Pelosi skeptical about Taliban treatment of women
Speaking at an event in San Francisco, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced concern for the fate of women and girls in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. (Aug. 18)
The beating began shortly after the American flag was lowered at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Taliban fighters tracked down a women’s rights activist and politician in Afghanistan. They covered her face and bound her hands, she recalled, as they ripped her from her home.
When it was over, blood streaked down her forehead and over her eyes, matting her hair as it gushed from the fresh wound on her scalp.
Then came the second beating. After it was over, she was dropped near the airport in Kabul and given an ultimatum, she said: Leave or be killed if the Taliban found her again.
The activist – who recounted her story on Wednesday to USA TODAY – is among millions of women facing an uncertain future in Afghanistan, where the backdrop of the Taliban’s history of oppressive and violent treatment of women looms darkly against the organization’s promises to respect their rights as it regains control of the country.
USA TODAY is withholding the woman’s name because she and her family remain in danger. They are desperately hoping to escape but have no clear idea whether they and others will be left behind, despite efforts of activists to get them to safety, as the United States completes its withdrawal.
Violence against women under the Taliban
Deaths of women and children in Afghanistan already are rising. As the military withdrawal began, the number of women and children killed as violence erupted in the country hit its highest level since records were first kept in 2009, according to the United Nations.
“They want revenge on politicians and women who are activists in Afghanistan,” the woman beaten by Taliban fighters said. “They have not changed. They’re back to the way they were 20 years ago.”
When she was dropped near the airport, she couldn’t get inside to board one of the flights evacuating people like her from the country she worked to build up during two decades of war.
The woman – someone who once mentored other women like herself, who worked as an advocate for women’s rights and spoke out against corruption – is now in hiding.
Nor, she said, is she the only woman avoiding going outside. “If you see the street, there’s no women,” she said.
More: ‘It’s just rubbish’: Experts doubt Taliban’s promises on women and girls
Trying to evacuate women and others at risk
Advocates in the U.S. have been pressing the State Department to help women escape what many fear are virtual death sentences.
A group of women’s organizations, activists and celebrities sent a letter to the Biden administration demanding action to protect the women at greatest risk: activists, journalists, educators and other leaders.
They called for direct evacuation flights for high-risk women and the expansion of special immigrant visas to include a category for at-risk women, among other demands. So far, those have gone unheeded.
“Currently the only strategy is to get as many women out of Afghanistan as possible. That’s the immediate, immediate strategy,” said Yasmeen Hassan, executive director for Equality Now, one of the signatories. “That has become extremely difficult.”
Many women in Afghanistan are going into hiding, said Marie Clarke, vice president for global programs at Women for Women International. Their experiences with the Taliban can vary, even within the same province, she said.
While the Taliban have shown support in some districts for organizations promoting women’s rights, in others they have issued bulletins requiring women to be accompanied by a male relative in public.
In one case, Clarke said an Afghan woman she knows burned her university diploma in the oven, fearing the Taliban would discover that she was educated.
“That burning of that important document shows the level of fear and also the sort of sense that everyone has to go underground if you’re an educated woman who wants to change Afghanistan,” she said.
Women for Afghan Women organized a list of high-risk clients, staff members and their families to evacuate from the country, said Sunita Viswanath, a co-founder and board member.
The organization has for months been moving those people from outlying provinces into Kabul, but it didn’t expect the capital to fall so quickly. It has been working since Aug. 15 with the U.S. State Department, which funds the organization, but so far it hasn’t succeeded in getting a single person out.
“If women were a priority, our women would be a priority,” Viswanath said. “I can only think that women are not really a priority.”
Viswanath said her organization now is working with other countries to try to find destinations for its evacuees.
“You can’t get the whole country out. That’s the problem. You want to help, but how? It’s impossible,” an Afghan-American activist told USA TODAY. “I wish I could get everybody out.”
USA TODAY is not naming the activist because she still has family in Afghanistan and fears for their safety. She is working to evacuate the woman politician who was beaten and threatened by Taliban fighters.
She said she was fearful evacuations might stop soon, even as she continued to field messages from people trying to find a way out of the country.
‘She’s an Afghan woman. She has to be strong.’
The female activist who was beaten by the Taliban said she will tell the world what the Taliban is doing, if she is able to get out. In the meantime, though, she worries about her daughter, and what the future holds for her.
“In the future, she may be an activist, because she’s my daughter. I’m sure she will be strong, because she’s my daughter,” she said. “And also she’s an Afghan woman. She has to be strong.”
Denver-based attorney Kevin Evans sent a picture of the woman’s bloody, beaten face to the State Department as he works to get her out of Kabul. The photo provided to USA TODAY shows a fresh wound on the woman’s scalp with streaks of dried blood across her forehead and eyes.
He said he has “hounded (the department) daily” about her case. So far, Evans has received no response.
“They have it, they’ve received it more than once,” he said. “And they won’t engage. They won’t respond.”
A State Department spokesperson told USA TODAY that the U.S. government “has no role in organizing private charter evacuation flights” and is not working with third parties on access to the airport in Kabul.
Evans said a private flight has been chartered for the woman and another woman leader whose life has been threatened, as well as others. But getting people into the airport in Kabul and on a plane has proven impossible. The plane sat on the tarmac at the airport in Kabul “for hours,” Evans said, but ultimately left empty because the passengers weren’t cleared.
He and his team still hope they can extract the women from Kabul, though they acknowledge the chances could be slim.
“I understand that they’ve got a lot of other people on their list, but how many other women have been beaten this badly and told that if they’re spotted again, they’re dead?” Evans said.
Reach out to Chelsey Cox on Twitter at @therealco.