What comes next for women and girls in Afghanistan

A panel discussion at Perry World House explored how Afghan women and girls have continued to organize and fight for their own equality despite the Taliban’s resurgence.

Four people sit on a stage in front of a screen reading "Perry World House University of Pennsylvania" at a talk about Afghan women's rights.
LeShawn Jefferson, Manizha Wafeq, Joy Kolin, and Wazhmah Osman (left to right) discussed how Afghan women and girls are continuing to fight for their rights despite the Taliban’s efforts. (Image: Courtesy of Perry World House)

Curtailing human rights—especially women’s rights—has been a cornerstone of the Taliban’s rule since they seized power after the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Since then, the Taliban government has required women to cover in public, made it illegal for girls to attend school, and prohibited women from working in national or international nongovernmental organizations, cutting off women’s economic opportunities and undermining the health, educational, and other services to women and girls that these NGOs provide.

Yet, Afghan women and girls continue to organize and fight for their own equality, as highlighted in Strength from Within: What Comes Next for Women and Girls in Afghanistan, a Perry World House panel discussion with three experts, who talked about what Afghan women and girls are facing on the ground, what the international community is currently doing to help, and what else needs to be done.

Moderated by LaShawn R. Jefferson, senior executive director of Perry World House, the discussion featured Joy Kolin, a senior international development project manager and a program advisor for Jhpiego, a nongovernmental organization and affiliate of Johns Hopkins University that works to improve public and private health service delivery in urban Afghanistan; Wazhmah Osman, an Afghan-American academic and filmmaker who is an associate professor in the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University; and Manizha Wafeq, founder of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Afghanistan Women’s Trade Caravan, which aims to help continue girls’ education in Afghanistan.

Wafeq told the audience that women had accomplished so much before August 2021. When the U.S. and international community invested in Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion, “it’s important for you to know that those investments really paid off,” she said. For women in particular, their ranks in government jobs increased, the number of women leaders in local and state and national offices went up, others opened their own businesses, and still more worked in media, sports, and the private sector.

“When the Taliban put a pause on all the activities that women carried out, a lot was lost,” she said.

Osman characterized the current situation for women in Afghanistan as dire.

“It seems like every month there’s a new edict or law or order by the Taliban that limits women’s participation further, economically and otherwise,” Osman said. “The situation has led to extreme poverty and very desperate situations for women.”

That said, there are also many women actively challenging these edicts, she said. Women are protesting and connecting with the diaspora to also raise their voices. However, those protests and that resistance aren’t being covered by the media in the same way as in the past or as protests elsewhere like in Iran.

In the lead-up to the war in Afghanistan, “there was so much media coverage of the situation of women that led to the U.S. military operations,” she said. “Now, you might have an occasional story here and there, but we don’t have the same kind of media attention, and that’s important. We need to put pressure on the international community to change the situation and showing Afghan women at the forefront, fighting back, trying to reassert their rights and all that they have lost is very important to keep them in the conversation and in the spotlight.”

For Kolin, whose point of view is from an international NGO, the current situation for women in Afghanistan has repercussions both on the service providers they use because the majority of them are women in roles such as midwives and nurses, as well as their clients who now cannot come to the clinic because of the current climate.

“It’s had an effect that goes beyond women. It’s the whole health system but not just the health system; in a sense it’s affected all systems. When you limit 50% of your population, this is what happens,” she said.

All the panelists agreed that a big push should be getting men in Afghanistan to demonstrate alongside the women as a way to ramp up pressure and for the international community and media to work to amplify the voices of Afghan women who are resisting as a way to support them, not save them.

Jefferson ended the discussion by saying now is a good time to ask what’s possible for the women of Afghanistan. “And I like to think that everything’s possible, and everything’s possible, in part, because of the work that these three extraordinary human beings are doing,” she said.

Whether it’s in the health sector, arts and culture, or the private sector, she said she is inspired by the stories of Afghan women and girls who have in some ways become “their own saviors.”

“Yet I think everyone on this panel also emphasizes how important it is, whether you’re in the diaspora community or you’re in a community of solidarity, to dedicate resources, time, and energy to groups that are legitimately working on structural change in Afghanistan.”