The Taliban's rise to power is likely to mean the abolition of women's rights in Afghanistan, writes Johanna Higgs.
I ASK A classroom full of young women in the small town of Iskashim, Afghanistan:
"What are your dreams?"
"I want to be a doctor," says one girl. ‘I want to be a doctor too,’ says another.
Another girl says:
"I have lots of dreams, but I don’t think that any of them are possible."
"But what are they?’" I ask.
"I want to travel, see the world and be a doctor."
I was in the classroom of a small English school, with a group of young women who were there to study English. I wanted to learn more about the situation of women’s rights in Afghanistan and what Afghan men and women had to say about it.
I crossed the border from Tajikistan into Afghanistan and it was like stepping into another world.
It felt extraordinarily remote and the contrasts in the style of dress of both men and women from those in Tajikistan were dramatic. The beauty, however, was staggering. Nestled by a small river on the border with Tajikistan, the village was surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains.
Goats wandered through the village and the call to prayer sounded out over the valley throughout the day, a reminder that we were in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Despite the majesty of the surroundings, there was a strong sense of unease. The dusty streets were filled with mostly men who were garbed in traditional Islamic clothing. The few women that I did see were covered from head to toe in the traditional blue burka with nothing of them being seen at all.
The highly conservative nature of the country was obvious and as a woman walking alone in the street.
It felt very, very hostile.
At this time the Taliban, I was told, were just 30 minutes away and while they had not attempted to take over for some time and the village was under the control of the Government. The people that I was able to speak with were worried. They were tired of the constant threat of war and wanted peace and stability.
So as I watched in horror as the Taliban entered Kabul and took over the Presidential Palace, I wondered what was going to happen to the dreams of these young women that I had met in that village that day.
What were the chances now that they were going to be able to achieve their dreams of becoming doctors and travelling the world?
Even at that time in Eishkasheim, the level of conservatism, and the difficulties facing women and girls as a result of that conservatism, was something I have never experienced before.
I heard stories of women being forced into marriage as children; of extreme violence against women such as cutting off women’s body parts and acid burning; and of fear of returning to the very harsh life under the Taliban.
Even before the takeover of the Taliban, Afghanistan has long been considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Afghanistan is the second most dangerous country in the world for women after India.
The danger comes from the highly patriarchal cultural norms and customs, as well as the extreme interpretations of the Islamic religion have been used to subjugate women and perpetuate cycles of violence against them.
Violence against women takes place in both the public and the private sphere and is usually perpetrated by relatives and has been reported to be widespread. It can include domestic violence, sexual harassment, early and forced marriages, honour-based crimes and baad, the exchange of girls for dispute resolution and baadal exchange marriages.
Girls are also often prevented from going to school. That was something the young women I met at the school that day felt was a serious problem.
One young woman in the classroom explained:
"In Afghanistan, tradition says that women and girls should just stay at home, not go out, work or be educated."
When I asked them how they felt about that, they went quiet for a moment, again seemingly reluctant to share their views.
However, one young woman eventually spoke up:
"Women and girls should be able to go to school."
Gradually, all of the girls in the classroom agreed.
One of the girls said:
"I want things to change. But it’s going to be difficult."
For one woman working with the Council of Women, she said that the widespread violence against women and girls in Afghanistan had much to do with education.
If people are educated, then they will think that violence against women is wrong. However, there are some people who think that violence against women is okay. In areas controlled by the Taliban for example, the opinion is much more towards accepting of violence against women. In Waduj, where the Taliban are, if I tried to work near there, I would be killed.
Though she said that it seemed the situation was improving.
Now that the Taliban have taken over, what is going to happen to the rights of women and the positive changes that have been made in other parts of the country?
What will happen to the movements made to get girls into school and universities and the growing number of women entering into Afghanistan’s Parliament? What will happen to the dreams of those young girls?
While the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan has always been a significant challenge, there is no doubt that with the Taliban takeover, these incredibly important strides that women have made are going to regress.
Violence, blatant discrimination, restrictions on freedom of movement and prohibiting women from making their own choices will no doubt return.
The international community, including Australia, must immediately speak up for the women and girls of Afghanistan.
We must speak up because when a young girl dreams of becoming a doctor or travelling the world, this is something that should be able to become her reality.
We must speak up and insist that the Taliban uphold women’s rights not just because this is what is right but because all young women and girls everywhere should always believe that their hopes and aspirations can be fulfilled.
Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.
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