Interview with Afghan Women’s Rights Activist Noorzia Kohistani

On March 23, just three hours into the start of the Afghan school year, the Taliban reversed their decision to reopen girls’ high schools. Classes were cut short as the decision reached administrators, who had to inform their female students that they were no longer allowed in the building. The decision left many girls sobbing outside of the high schools they had expected to learn in, according to Al Jazeera.

The reversal illustrates a growing conflict between the Taliban’s conservative viewpoints and Afghanistan’s role on the world stage. According to BBC News, opening girls’ high schools would result in lifted sanctions and foreign aid for Afghanistan, as girls’ secondary education is high on the international community’s list of demands. However, the Taliban’s regressive view of women’s rights eclipsed these economic benefits, resulting in a hasty turnaround of their decision.

Indeed, the Taliban have put up a thinly-veiled progressive front since they took power in 2021. In December, they released a decree promoting women’s rights to property and consent to marriage. And rather than outright denying women’s right to education, they made unconvincing arguments to justify the delay of girls returning to school. According to CNN, the Taliban first claimed that the absence of a safe transportation system was the reason that girls’ schools remained closed. Now, the excuse is that girls’ uniforms are inappropriate, and not in line with Sharia law.

In light of these recent developments, I interviewed Noorzia Kohistani, a senior official in the Ministry of Equality under president Ashraf Ghani, about the rise of the “new Taliban.” Kohistani was one of Afghanistan’s most prominent women’s rights activists in the government who was forced to flee the country after the Taliban seized power, according to Cgtn.com. As someone who lived through the initial Taliban regime, the peace that came after, and their rise to power again in 2021, Kohistani has an unparalleled perspective on the Taliban.

Thank you for accepting this interview. To start off, can you tell us about the journey your career took in Afghanistan?

I studied law in preparation to enter a career in the military. After I graduated, I decided to pursue civilian law instead. Over my career, I worked four different jobs, mostly pertaining to gender equality in Afghanistan, including the Advisor on Gender Affairs under President Karzai, until I became a senior official in the Ministry of Equality under President Ghani. I was involved in Loya Jirga, and I represented women in the government.

Editor’s note: Loya Jirga is an Afghan practice wherein respected elders travel to the capital from all areas of the country, including the most rural parts of Afghanistan, to advise the government and offer their blessings. Kohistani represented women and her Tajik people, Afghanistan’s second largest ethnic group, in this Afghan tradition.

Did you ever think during this time, while you worked in the Ministry of Equality, that the Taliban would come back?

Absolutely not. Absolutely not. The country had advanced so much- the offices, the clothes, the Internet, the education- I would never have believed it.

After the Taliban took over, how did you escape?

My son worked for NATO and speaks Spanish. Because of his job, and the fact that I would have been targeted, the Spaniards helped us evacuate. The airport was flooded. They told us where to be, what to wear, and how to look for them. It took multiple attempts before we could escape. Each time we had to leave and come back, we became more worried the Taliban would catch us and take our passports. Our flight left only hours before the suicide bombing.

Editor’s note: On August 26, 2021, a suicide bombing claimed over 180 lives in the Kabul Airport, including thirteen US servicemen and women. Hundreds of people had swarmed the airport in hopes of escaping the Taliban. It devastated an already frightened people. ISIS-K claimed credit for the attack, although some theorize that a Taliban affiliate may have been responsible.

What has become of the other women you worked with?

Practically all of them have left. They are spread all around the world in camps. They have no resources and no way to mobilize.

Some people have called the Taliban the “new Taliban.” What do you think about these Taliban, and how they compare to the Taliban of the 1990s?

They are far worse. They are far more savvy, far more shrewd, far more sophisticated. The old Taliban did not understand how to use a computer, let alone how to manipulate the media. They are far more dangerous now than they ever were before.

Do you have hope for the women of Afghanistan?

Yes. The Taliban are not the only ones who have changed since the 1990s. Back then, women were scared. But women have achieved masters degrees and PhDs in the past 20 years, and they’re not scared anymore. They challenge them in the streets every day. They put makeup on, they go and face them. Social media also helps. Since they have access to social media, they record everything, and the Taliban know their actions will be seen. As an example, there was one girl named Paryani who was arrested by the Taliban for protesting. But because she videoed and posted her arrest, she was eventually freed. 

What do you think of the Taliban’s ability to remain in power?

I believe that the policy of holding out recognition of the regime can lead to the Taliban’s collapse. They can’t govern. Despite their killings and guns, they have no idea how to run a country. Every day they feel the distance between them and the people. They are desperate for international recognition, the only currency that matters to them.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted through an English-Farsi translator.

After escaping to Spain, Kohistani relocated to a remote suburb in Belgium, where she now lives with her family. She hopes to one day move to Brussels to be closer to women’s rights establishments and resume her activities.

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