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Taliban Gender Apartheid: Genocide of Hazara Women


Credit: UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


Afghanistan’s Gender Apartheid: The Genocide of Hazara Women

By Zareen Taj

In collaboration with Jay Simpson.


Introduction


After the first arrest on January 4, 2024, the Taliban have imposed strict dress code rules on women and girls across Afghanistan. Hazara women, as part of a persecuted minority in Afghanistan, are especially vulnerable to this enforcement of gender rules. Testimonies of Hazara women who were arrested for dress code violations since the start of the year include multiple assertions of torture and humiliation. These stories provide examples of how the Taliban’s system of strict gender rules, denounced as gender apartheid, are crimes against humanity and are a tool for genocide against Hazaras.


The Hazaras


The Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, making up approximately 20 percent of the population. Many Hazara are easily identifiable by their Asian facial characteristics and have differing cultural practices from other identities in Afghanistan. For example, it is not traditional for Hazara women to wear burkas and many Hazara women are educated and are able to become leaders in their community. Because Hazara are predominantly Shia Muslims in a country predominated by Sunni Islam, they are also religious minorities. The Taliban see the Shia Muslims as unbelievers and therefore target them as infidels. Both the ethnic and religious identities of Hazaras have been the target of systematic attacks, violence, and genocidal killing for over 100 years.


During the 1990s, the Taliban rose to power and led over five massacres against the Hazaras, resulting in over a thousand deaths and many more wounded. The Taliban´s violent attacks on Harazaras continued during the US-backed government (2001-2021) and included bombings, shootings, abductions, and more.

Since June 2021, advocates in the Hazara diaspora have mobilized protests in over 160 cities worldwide rallying around #StopHazaraGenocide to put pressure on the international community and political leaders. Women continue to be the leaders of these protests.


Women’s Voices Against Oppression by Taliban


“Afghanistan has become a country where breathing is not allowed for Hazara women,” said Sima Noori, a Hazara activist who documents the brutality of the Taliban against Hazara women. “Seeing pictures of Taliban’s tortures and hearing the voices of Hazara women daily gives me pain. The international community needs to hear the voices of Hazara women.”


Sima Noori has collected a dozen stories of women whom the Taliban arrested since January 4, 2024, when the Taliban started a crackdown on women under the guise of dress code violations. Each woman was arrested for supposed dress code violations and told they were not wearing proper hijab covering. Below, I selected three stories that reflect the many Hazara women who suffer in silence right now in Afghanistan. The names of these women are withheld for the safety of themselves and their families.


The first story comes from a 20-year-old woman who is a midwife. “On January 8, 2024, on my way home from work, I was arrested by the Taliban. I was accused of not wearing proper hijab, which I did. The Taliban brutally beat me on my way to prison. While they were beating and torturing me, they told me ‘You are Hazara, a spy of western countries. Whore is your name.’ They asked me religious questions which I did not know the answers to because I am Shia and they are Sunni. Once we arrived at the prison, they forced my head under cold water a couple of times while they were collectively laughing and torturing me. They kicked me and  beat me with their fists. Finally, I was released because my family paid a lot of money [160,000 Afghani (~$2,244 USD)] and signed a written document that I would follow their rules.”


The second story is from an activist whom the Taliban arrested. “I was arrested by the Taliban, and they tortured me nonstop for 11 hours. It was a dark place. Blood was pouring from my body, and I was passing out frequently. They made me sign a paper that I would not participate in future protests and wanted me to inform them of other activists. I was threatened with death. I wanted to remain alive for my children, otherwise there is nothing left for me to be alive. I was released after my husband paid 200,000 Afghani [~$2,800 USD].”


The third is a 13-year-old teenager who was arrested by the Taliban. “I was on the way to the doctor with my mother when the Taliban arrested me. I was taken to a small dark room. There, I was brutally tortured by the Taliban. Each one of them kicked me and punched me with their fists. Each blow felt like I was dying. Because I was Hazara, they insulted me a lot. The seven hours I was there felt like an entire year. Then they called my father. When he arrived, they slapped him, made him sign a paper, and pay 10,000 Afghani [~$140 USD]. They also took a video of me to state that I must wear a black burqa. After coming home from prison, I have not gone outside. I am scared of people. I can’t sleep. I am always sick. I should not be alive because everyone in the community talks about my arrest.”


