Onaba Payab is an Afghan youth and education activist and a member of the Bush Institute’s Afghan Education Working Group. She spoke with the Bush Institute’s Director of Women’s Advancement Natalie Gonnella-Platts about the abuse of power and oppression taking place under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Onaba, you were very young when the Taliban first came to power in the late ‘90s. When the regime fell in the early 2000s and you were able to attend school in Afghanistan, you leaned fully into that opportunity – a testament in so many ways to the vital influence of education, gender equity, and human rights. What do you want folks, especially policymakers, to remember amid the Taliban’s current oppression and abuse of power?
When I came back to Afghanistan after being a refugee for 17 years, I witnessed the destruction caused by war and the struggling institutions with people who had been away from education and advancement of the world during the previous regime of the Taliban in the ‘90s. But what intrigued me was the keen willingness of the people who wanted to change and improve their lives. And this is what we promoted during the Republic regime, with the support of the international community – and it was possible because we had democracy and a constitution in place in Afghanistan, which allowed both men and women to flourish.
All the advancement and prosperity were achieved when people felt a level of freedom and were allowed to fulfill their potential and express their ideas.
Currently, the de facto government in Afghanistan is transforming the schools into madrasas, families are at risk of dropping below the poverty line, and girls are prohibited to leave their houses. It takes me back to my memories from the past when we had a generation who were disconnected from the world. And it’s quite worrying for me to witness this distressing situation in my country again. We Afghans are capable of rebuilding our country, only if we are supported in our fight for freedom.
Both of your parents, especially your father, were so supportive of you and your siblings in your pursuit of education and being active members of society. The Taliban have wasted no time – and others have regurgitated this position – that it’s not Afghan or Islamic for women to be visible or active outside the home. But history shows the contrary. And so many fathers, regardless of the education they may have had in their lives, would do whatever it takes to see their girls educated, employed, and active members of society. Why is this example of men and allyship important for the world to remember?
The Taliban are neither representing Islam nor Afghan culture. They can claim to be the saviors of Islam, but their ideology is not supported by any Muslims or Muslim countries in the world. They don’t want women – half of the population – to raise their voices because their whole regime survives on fear and oppression.
My parents used to share stories of the 1940s and ‘50s when international students would come to Kabul to study alongside Afghan men and women, which changed eventually with the war and the political situation of the country. But if we look at history, Afghans have been promoting education equally for men and girls.
Like my father, all Afghan fathers desire their daughters to go to school. What I have come to realize about Afghanistan is that behind most of us who succeed is a father, who recognizes the value in his daughter and who sees her success as his success. In the context of a society like Afghanistan, we must have the support of men. Growing up in a village as one of eleven siblings, my father understood and appreciated the rights of women under Islam and the Shariah law and did what was right.
Pluralism and constructive discourse are important. However, there are various influencers – including highly visible influencers – who have messaged that isolation should not be the way forward when dealing with the Taliban. That the world would be best served by engaging. Why is this very dangerous? Why is this very shortsighted rhetoric, especially coming from voices who live within a free and fair society, a democratic society?
First of all, Natalie, I am disgusted and appalled to witness some elite individuals from the West, with limited knowledge about the Taliban and the history of Afghanistan, feel encouraged to support these dictators in Afghanistan with no consideration to the general public. It is just shameful because their own fellow men and women sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan for a mission to promote democracy and women’s rights – contrary to what these influencers and Taliban supporters are doing. They should at least show respect to their fellow citizens and veteran community by disengaging in such commercial promotion of a regime who are a threat to the whole world – let alone Afghan people.
We Afghans never wanted the Taliban; they were imposed on us. We wanted peace and prosperity – freedom and democracy to fulfill our dreams. But it did not happen, and it was a collective failure. The least the West can do is to block these influencers who are creating barriers to advocates who are fighting to bring about a change in our country. Whenever I sit down with people and they ask me, “If you have one message, what would it be?” I tell them, “If you don’t want to support us, that’s fine, but at least refrain from supporting the autocrats in our countries as it only exacerbates the issues we are already struggling to handle.”
People should realize that the Taliban are an ideological group. Their only objective is to create uniform thinking and eliminate any challengers. Through their oppression, they want to succeed.
Some of the recent positions offered by these influencers have focused on things like supposed “security improvements” or the “end of opium cultivation.” Why should the world be cautious of these claims? What concerns you the most with some of these perceptions and statements regarding the Taliban’s actions (or inaction)?
The Taliban being in Afghanistan is not only creating a risk for Afghans, but also to the region and to the whole world. It is a national security issue and people need to take it seriously. We have seen that the Al-Qaeda leader was killed in Kabul and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader was attacked in Jalalabad. All of these incidents show us that the Taliban has been engaged with terrorist groups. They are now promoting radicalization of society. We know that Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in Asia, and now by changing the curriculum and promoting extremism, they’re producing the future soldiers for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. This should be alarming for the whole world.
Regarding opium, I know that there is a lot of news stating that the Taliban are reducing the cultivation, but if we look at how they managed it in the 1990s, by reducing the cultivation while increasing the prices of their drugs – which benefited them and their soldiers – they are repeating and going through this cycle again. What they’re good at is keeping information for themselves. Because there is no media, there is no freedom of speech, and a lot of people cannot report on that. We are seeing what they are showing us while hiding reality from the world.
Looking at the current realities faced by Afghan communities, there has been a significant wane in coverage of the Taliban’s human rights abuses, especially the brutal suffocation of the agency, status, and well-being of women and children. What do you want the world, especially policymakers, corporate leaders, and other influencers to remember about what is happening daily to the general population in Afghanistan?
I was on Twitter, and I saw this video of the demonstration that happened in Kabul, where the women were chanting that they want the right to work and justice for themselves. Although it was a very peaceful demonstration, the Taliban attacked them with water and shot guns in the air to scare them.
The rise of the Taliban has accelerated the problems average Afghans face. I hear about it daily when I talk to family and friends – half of the population is imprisoned in their own houses in the 21st century, and public execution on the streets have become normal. If this is not a human rights violation, if this is not gender apartheid, then what is?
The policymakers should understand that anything happening in that region should matter to the whole world. There needs to be an open discussion, a political and security debate, on how volatile the region is. How do we make sure that Afghans do not suffer while also ensuring that the Taliban do not get as powerful?
The average person will read something like this and they’ll wonder, “How can I help?” or they may feel that as an individual in somewhere like the United States that there’s nothing they can do. What do you want to say to them? How they can show solidarity with or support Afghan women and others bravely advocating for a free and fair future for your country?
They can join the existing forces and networks to assist Afghan women. There are a lot of charities as well as international NGOs who are helping with the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. We need more people to join hands and support these networks and their work on the ground.
One thing that we need to remember is that the Taliban is appropriating the accomplishments of the previous government and presenting them as their own achievements. We should not fall prey to this because when the Taliban took over in the 1990s, they didn’t have the knowledge and information they do now. They know the language of social media, and they have access to everything, as they took over a modern state. People shouldn’t see this as the Taliban’s accomplishments, but they were the accomplishments of the Afghan people supported by the international community and taxpayers at that time. We need such kind of support now, more than ever.
For more information on how to support Afghan women and children, please visit: https://www.bushcenter.org/publications/afghanistan-relief-and-resources.