Dignifying the Taliban in Doha While Reports of Systemic Sexual Violence Emerge

Published in The Diplomat July 11, 2024

There is overwhelming evidence that sexual assault perpetrated by Taliban officials is widespread and systemic, and that it occurs with total impunity. 

It’s one of those news stories you don’t want to be exposed to. The kind that haunts you long after you read what happened, that sneaks into your thoughts at the most inopportune time, infusing your private worries with other people’s suffering. 

On July 3, on the heels of the Third Doha meeting to which the Taliban were invited by the United Nations (while Afghan women were not), The Guardian published a story about an Afghan woman activist, arrested for protesting, who was gang raped in prison. The Guardian’s story was based on video footage they and Rukhshana Media had seen of the assault: 

They took a video of her naked, her face exposed. After escaping Afghanistan, the woman spoke out about the Taliban from exile. She obtained the video of her gang rape from the assailants themselves, who sent it to her, threatening to release it to her family and on social media if she continued to criticize the Taliban.

While the Taliban say there is no sexual violence committed in their prisons, this courageous woman’s devastating experience is, horrifyingly, not an outlier. For at least two years, Afghan activists and independent Afghan media, working at great risk, have carefully documented what amounts to an undeniable systemic pattern of sexual assault in Taliban-run prisons and detention centers.

Dogged Afghan newspaper Hasht-e Suhb, (“8 am”), has published several investigative news stories on sexual assaults in prisons, including one where they found detained women were being trafficked by their Taliban captors. The pattern of sexual assaults came to light because the Taliban were bringing the women into local hospitals for abortions, where healthcare workers noticed injuries consistent with rape. Zan Times, a media outlet run by Afghan women, has also reported stories of women arrested for “bad hijab” who were sexually assaulted. One of the women told them, “what happened to her happened to every girl taken to that interrogation room.”

The Taliban intentionally use sexual assault as a weapon to secure women’s silence, exploiting the stigma and shame associated with sexual violence. This stigma exists everywhere in the world, but in Afghanistan it not only deters survivors from telling what happened to them, it can get them killed. Throughout 2021 and 2022, reports emerged about young women’s bodies found in the streets in Mazar-i-sharif, a city in the north of Afghanistan. In some cases, it was speculated that some of the women had been murdered by their families in “honor killings,” because they were sexually assaulted while detained. In other cases, the evidence suggests they were killed by the Taliban who detained them. Women who resisted rape were also killed. Others commit suicide.

In the days after the Taliban seized power on August 15, 2021, I was speaking with a friend, a recently exiled Afghan education activist. He said what most worries him is what the now ruling Taliban would do to the young women they had watched from the shadows for all these years. The insurgents turned authorities harbored a hatred for these young women who were part of public life, walking in the streets in modern clothing, without burqas, their faces showing, often smiling, even sometimes wearing make-up. At the same time, he said, they harbored an attraction for these women, who had been inaccessible to them. Now, they had access to them. 

Taliban officials, ranging from low ranking members to senior officials, have used an astonishing range of methods to realize access to these women. After banning women from higher education, Taliban officials used the university records of former female students to select the ones they liked, summoning them to campus, ostensibly for exams. In reality, they were there to be married off to Taliban members. In another case, a medical student named Elaha Delawazai released a video of herself describing how she had been detained, raped, and then forcibly married to her rapist, former Taliban Interior Ministry spokesman Saeed Khosty. In the video, Elaha described being raped nightly, tortured, and how Khosty recorded the assaults and threatened to release the footage.

There is overwhelming evidence that sexual assault perpetrated by Taliban officials is widespread and systemic, and that it occurs with total impunity. It is but one more threat Afghan women and girls live with, as a result of the international community’s tacit acquiescence to the Taliban returning to power. But it is a particularly egregious one. 

The physical and lifelong psychological pain left with the brave, anonymous gang rape survivor who shared the video of the atrocity she endured with international news media, will trigger sorrow and outrage in most of us exposed to it. These unwelcome emotions, over the experiences of a far-away stranger, can feel like inconvenient intrusions into our lives, interruptions to a comfortable reality where this kind of thing is usually relegated to fiction like “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But once you know, you know. 

This knowledge should inform how we perceive the ruling Taliban authorities, and their ongoing propaganda to portray themselves as welcome, legitimate rulers. It should help us understand what they really mean when they say that they have their own ideas about women’s rights and their own way of doing things. Now we know this includes sexual slavery and unrestrained violence. Now we know that the people put in charge in Afghanistan – when the United States and its NATO coalition disastrously walked away from Afghanistan in 2021 – are sadists. And now we know who the U.N. sat across from at the table in Doha last week. 

The Taliban convey their values in their actions. Similarly, the U.N. and each of its member states should carefully consider what values are being conveyed when the Taliban, who oversee a calculated and brutal system of sexual violence, are dignified with a seat at the table, while Afghan women are not.

Link to original article:https://thediplomat.com/2024/07/dignifying-the-taliban-in-doha-while-reports-of-systemic-sexual-violence-emerge/