WASHINGTON — Even as they cling to hopes of being rescued by the U.S. government, Afghan women who have worked with the United States for the past 20 years are destroying every hint of that association: documents written in English, social media delete apps and then bury their cell phones.
Current and former US officials and activists described the desperate steps Afghan women have taken since the Taliban took over their country this week as a stark reminder of the heightened threat they face because of their gender.
Any attempt to contact US or international refugee organizations is a risk most Afghan women are unwilling to take, officials and activists said. Even going to the airport in Kabul to try and get a seat on a US or international flight full of frightened Afghans has become a life or death decision.
“The most dangerous place in Afghanistan right now is the Kabul airport,” Rina Amiri, a former State Department and United Nations official, said Tuesday. She told stories of women and their families being caught between volleys of gunfire, or beaten by Taliban supporters as they tried but failed to find a plane that would fly them away.
“It is simply devastating that the United States and the international community have placed these women in the position of risking not only their lives, but the lives of their children and families, to leave and save themselves and their families.” said Mrs. Van den Berg. said Amir.
Afghan men make up most of the interpreters and cultural officials who worked for the United States during the 20 Years’ War and who in turn were given special access to immigrate. That’s one reason why there are relatively few women among the thousands of people evacuated from Afghanistan in the past month — including more than 4,000 on Wednesday morning since the Taliban takeover of the government in Kabul. Tens of thousands of visa applicants remain stranded across the country.
The Biden administration has expanded refugee immigration and resettlement programs in recent weeks to allow more Afghans — including women — into the United States. “We’re going to do what we can for vulnerable Afghans for as long as possible,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday.
In many cases, they include “strong advocates for their fellow Afghan women and girls,” he said.
On Wednesday, the United States joined 20 countries and the European Union to demand that Afghan women’s rights be protected and to send humanitarian and other support “to ensure their voices can be heard.”
“We are deeply concerned about Afghan women and girls, their rights to education, work and freedom of movement,” the countries said in a joint statement from the foreign ministry.
But leading congressional lawmakers said that wasn’t enough to secure even a limited number of women — politicians, human rights activists, journalists, soldiers and defenders of democracy — who could top the list of Taliban targets.
This week, most Democrats and two Republicans in the Senate urged Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas to send high-risk Afghan women with temporary status to the United States. to hurry and make a deal. with the paperwork after they were out of danger.
“We and our employees regularly receive reports of assaulting, threatening, kidnapping, torturing and murdering women for their jobs,” the senators wrote in a letter Monday.
They added, “We also need to protect those women who may fall through the cracks of the US government’s response.”
In comments on Monday, Biden said the United States would “continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people — of women and girls — just as we speak out around the world.”
Taliban leaders have portrayed their group as more socially evolved than it was 20 years ago when extremists beat women without warning, demanded they wear a burqa from head to toe, restricted their public outings, refused to let them work and prevented girls from attending school. .
“We assure there will be no violence against women,” Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters on Tuesday. He promised that “no prejudice against women will be allowed”, and said they could participate in society – “within the bounds of Islamic law”.
The Biden administration has warned the Taliban that Afghanistan will receive no financial support if the group returns to its extremist roots, including by oppressing women. On Monday, the UN Security Council made it clear that in order for the Taliban to be considered a legitimate government and receive aid, they must not only reject support and safe haven for terrorist organizations and allow humanitarian access to Afghanistan, but also protect human rights. , especially for women and girls.
“The US must be careful about the recognition it gives to the Taliban,” said Lisa Curtis, who oversaw policy for Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central and South Asia on the National Security Council during the Trump administration. “We need to see concrete examples that they’re going to take care of human rights, they’re going to preserve women’s rights.”
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. They used brutal public punishment, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origin story and their track record as rulers.
Afghan Central Bank assets in the United States have already been frozen by the Treasury Department, and other direct US aid to the government in Kabul has been halted to prevent the Taliban from misusing the funding, two officials said.
Just two months ago, the US Agency for International Development announced it would send $266 million in aid to help Afghans struggling with food and clothing shortages caused by conflict. That brought total aid agency funding to Afghanistan since 2002 to nearly $3.9 billion, most of it through aid agencies.
Much of that money has gone into educating Afghan women, educating them for jobs and providing better access to maternal, child and other health care. A US-funded program known as Promote prepared nearly 24,000 once homebound women to join the country’s workforce and improved the negotiation skills of 5,000 so they could push for gender equality — including in the peace process. with the Taliban that is now defunct.
An American aid program that trained midwives proved so successful that it became a flagship project for the World Bank and received funding from the European Union.
But while some schools in Afghanistan remain open, others are closing. In some parts of the country, the Taliban have assured women who are doctors and health workers that their clinics will remain open. In other areas, women are hesitant to even go out without their husbands.
“I want to go out, I want to drive — I like to drive,” Fahima Saman said in an interview from Kabul on Tuesday, only on the condition that she not be identified by her full name for fear of retaliation from the Taliban. “But because of this situation, I can’t – I’m afraid.”
A high school teacher and mother of two, Fahima, 29, said she and her husband had never applied to immigrate to the United States as they both had jobs and believed Afghanistan’s future would be more stable than the past. More recently, as the threat from the Taliban mounted, Fahima said she had not approached the US embassy or international diplomats for help for fear that other Afghans would think she was doing something inappropriate or immoral.
Fahima said she did not believe the Taliban would respect her rights. “It’s a very bad situation; it’s very dangerous,” she said.
Ms. Amiri, a resident of Kabul and a naturalized U.S. citizen, demanded that the Biden administration back its statements of support for Afghan women’s rights by evacuating at least those at high risk.
“It shouldn’t be just rhetoric,” she said. “It’s all possible. But there has to be the political will and the will for that.”