Afghanistan’s women and minorities learning to live with tension and uncertainty

Afghan women take part in a gathering at a hall in Kabul on August 2, 2021 against the claimed human rights violations on women by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (AFP)
Afghan women take part in a gathering at a hall in Kabul on August 2, 2021 against the claimed human rights violations on women by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (AFP)
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Updated 30 August 2021

Afghanistan’s women and minorities learning to live with tension and uncertainty

Afghan women take part in a gathering at a hall in Kabul on August 2, 2021 against the claimed human rights violations on women by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (AFP)
  • Strict gender segregation was enforced by the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001
  • Memories of oppressive rules and street justice are a cautionary tale for Afghan women and minorities

DUBAI: Both during and after the recent takeover of Afghanistan, Taliban officials strenuously sought to project a responsible and tolerant image of the group, almost 20 years after its removal from power.

Addressing the news media on Aug. 18 in Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid pledged that the new government would respect the rights of women and grant amnesty to those who had resisted them, while promising that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists.

His comments echoed those of Shahabuddin Delawar, a senior Taliban negotiator, who said in Moscow on July 9 that the group would ensure that women and girls have the right to work and education, provided that those rights do not contravene the tenets of Islam.

Yet memories of Taliban rule in Afghanistan before the US invasion of 2001 remain as a cautionary tale, through photos and videos of militants flogging defenseless women encased in burqas, kneeling in the dust.

From 1996 to 2001, strict gender segregation was enforced by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group that had filled the power vacuum in Afghanistan following a protracted, multisided civil war.

Once it had implemented its interpretation of Shariah, women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative, while girls over the age of seven were denied an education and often ended up being married off to much older men.

The system of gender apartheid instituted by the Taliban meant that women were required to wear the burqa every time they went out of the house. The garment, which fit tightly over the head and extended all the way to the ankles, made the Afghan woman almost formless and unidentifiable in public.

Those who defied the rules and moral norms faced harsh punishment, often involving public flogging. For more serious transgressions — such as adultery — the practice of stoning was commonplace.




Afghan women march with banners to protest the recent public execution of a young woman for alleged adultery, in Kabul. (AFP/File Photo)

Almost two decades later, Taliban officials such as Mujahid and Delawar, and spokesman Suhail Shaheen, are signaling that the group has smoothed its notoriously rough edges.

However, few Afghans are convinced, if the rush for seats on Western evacuation flights from Kabul airport is any indication. Fewer still are willing to speak openly about the issue, fearing reprisal.

“Everyone is waiting to see what will happen under the Taliban,” one Kabul resident told Arab News, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Women are going out of their homes now, but they are all wearing the hijab. Before it was different. Some wore it and others didn’t. Now they all wear it because they are afraid of the Taliban.”

Another Kabul-based woman, also speaking anonymously, said: “We don’t expect everything to be the same as it was before. There will be some change. We are waiting to see clarification on these policies issued by the Taliban.”

Many Afghans want to believe, ignoring their instincts, that the Taliban will be more moderate this time around. However, anecdotal reports of atrocities occurring across the country have kept the public on edge.

“There were rumors over the last week that single women outside of Kabul have been taken and married off,” a spokesperson for one organization working in Afghanistan told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

“The key thing to remember is not that the Taliban is saying one thing and doing another necessarily. The Taliban is not one body yet.”

Indeed, a statement on Tuesday from a Taliban spokesman declared that women should stay at home for the time being because some of their fighters have” not yet been taught how to properly behave.”

Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-US entrepreneur and human rights advocate, told Arab News: “It is not clear if this applies to all women or women in some positions.




Afghan women attend a work-place literacy course in Kabul in the 1980s when the country was ruled by the Mocow-backed Kabul communist government. During its 14 years rule, the communist regime provided vast opportunities for women to encourage their social participation in the otherwise strictly conservative Afghan society. (AFP/File Photo)

“Most women are not leaving their homes and are scared. People are being very careful. Recent news reports indicate the Taliban has recommended staying home for now. It’s like military rule now. They said women’s salaries would be paid but more training was needed for their own people.”

Women are not the only people in Afghanistan concerned about what happens next. Ethnic minorities, particularly the Hazara, a predominantly Shiite group concentrated in the country’s central mountainous region of Hazarajat, also faced persecution under the first Taliban regime.

Constituting about 10 to 20 percent of the population, the Hazara were relegated to the bottom rungs of the social order, which was topped by the Pashtun, an ethnicity from which the Taliban drew the bulk of its support.

Other ethnic groups — the Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Gujjar, Arab, Brahui, Sadat, Kyrgyz and Pamiri peoples — are also unsure of where they stand.

FASTFACTS

* 80% - Proportion of recently displaced Afghans who are women and children.

* Rights monitors have called for inquiries into reported Taliban abuses.

* Afghan women and minorities fear past atrocities will be repeated.

