ANKARA: Zakira Hekmat, president of the Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association in Turkey, said her nights have been sleepless since hearing that the civilian government in Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban.
She fears this political change in her homeland will take the heaviest toll on educated women who had come to expect a bright future for themselves and all girls and women in the country.
Hekmat, 33, believes that some high-profile women will be in the fortunate position to be able to leave the country, but the majority of ordinary citizens will be forced to live under the Taliban regime and require help and support.
“At first, it will be difficult to reach out to all women in Afghanistan,” she told Arab News. “However it would be wise to start with specific segments of society, by providing scholarships for students at high school and encouraging them to finish their school studies and start university education.”
According to the latest UN data, women and children account for about 80 percent of displaced Afghans. Hekmat, who was born into an internally displaced family in the Jaghuri district of Ghazni province in Afghanistan, graduated from high school while living under Taliban rule. She briefly attended Kabul University before moving to Turkey on a scholarship to study medicine at Erciyes University in Kayseri and becoming a doctor.
“The Turkish government should also help university-age girls in Afghanistan through scholarships and help them leave the country and continue accomplishing their dreams in this way,” she said.
Hekmat is a well-known rights activist in Turkey, a country she now considers her home. In particular she campaigns for the rights of girls and women in Afghanistan. She is not alone; in recent days people from all walks of life in Turkey, across the political spectrum, have expressed solidarity with Afghan women and urged the international community not to abandon them to the mercy of the Taliban.
They fear that women will face great challenges under an oppressive regime that could once again strip women and girls of the rights they painstakingly reclaimed over the past two decades, especially in the realms of education and employment.
As the Afghan government fell and the Taliban took control of the country in recent days, hashtags such as “#TurkishWomenforAfghanWomen” and slogans such as “Be Their Voice” quickly began to trend on social media in Turkey.
Turkish group the Women’s Platform for Equality on Wednesday call on the international community to mobilize in support of Afghan women and share the responsibility for hosting the refugees from the country in a fair and responsible way.
“We consider that abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban’s rule is as ruthless as the methods of the Taliban,” the group said. “Act now for Afghan women and Afghan people.”
Gulsum Kav, a campaigner for women’s rights and co-founder of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, said: “Afghan women are never alone. We are the women of the world. We will absolutely get our freedom one day.”
Authorities in Ankara are currently in talks with all parties in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, but the extent to which they will be able to use political leverage to protect the rights of women and girls in the country remains unclear.
On Tuesday the Taliban pledged to respect women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law. However, memories of women largely being confined to their homes under the previous Taliban regime, and facing the threat of public execution, remain fresh in the minds of many.
Begum Basdas, a gender and migration scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin, shares the concerns raised by human rights organizations that have warned the world must not fall for the Taliban’s “charm offensive” and its claim to now support women’s rights.
“I do not believe that the Taliban has changed,” she told Arab News. “Many female activists and women in high-profile jobs such as judges, journalists, government posts, as well as teachers, fear that their lives are at risk.
“The Taliban claim that women will not be discriminated against, but only within the framework of Shariah. We have observed their interpretation of Islam in the past, and more recently since they started to gain power. There are reports of women and girls who are barred from schools, dismissed from their jobs and ordered not to appear in public spaces. Already their actions do not conform to their statements.”
Yet the world has also witnessed the immense strength and resilience of Afghan women, Basdas added.
“They are still on the streets reporting, filming, protesting and fighting against the Taliban,” she said. “Our task is not to repeat the past mistakes of the Western world and treat them merely as people to be ‘saved;’ we must stand with them in solidarity to protect their lives and rights in Afghanistan.”
Some prominent women have managed to leave the country, including Sahraa Karimi, a leading female filmmaker who thanked the Turkish government for helping her to get out of Kabul this week.
According to Basdas, all Afghan women who have fled to other countries must have access to effective asylum procedures and other other safe legal paths to resettlement in Europe and elsewhere.
“They should not face the risk of deportation ever,” she said. “I agree with the call to authorities in Turkey that instead of further military interventions, we must ensure all women, and everyone who needs protection, are evacuated from Afghanistan urgently.”
However, this potential wave of refugees from Afghanistan is already causing tensions to rise in domestic Turkish politics. On Wednesday the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party displayed a banner on its headquarters that read “Borders are our honor.” Hundreds of Afghan refugees have arrived in the country in recent weeks, resulting in public anger among some and calls for the government to boost border security by building walls.
“Human rights should not be used as political leverage but Turkey first must ensure that Afghans in Turkey are safe and have access to international protection procedures without the fear of deportation,” Basdas said.
She also noted that discriminatory comments about migrants and refugees must end, and that the introduction of effective migration policies that respond to the needs of local populations as well as the refugees can help to achieve this.
“Not just Turkey, the entire international community must stand to protect human rights in Afghanistan,” she added. “The EU’s call to the Taliban ‘to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law’ will not suffice.
“The actions of the West are partly to blame and so there should not be any negotiations with the Taliban that could endanger women’s rights. We should support Afghan women and show them that we are not just watching but taking action.”