Interviewed by David Naftulin.
I sat down with pioneering Afghan women’s rights hero Dr. Massouda Jalal (GS’10), who just weeks ago was forced to flee her country as the Taliban took power.
Originally a medical professor, psychiatrist and pediatrician, Dr. Jalal became one of Afghanistan’s most influential activists after the Taliban had her removed from her medical position in 1996. In 2004, upon declining an offer to serve as the First Vice President under President Karzai, Dr. Jalal became the first woman in the history of Afghanistan to run for the country’s presidency. Following the election, Jalal was appointed to serve in the Cabinet of the Afghanistan government as the Women’s Affairs Minister. Since leaving cabinet, Jalal created the Jalal Foundation, a women-led initiative championing the fight to empower and educate women in Afghanistan.
We sat down to discuss her career, her political vision for her country, and her call for international action to help the people of Afghanistan.
The reason we are speaking, unfortunately, is because of the deteriorating political situation in Afghanistan. As American troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan, the country has fallen to the Taliban. How do you think that we got here? Could you provide some context from the perspective of someone from Afghanistan as to what happened, and how we ended up in this situation?
Well, the withdrawal of international military forces could have been scheduled and planned more effectively in order to avoid a power gap, and to avoid chaos. We expected that chaos would have taken place if this process would not be managed well. Our own military did not have enough capabilities to fill the gap left when the assistance they were receiving from international forces was withdrawn.
On the other hand, we had the Doha Peace Talks. We were expecting that these talks would reach a level of success, that they could come together and agree on common points and decide for Afghanistan’s future together. But that success would have demanded the resignation of the President in favour of an inclusive government. In that case, we could have avoided the power gap and the chaos that is going on now. But instead the President escaped, which resulted into the current scenario.
Naturally, the Taliban then took over, international forces left, and the previous government’s president escaped—together with a number of their team members. It was expected that this would happen. The Taliban were at the gates of Kabul, waiting for an opportunity. They themselves said that they never expected to be able to have such great success in such an easy manner.
“The Taliban were at the gates of Kabul, waiting for an opportunity.”
This success was because of the escape of President Ghani, because of the withdrawal of international forces without handing over the power to Afghanistan’s national military properly so that they could build their capabilities and bring the fight to the Taliban under their control, and also because of commands from the Presidential Palace to hand themselves over to the Taliban at the provincial level (we heard from local militaries that this was a reason they were not fighting, with commands put out very secretly to give in to the Taliban). These three factors resulted in the Taliban being given power.
Power was given. The passivity of the military was programmed, and that program was implemented. From the National Security Council, from the Presidential Palace, it was secretly leaked that power should be given to the Taliban at the district level, the provincial level, and finally in Kabul. So the collapse of Kabul was intentional.
I wanted to follow up regarding the power gap that you mentioned. With that power gap, do you feel that the people of Afghanistan were willing to give the Taliban a try, where the government had failed them so deeply that the Taliban could be seen as better than the status quo? Or was this really a planned and coordinated military takeover?
The government in recent years had been increasingly dominated by corruption, and people were fed up with that. Joblessness and poverty were very bad—90%, a very high figure in terms of poverty. And people were dissatisfied.
But they didn’t want the Taliban to take over, because they had experienced Taliban rule in the late 1990s. People were not allowed to participate in socio-economic and political life. It was a complete dictatorship and oppression. Women were completely deprived from all aspects of life. For men as well, they were forced to tolerate the Taliban’s ideological values and the problems they were creating.
They [The Taliban] took their exam in the late 1990s, and people had already experienced them. So that’s why people didn’t have any interest in their previous experience—which was a nightmare.
But also, people were very dissatisfied with the in-depth corruption of their government, and the other problems that they were suffering. People didn’t want the Taliban, but they didn’t want the government either.
What happened is that unseen forces behind the curtain led the scenario to hand over to the Taliban. Afghanistan was handed over. That’s why people were astonished, shocked and surprised.
Women started to face fear, desperation, and uncertainty about their future. You may have heard about the closure of schools, the banning of women’s movements, the removal of women from their jobs and forcing them to be confined within the four walls of their home. Also, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been replaced by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue.
You can see again that women disappear from the public sphere, and men will not feel secure. They are expecting harmful happenings on the street, or where they are working, from the Taliban soldiers.
The only hope that Afghanistan’s men and women have, is the international community, the United Nations, human rights organizations, women’s rights organizations, if they pay attention and take care of the situation. The men and women of Afghanistan will cooperate in any partnership with the international community to combat the current chaos.
You made reference to similarities with the situation of women following the Taliban takeover in the 1990s. When you were in Afghanistan during the first takeover in 1996—can you share with our readers a little bit about what life was like for women at that time? What did the Taliban’s takeover mean for women during that time? And what have women learned to expect from the Taliban, you included?