The Hazara certainly have reason to be fearful again. After taking control of Ghazni province, Taliban militants killed nine Hazara men between July 4 and July 6 in the village of Mundarakht in Malistan district, according to human rights monitor Amnesty International.

Witnesses said that six of the men were shot and three were tortured to death. Human Rights Watch has urged the UN Human Rights Council to investigate similar reports of Taliban violence in the lead-up to the Aug. 15 fall of Kabul.

Afghans say that how the Taliban handles the rights of women and minorities going forward will depend very much on the kind of government that takes shape as the group tightens its grip on power.

“Even though the Taliban have taken over most of the country, they haven’t actually formalized a political agreement. At the same time they face governance challenges,” said Sultan.

“We need and want to see good policies on women and girls. The Taliban have issued statements stating women and girls will have rights within Shariah law. Many people have been taking a wait-and-see approach.”




Internally displaced Afghan women, who fled from the northern province due to battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces, gather to receive free food being distributed at Shahr-e-Naw Park in Kabul in August. (AFP)

When US forces conclude their scheduled withdrawal on Aug. 31, the many sources of international aid and finance that kept the Afghan economy afloat since 2001 are expected to dry up.

Taliban leaders face the prospect of an economic implosion with serious humanitarian implications unless they can quickly broker new trade deals or non-Western powers throw them a lifeline.

According to UNHCR estimates, about 80 percent of the roughly 550,000 people internally displaced in recent weeks are women and children. Up to a third of Afghans were already considered food insecure at the start of 2021. Now the country is grappling with its second drought in three years.

UN agencies have warned of widespread food shortages across Afghanistan as early as September without urgent intervention.

“Afghanistan is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis,” Sultan told Arab News. “There are 18 million people in need of emergency aid. The World Food Program said that they cannot get food into the country because Kabul is currently closed to commercial flights.”




 A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. (AFP)

For the past several weeks, the international community has given its undivided attention to the evacuation effort and chaos at Kabul airport. Less attention has been paid to the much bigger swath of the population that is unable or unwilling to leave.

“While the eyes of the world now are on the people being evacuated and the planes leaving, we need to get supplies in to help those who are left behind,” Richard Brennan, the World Health Organization’s regional emergency director, told Reuters.

The WHO has called for empty planes to be diverted to its warehouses in Dubai to collect supplies on their way to pick up evacuees. There are also plans for a “humanitarian air bridge,” Brennan added.

The general consensus is that the Taliban can still build goodwill among international donors by not impeding the evacuation process and by matching their reassuring words with actions.

“The Taliban said that people can go back to work, but the dust hasn’t settled yet,” said Sultan. “Everyone is still waiting to see what will happen.”

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
Updated 6 sec ago

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
GENEVA: World Health Organization member states agreed Wednesday to start work on building a new international accord setting out how to handle the next global pandemic.
Countries adopted a resolution at a special meeting in Geneva, launching the process that should result in a new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response coming into force in 2024.

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
Updated 13 min 57 sec ago

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
  • A number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri

BEIJING: China on Wednesday urged its citizens to leave three provinces in eastern Congo as violence intensifies in the mineral-rich region.
A posting from the Chinese Embassy in Kinshasa on the WeChat online messaging said a number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri, where several anti-government rebel groups have a presence.
It said Chinese residing in the three provinces should provide their personal details by Dec. 10 and make plans to leave for safer parts of Congo. Those in the districts of Bunia, Djugu, Beni, Rutshuru, Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga should leave immediately, it said, adding that any who do not do so “will have to bear the consequences themselves.”
“We ask that all Chinese citizens and Chinese-invested businesses in Congo please pay close attention to local conditions, increase their safety awareness and emergency preparedness, and avoid unnecessary outside travel,” the embassy said.
No details of the incidents were given, although the embassy last month reported five Chinese citizens were abducted from a mining operation in South Kivu, which borders Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
It warned a the time that the security situation in the area was “extremely complex and grim” and that there was little possibility of sending help in the event of an attack or kidnapping.
No details were given about those kidnapped, who they worked for or who was suspected of taking them.
Several armed groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by its French acronym FDLR, the Mai-Mai and the M23 regularly vie for control of eastern Congo’s natural resources.
Despite the danger, Chinese businesses have moved into Congo and other unstable African states in a quest for cobalt and other rare minerals and resources. Chinese workers have also been subject to kidnappings and attacks in Pakistan and other countries with active insurgencies.
Security was a key topic at a meeting Monday in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on Monday, between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Congolese counterpart Christophe Lutundula, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.
China’s government and ruling Communist Party “attach great importance to the safety and security of Chinese enterprises and Chinese nationals overseas and the Chinese side has been extremely concerned with the recent serious crimes of kidnappings and killings of its citizens in the DRC,” Wang said, using the acronym for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wang urged Congo to secure the release of those kidnapped and create a “safe, secure and stable environment for bilateral cooperation.”
Xinhua quoted Lutundula as saying Congo would take “forceful measures” to investigate the crimes, free the hostages, punish the culprits severely and safeguard national security and restore stability to the country’s east.
Earlier this week, Uganda said it launched joint air and artillery strikes with Congolese forces against camps of the extremist Allied Democratic Forces rebel group in eastern Congo.
The ADF was established in the early 1990s in Uganda and later driven out by the Ugandan military into eastern Congo, where many rebel groups are able to operate because the central government has limited control there.
At least four civilians were killed less than two weeks ago in Uganda’s capital when suicide bombers detonated their explosives at two locations.
The Daesh group claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were carried out by Ugandans. Ugandan authorities blamed the ADF, which has been allied with the Daesh group since 2019.


Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
Updated 01 December 2021

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
  • Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people
  • The reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant

CANBERRA: Fiji reopened its border to international travelers for the first time in nearly two years on Wednesday, as the Pacific Island country seeks to revive its dominant tourism industry.
Fiji shut its border to all foreign nationals in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a desperate bid to stop its limited medical facilities being overrun.
With about 90 percent of all Fijian adults now fully vaccinated, the Pacific Island reopened its border to tourists from a small number of countries — much to the relief of tourism operators.
“To see the Fiji Airways plane full up and for us to welcome those tourists today was so amazing. It was a great, great feeling and I’m glad to have been there personally,” James Sowane, director of the Fiji tourism company, Tewaka, said.
Tourists arriving will have to stay three nights in an approved resort and undergo rapid testing. They can move around designated areas, including bars and restaurants within the hotels, while they can embark on some day trips and activities.
Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people.
Tourism accounts for 40 percent of Fiji’s economy and the border closure saw an estimated 10 percent of the population unemployed.
Still the reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama hailed the return of tourists, who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and tested for infection.
“Today, we are proud and most importantly prepared to welcome the first tourists to fly to Fiji in almost two years. Our message to every fully vaccinated, COVID-tested traveler who arrives to our shores is simple: Welcome Home,” Bainimarama said in a post on Facebook.


Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
Updated 01 December 2021

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
  • Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions

DOHA: The Taliban renewed its call for the United States to release billions of dollars in frozen funds after two days of talks in Doha as aid-dependent Afghanistan grapples with an economic crisis.
The Afghans also called for an end to blacklists and sanctions in meetings led by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.
It was the second round of talks between the two sides in Qatar since the US ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan and the hard-line Islamists rapidly returned to power.
“The two delegations discussed political, economic, human, health, education and security issues as well as providing necessary banking and cash facilities,” tweeted Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi.
“The Afghan delegation assured the US side of security and urged that Afghanistan’s frozen money should be released unconditionally, blacklists and sanctions must end and human issues be separated from political ones.”
Washington seized nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also suspended activities in Afghanistan, withholding aid as well as $340 million in new reserves issued by the IMF in August.
The Afghan economy has effectively collapsed, with civil servants unpaid for months and the treasury unable to pay for imports. The United Nations has warned that around 22 million people, more than half the population, will face an “acute” food shortage in the winter months.
Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions. The US side stood firm on the measures and said it was taking steps to get support to ordinary Afghans.
“The United States remains committed to ensuring that US sanctions do not limit the ability of Afghan civilians to receive humanitarian support from the US government and international community while denying assets to sanctioned entities and individuals,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“The Department of the Treasury has issued general licenses to support the continued flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support basic human needs.”
The US also urged the Taliban to provide access to education for women and girls across the country and “expressed deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses.”
It reminded the Taliban of its commitment not to allow terrorist organizations to operate on its soil and to guarantee safe passage for US citizens from Afghanistan.
The Americans also called for the release of US citizen Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in February last year.
The Taliban called the talks “positive” and said Muttaqi also met with the Japanese and German ambassadors to Afghanistan in Doha.
bur/th/kir


Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect for at least a month

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Japan has expanded its travel ban on foreigners coming into the country, preventing entry to those with resident status from 10 southern African nations.

Two Japanese airlines ANA and JAL also said they were suspending new reservations for international flights to Japan until the end of December and NHK public television said the government was seeking a halt to all such reservations.

Japan took some of the strictest steps globally on Monday by closing its borders to non-Japanese for about a month in light of the emergence of omicron. A day later, Japan’s first omicron case – in a Namibian diplomat – was discovered.

Japanese media also reported on Wednesday that a second case of the omicron virus had been confirmed in a traveller. NHK said it was a foreign man and FNN television said it was a traveller from Peru.

The border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect from midnight on Wednesday for at least a month. It applies to foreign residents from South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Brazil and Nigeria also joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”

Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.

France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.

It has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from southern African countries which have been hit hard by the omicron variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”

In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.

Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.

Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”

Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.

“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”

While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.

The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.

NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.

Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.

Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.

England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.