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Taliban interrogating women activists, creating a ‘climate of fear and intimidation’

William Brangham discusses the future for Afghan women under Taliban rule with Rina Amiri, who focused on conflict resolution in Afghanistan for the United Nations and the U.S.; now a senior fellow at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. And Nura Sediqe, a public policy fellow at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and member of the Afghan-American coalition.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to Afghanistan and the uncertain future for women and girls who are now living under Taliban rule.

    Here's William Brangham.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, with the Taliban back in power, the gains that millions of Afghan women and girls made in the past 20 years are now in danger.

    For more, we turn to two women who know the country well.

    Rina Amiri was born in Afghanistan, and she left in the 1970s. She has since focused on conflict resolution for the United Nations and was a senior adviser in the Obama administration's State Department. She's now a senior fellow at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. And Nura Sediqe is a public policy fellow at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs and a member of the Afghan American Coalition.

    Welcome to you both. Thank you both very much for being here.

    Rina Amiri, to you first.

    My colleague Jane Ferguson in Kabul spoke with this young woman earlier in the program who was in tears, despairing over her future in a Taliban-led Afghanistan.

    I know you have been speaking with women all over the country recently. Can you give us a sense, what are you hearing from those people?

  • Rina Amiri:

    What I'm hearing is, their rights disappeared overnight.

    There's enormous devastation and just disbelief that this has happened to them after the international community made such a strong commitment that Afghan women's rights would not be abandoned. They do feel abandoned.

    What I'm hearing throughout the country is that, despite the Taliban's very positive rhetoric about supporting women's rights, what we're seeing is systematic intimidation throughout the country. As the Taliban takes over territories, one of the first things that it does is go into houses where they know women activists are, with their names on a list, and start interrogating them and their families and demanding to look at their work.

    It's spread an enormous level of terror within — among women's rights activists, and they have been silenced overnight.

  • William Brangham:

    Nura Sediqe, I see you nodding your head as Rina is describing this.

    Is that what you're hearing as well from the people you have spoken with?

  • Nura Sediqe:


    I have colleagues whose sisters received letters on their door. There's palpable fear, women who have gone into hiding because — simply because they wanted a better Afghanistan for everybody. And because of that, they're being targeted immediately.

    The Taliban are much more organized. And the fact that they know who to target, and to target women first, is of dire concern. And Afghans been warning about — about this even before the withdrawal that women would be on the front line and amongst the most vulnerable. And we're seeing that happening right now, even to the fact that they cannot report.

    There's a Twitter handle HearAfghanWomen and anonymous reports because they fear for their safety by revealing their identity. The fact that they have to anonymously report tells you, in and of itself, how unsafe the country has become overnight.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, these reports of the Taliban going door to door, it clearly — as you're both describing, clearly indicates that the Taliban had been planning to do this, had been building lists and assembling some sense of who they might be targeting.

    Rina, I mean, just imagine going forward. What is your greatest fear for women if these types of actions continue?

  • Rina Amiri:

    My greatest fear for women is that the progress that has been achieved over the last two decades by Afghan women themselves, with support of the international community, will disappear.

    What the Taliban are effectively doing is creating an environment of just tremendous — a climate of fear and intimidation. And it is leading to women seeking to leave Afghanistan. They're put in a terrible position. They are at their fiber of their being activists, leaders, and they have been pushing for women's rights, human rights for decades, well beyond 2001.

    And, suddenly, they're confronted with the dilemma of, do they stay and fight for their rights while being under threat? And even worse for them is their families being under threat. Or do they leave and give up the fight? It's a tremendously sad situation that they're in.

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, that's a terrible dilemma, obviously.

    Nura Sediqe, yesterday, we did see the Taliban hold this rather unusual press conference, where many Afghan female journalists asked very tough questions of the Taliban commanders. And the Taliban went to great lengths to assure the world's community that, no, no, no, no, it's different now, we will respect the rights of women.

    Does anyone fundamentally believe what the Taliban is saying? Should anyone what the Taliban is saying?

  • Nura Sediqe:

    The Taliban are a wolf in sheep's clothing, to use the old adage.

    This is not — the scars from their prior position and power remain. Women are still — still have those scars. Communities still remember. We still have the blood of those experiences that we hold. So rhetoric is not enough. Rhetoric is insufficient. We already see them acting and targeting women and the disparate treatment women are already facing at their hands.

    They want legitimacy from the international community. And we cannot give them that legitimacy, nor can we romanticize what they are doing. We need to see change, and it's not — it's just not possible with the record that they have left within the country and communities for Afghan women.

    I have spoken to women in Kandahar and Herat and Kabul. And while they're distinguished by the different languages they speak, the experiences and the distrust they have towards the Taliban unites them in a really meaningful way.

    We cannot trust these empty promises they're trying to put forward. And it almost feels like a game for the international community. They know that people are watching them now.

  • William Brangham:

    Rina Amiri, let's say that the Taliban pull off this sheep's clothing and reveal the wolves, as Nura describes them.

    Will this generation of women who have lived 20 years with the belief that there is a freedom and a civilization that they can be a part of in Afghanistan, what will they do? Will they resist? Will they protest? Will they take to the streets? Or is that simply too dangerous a thing to do?

  • Rina Amiri:

    Afghan women and men are tremendously resilient.

    During the harshest period during the Taliban regime, as you know, there were girls schools, underground girls schools. And the reform movement in Afghanistan goes back to the 1920s. It's always been there. That aspiration is always going to be there. And they will continue, both in the diaspora and outside — and inside the country.

    But what they require is the international community to stand with them and to not be complicit in the silencing of women and the — and stripping the Afghan citizens more broadly of their rights. There has to be condemnation. There has been a deafening silence among the international community and the region, where the Taliban has militarily taken over.

    And there is a desire to accept their rhetoric because it's convenient to the West's desire to exit from Afghanistan. And there is — I think there is a sense of responsibility that the world has to feel in seeing what has taken place to the rights of people that have stood by the international community.

    They have done their part, and it's incumbent on the world to stand by them now.

  • William Brangham:

    Rina Amiri and Nura Sediqe, thank you both very much for joining us and sharing your reporting with us.

  • Nura Sediqe:

    Thank you very much.

  • Rina Amiri:

    Thank you.

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