Well in the late 1990s, I was pushed out of my job. I was an academic person, a professor at Kabul University, and I was pushed to be at home. My job, my career, was taken from me. For all women, it was the same.
Women were suffering very badly. This was particularly the case for widows, who were heading the families as breadwinners and who had to work. Women completely disappeared from the public sphere and their movements were banned. Women participation in socioeconomic, political, and cultural life was not permitted. Forced marriages, early marriages and blood price marriages were very common. All the different miseries you can think of were common at that time. People were hungry, jobless, poor and insecure.
“My job, my career, was taken from me. For all women, it was the same.”
There was oppression, suppression, discrimination and dictatorship of all kinds. They were dictators. This was the situation at that time, but women paid the price the most.
When the international community came in, they brought the light of hope, the light of life, and the light of going forward. Afghan people started celebrating that. Women started to have a reverse experience. Now, they could take part in all parts of life, as the world could see through the international media.
We have a lot of achievements now. We have 66,000 trained teachers, 3,000 trained women police, 4,000 trained women in the army. We have about 171 businesswomen, 150 women activists, 10 deputy ministers and women diplomats. There are women as ministers, ambassadors, and we have women in all walks of life. We have 6,000 judges, about 145 women in higher education as scholars. 24% of civil servants are women and 50% of school age girls are in schools. You can see that 25% of the parliament are women. They influence laws, policies and the structure of legal frameworks in favor of women. And also, we have women influencing the peace and developmental processes underway in Afghanistan. Women influenced the constitution, which is woman-friendly and woman-supportive. Women influence all walks of life, they have a lot of achievements, and we are thankful for that—with the help of the United Nations and the international community.
These hard-won achievements and gains are very valuable to us. We are standing with all women of Afghanistan, and we ask the international community and the UN to stand beside us, and at no price do we want to lose them.
“When the international community came in, they brought the light of hope, the light of life, and the light of going forward.”
Our way is looking forward. We will not go back. We will look forward. We will go ahead. This is our decision. Right now, lots of women’s protests are going on in the country and in Kabul. But women are being tortured and women are being badly-treated by the Taliban dictators. The media is under scrutiny. People are suffering badly.
I propose that humanitarian assistance can reach people and that women’s organizations can be given partnerships to be able to reach their beneficiaries. Humanitarian aid can be done with conditions in terms of women’s rights, human rights, and the democratic values that we have and believe in, being restored, guaranteed and safeguarded.
We Afghan women are half of the population. We cannot accept dictatorship anymore, suppression and oppression anymore. Afghan women want a meaningful government, an inclusive government, a representative government, a democratic government, an open government, a cohesive government that guarantees the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women at all levels of decision-making and in all walks of life. The government that Afghan women want should adopt friendly relations with its neighbours and in the region, and should also practice friendly internal and external policies which are moderate and sound. This government should promote human rights values, women’s rights, and give opportunities to all ethnic groups to represent themselves, particularly to minorities to represent themselves. We also want this government—the inclusive government—to be able to promote safety, security, peace and stability, and a durable prosperity, in Afghanistan.
“We will write golden pages in our white history of women of Afghanistan. This is our promise to the world—we will not go back. We will not accept going back. We will go forward. This is the promise that the women of Afghanistan are giving to the world.”
We, the women leaders of Afghanistan, give our promise to the world: we only believe in success. We only believe in success. We do not believe in failure. Even if we started from a failure from the late 1990s and moved to another failure in 2021, we promise that we won’t lack motivation. We won’t lose motivation. We will go ahead.
We will write golden pages in our white history of women of Afghanistan. This is our promise to the world—we will not go back. We will go forward. This is the promise that the women of Afghanistan are giving to the world.
A really powerful and inspiring answer. To follow up on that, you elaborated on a set of noble values that you hope are seen in an inclusive government in Afghanistan. How do you feel about the possibility of that occurring in the near future? Do you believe that the Taliban would be open to making some concessions, or do you feel that there will need to be some sort of revolution? Will the international community need to intervene?
I think that there should be an international conference from all different social, ethnic and political groups, and from the current government. Representatives should come, including regional and international stakeholders. The United Nations should hold this conference, like the UN did in the Bonn Conference of 2001. There should be impartial leadership, a President should be elected there, and then the Cabinet should consist of and represent all citizens, men and women. The Taliban government should accept it, and, through national and international pressure, they should take part.