Even within the Hazara community, these stories of arrest, humiliation, and torture are not discussed due to concerns of family respect and honor, in which the protection of girls and women is central. The violence of their experience pairs with the following silence and women are unable to seek accountability. Without a voice in the press, protests, or political representation, these attacks against Hazara women remain invisible to the world.

 

New Understandings of Gender Apartheid


These testimonials also show that the Taliban have not changed since their previous reign over Afghanistan from 1996-2001. Since the Taliban have returned, so too have their restrictions banning girls from school, prohibiting women from holding employment, forbidding women from leaving home without a male relative, and requiring strict covering of women’s faces and bodies. These restrictions have come to be identified as part of a system of gender apartheid, an emerging framework for legal analysis gaining recognition within human rights communities.


In February 2024, UN Experts announced the need for the international community to recognize gender apartheid as a crime against humanity. The term apartheid comes from the discriminatory government from South Africa (1948-1994), meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, and is formed by “state laws, policies and practices that relegate women to conditions of extreme inequality and oppression, with the intent of effectively extinguishing their human rights.” Within this announcement, experts highlighted the Taliban’s treatment of women to call attention to the consequences of gender apartheid as a crime against humanity.


Gender Apartheid as a Tool for Genocide


The Taliban’s gender apartheid restrictions are used as an opportunity to selectively target Hazara communities for persecution and collective punishment. As such, the gender apartheid system places an additional burden on Hazara women, victimized by gender apartheid and by the Taliban’s campaign of genocide against Hazara. Looking back over the decades of Taliban oppression, it is clear that the rules of gender apartheid serve their genocidal goals.


Immediately after the mass killings of thousands of Hazara men and boys in the 1990s, Hazara women became the heads of their households, responsible for earning money to pay for food and support their entire families left without male relatives. The Taliban’s restrictions on women—in education, employment, and ability to leave their homes—meant women were placed in an impossible situation. Most families were poor and faced starvation, and many women were deeply traumatized by their experiences.


Women and girls are targeted explicitly in horrific attacks and bombings. On May 20, 2020, gunmen attacked a maternity ward to kill Hazara mothers and newborn babies at the Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital. 24 people were killed, including 16 mothers and two children, who represent the future of Hazara generations.


On May 8, 2021, a bombing at the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School killed 85 people and injured at least 150. The bomb targeted the school as girls were leaving at the end of the school day.


On September 30, 2022, the Kaaj Educational Center was bombed as girls were practicing for University entrance exams. 53 people were killed, including 46 girls and young women, and an additional 110 were injured.


The deliberate bombings of educational institutions that support Hazara girls and women intentionally prevent their education and terrorize all those who seek education. Denying education to Hazara girls and young women is an attack on the power of Hazara women, and therefore the entire Hazara community.


In Afghanistan, gender apartheid is a tool for genocide against Hazaras. The international community, as it currently comes to define gender apartheid as a crime against humanity, needs to recognize that Hazara women are in peril due to these compounding forms of oppression.


Why Target Hazara Women


The Taliban targets Hazara girls and women because they know they are the backbone of the Hazara community. As survivors from the massacres during the 1990s, they were forced to take on new roles and sustain their communities. These past 20 years, despite lots of uncertainty, the presence of the international community made progress in Afghanistan possible for Hazara women. Hazara women broke considerable glass ceilings on behalf of all Afghan women; they became leaders in civil society, such as the first minister of the Women’s Affairs, the first female governor of a Province, and the first female mayor. They achieved other milestones too and became police detectives, the first female film director and the first female singer to win Afghan “Idol” and many more. Their success in society and leadership roles undermines the Taliban’s ideology and is a direct threat to their power. As it has been for decades, Hazara women are the loudest critical voices against the Taliban.


The Danger of Silence


For these past 24 years, as an activist, documentarian, and researcher, I have witnessed numerous forms of oppression against my people. The Taliban have found a new insidious strategy to target the Hazara community under the guise of dress code violations of their gender apartheid system. It is a dangerous combination of violence and shame that proves deadly for Hazara women and girls. It is deadly because it causes silence. And the silencing of Hazara women would be the worst outcome for all Hazaras and all minorities and women in Afghanistan.


Additional Resources



  1.   Documentary film: Our Face Tells: Seeing the Genocide of Hazaras in Afghanistan Link: https://zareentaj.com/our-face-tells-2022/ 

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