Even though the Shah was still in power, the streets of Tehran had become too dangerous. My elementary school principal had warned us to carry scarves because Islamic militants were going around throwing acid into the faces of girls my age who weren’t covering their hair.

You’ll hear similar stories from Iranians who fled their homeland. But the most painful stories are echoed by those who remain in Iran. Most women, still fighting for their freedom. Their voices, though, aren’t being heard by those who have the power to help them live better lives. When a country or a world leader legitimizes or recognizes Iran’s Islamic Regime, women who are suffering there, feel as if they’re being emotionally lashed.

That’s why Iranian women worry about Afghan women. They know what can happen after the television cameras stop rolling. They fear that as time goes by the world will stop paying attention to the fate of the women who had no choice but to stay behind in Afghanistan. They’re concerned that after the last American citizen is pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban will shut down the internet and Afghan women won’t be able to tell their stories.

But at the same time, Iranian women see how Afghan women are strong, resilient, and determined. Just days into the Taliban invasion, female journalists continue to show up in front of cameras and small groups of women hold protests to make sure they’re not silenced.

As women, we should strive to hold up other women, especially those suffering under oppressive regimes. What happens half-way around the world usually comes back to affect our lives here in the United States. The Coronavirus and the attacks on 9/11 are just a few tragic examples.

We can help bring awareness to the plight of oppressed women around the world by asking our government not to recognize regimes that violate the rights of women. We should demand that our elected officials not negotiate with bad-behaving governments unless those regimes are willing to grant women more rights.

Right now, the United States’ first duty is to get all American citizens safely out of Afghanistan. The fact the Biden administration has no idea how many Americans are still on the ground in Afghanistan is a huge problem.

Most agree, the U.S.’s second obligation is to make sure Afghans, who helped Americans, also get out alive. As Americans, our word is our bond. We promised the Afghans who worked with us that we wouldn’t leave them behind. Imagine how many people around the world will want to help Americans in the future if the U.S. doesn’t stick to its promise. Imagine how many will turn against us if an Afghan, who helped the U.S., is murdered by the Taliban?

Our third priority should focus on working with other countries to make sure women, who are in danger because of a public profession or their political activism, have an option to leave Afghanistan if they wish to do so. This is nothing new. Refugees have been allowed to come to our shores and seek political asylum for decades. In the case of Afghanistan, it’s the least the U.S. can do for abruptly pulling troops out of Afghanistan without what appears to be a Plan A, B or C.

Pictured, top: The author as a child, in Iran.

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One response to “The World Must Rally to the Cause of Afghan Women”

  1. I seldom agree with you, Kathleen, but you’re spot on here. Very sad situation for these women and girls.

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