The Taliban should be invited. They should be invited because this is the only key solution to the challenge, and to the chaos that we are facing in Afghanistan now. Because a Taliban government with 33 seats in cabinet—all of them from one ethnicity, only 3 from other ethnicities, and all who belong to their own political-military group with the ministry of women out and no women seen in the leadership—is not acceptable nationally and internationally. It is not acceptable at all to all the people of Afghanistan. We want democracy and we want an inclusive government. I think this will be supported by the international community and by the United Nations: a government that is moderate and sound, a government that respects all values of international conventions signed by Afghanistan and the Afghan constitution.
Without that, it is impossible. For the Taliban to go ahead it is very much impossible, because there is a brain-drain in the government. 24% of civil servants are women. They are at home now. Many thousands of minds left. The money in the central bank is blocked, they themselves [the Taliban] are unskilled and unqualified fighters. How can they run a government? There is no capacity there, financially and human resources-wise. It doesn’t work. Who will suffer? People will suffer.
And to tie this into your role as well. You have a quite illustrious and accomplished career in politics and in Afghan political activism. You ran for President in 2004, for example, and you were the first woman in the history of Afghanistan to have done so. I wanted to ask now, with this platform and the decades of work that you have accomplished, what do you see as your role in this? What is your personal vision for the women of Afghanistan?
Women leaders in Afghanistan have emerged out of education. Democracy provided them with opportunities, and they were talented enough to use those opportunities and build their capacities to leadership levels.
The empowerment of women leaders in Afghanistan will create a strong, durable, unique voice to address the issues that are impacting women’s lives. The empowerment of women leaders in Afghanistan will be a guarantee that constitutional rights and values will be preserved and protected in the country. It will create employment for women, protection of civil rights and it will ensure that women have access to and are able to enjoy the services and opportunities created by the government.
“We are going into the darkness, and everyone is watching, and taking no action.”
The empowerment of women leaders in the country will lift the women of Afghanistan from poverty, help them stand up on their feet, become self-qualified and economically independent in their lives. The empowerment of women leaders in Afghanistan will mean a lot to the people of Afghanistan and to Afghan democracy.
We are living in the 21st century and we can see in other parts of the world how progressive and modern they are. But in the same century, in another part of the world, we see women suffering to an extreme extent. 3 trillion dollars were spent and 3,000 American soldiers and 100,000 Afghan soldiers lost their lives in the fight for Afghan democracy. Many Afghan women activists also lost their lives. This was the price we paid to gain policy and practical achievements. After such a price, we are losing them all. The entire world can see it as a witness.
It is something that is astonishing, something that is unbelievable. When somebody in the world hears about it, it is unbelievable to them how it happens, with all this progress, and with all these efforts, and with all these sacrifices. We won some achievements but we are now losing them in the daylight. We are going into the darkness, and everyone is watching, and taking no action.
That is why, as soon as possible, an inclusive government should be formed, and all the stakeholders nationally and internationally should make a decision. Women should have equal, full, and meaningful participation at all levels of decision-making in this inclusive government.
“I hope all women leaders of Afghanistan will keep operational, stay functional wherever they are, and act whenever needed.”
I hope all women leaders of Afghanistan will keep operational, stay functional wherever they are, and act whenever needed. They should raise their voices and take whatever action is needed to favor Afghan democracy and women rights, which I call “Woman Democracy.”
To bring the conversation full circle, you were talking about how the entire world is seeing the regression of women’s rights in Afghanistan in shock and sadness. To those of us like myself, who are not from Afghanistan and are not of Afghan descent, what can we do to help? How can our readers help the women and people of Afghanistan from abroad?
They can help in providing humanitarian aid, right now, to people through the United Nations and the international organizations that are present inside Afghanistan. They can make sure that this aid can reach children, men and women equally. Also, the international community can help in forming the inclusive government as soon as possible, to replace the chaos going on—unskilled, unqualified fighters are not technically capable of running and leading a country.
The international community and the United Nations should take action as soon as possible. They should form this government as soon as possible. Women’s participation in this government should be demanded as equal as men. Because the whole world saw that in one night, when Kabul collapses, all the wins and the hard-won achievements of the women of Afghanistan are gone.
That is why national leaders are needed. Powerful national women leaders are needed, to hold equal power—meaningful power, just like men—and to safeguard women’s rights together with international help.
On that note, I think our readers and also myself have a lot to think about and a lot of work to do. Thank you very much for making the time to speak with us today—it was really a remarkable honor to speak with you.
Thank you so much for having me here. I want women leaders and activists from Afghanistan who are in Europe, and Western countries, to be given opportunities to raise their voice, to talk, and to go ahead with the struggle that they had been pursuing inside Afghanistan. I hope they will be enabled to do so internationally.
We hope to continue being a forum for the women of Afghanistan to be able to do so. Thank you very much for speaking with us.