In Afghanistan, women rights activists feared for their lives, now they are disappearing

In September, Forouzan Safi joined forces with other activists to protest the Taliban’s tearing down women’s rights in Afghanistan.

By the end of October, she had been killed.

She reportedly left the house that day with her passport and diplomas in the belief that she met someone who would help her get out of Afghanistan.

Her body was found filled with bullets along with three other women who had also been killed.

The news of their deaths has resonated around the community of activists fighting for the advancement of women and girls, who have lived in fear since the Taliban regained power.

A grainy photo of a young woman.
Forouzan Safi was an economics teacher in northern Afghanistan. (Delivered by: Nilofar Ayoubi)

Mrs Safi was a civil rights activist and economics teacher in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

“Forouzan was one of many young female activists who had dreams of having a beautiful life, of having her fundamental rights, of living in peace, of pursuing her dreams, but unfortunately she could not achieve it,” her friend said. Nilofar Ayoubi ABC.

“She was one of the female protesters from the Mazar-e-Sharif group who protested after August 15, and then she was recognized along with three other female activists by the Taliban, and unfortunately they were captured to their deaths. ”

Mrs Ayoubi is a journalist and activist who left Afghanistan because of concerns for her own security.

She is well connected to the network of human and women rights activists in Afghanistan and says Ms Safi knew there was something wrong in the run-up to her disappearance.

“She had sent a message to one of our fellow sisters a few days before the incident [saying] she does not feel safe in WhatsApp… and that she will be available on Signal.

“As the situation was so tense at the time, no one noticed the absence of her in the group chat, and after a few days the news came out and her body was found along with three other activist sisters.”

Mazar-e-Sharif Blue Mosque
The bodies of four women were found in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif(ABC News: Farshad Usyan)

Some activists have reported receiving phone calls, messages and emails from suspects claiming they could help those wishing to leave Afghanistan.

They are allegedly asked to share personal information and are invited to come to certain places.

Two suspects have confessed to having lured Safi and the three other women to the house where their bodies were found.

A Taliban spokesman said the suspects had been arrested in connection with the killings, but did not say whether they also confessed to the killings.

He said the case was referred to a court.

Human Rights Watch associate director of women’s rights Heather Barr told ABC: “The Taliban created an environment where women like Safi really walk around with the goal on their backs.”

“And it seems that there is impunity for people who would attack and kill them.”

Families are urging protesters to stay home

Ms Ayoubi said Taliban fighters had been given a list of women who took part in at least one protest in Kabul.

“The Taliban began circling them and reading their names one by one, threatening them, [saying] “If we can know the exact name and number of you who are currently present in this protest, then it is very easy for us to find you and chase you,” she said.

A woman who is still in Afghanistan and who helped organize several protests told ABC that the Taliban had threatened her directly.

“We are still hiding and we do not know how to continue our lives … we are unemployed in this situation.

“I really love my country, but since the Taliban [regained power] it became like hell, and we’re burning in this hell. ”

ABC has hidden her identity for security reasons.

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Mrs Ayoubi believes the assassination of Mazar-e-Sharif will put an end to the recent fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

“With this assassination, I believe the Taliban succeeded in creating fear and terror in the families to stop their women, girls, daughters and wives from protesting,” she said.

“I’m afraid that if it continues like this … then these votes will be lost in no time.

‘Incredibly alarming development’

When the last US plane left Afghanistan and the official evacuation operation was completed, a woman who once worked in the Afghan security forces said that ABC Taliban fighters were looking “home to home” for her and her colleagues.

Ms Barr of Human Rights Watch told ABC that the situation in Afghanistan was now “really, really dark”.

“People had all this fear of how the Taliban would rule. And now we have had almost three months to figure it out… and we have learned that most of that fear was justified,” she said.

Retaliation and retaliation have been documented in Afghanistan, including members of the resistance movement and the former security forces.

“From the beginning, it was clear that they were also trying to track down women’s rights activists and other human rights activists,” Ms Barr said.

“And even though they did not kill these people, they certainly tried to intimidate them and try to silence them.”

Mrs Barr said there had been a question as to whether intimidation of women’s rights activists would escalate into killings.

The death of Forouzan Safi gave a shocking response.

Ms Barr believes the UN should investigate the specific crimes against women.

“There has to be an investigation, there has to be a real investigation into who killed her and why and the consequences and justice for her family,” she said.

Australia’s aid to persecuted Afghans

Three young girls, one with a mask.
Hadia (pictured middle), is 10 years old and is in fourth grade. In two years, she’s too old to be allowed to go to school. (Reuters: Zohra Bensemra)

Ms Ayobi said she was trying very hard to get women in her network out of Afghanistan.

“Because they are the story of 20 years of activism. Twenty years of fighting for rights and freedom, and my only hope is that we manage to save as many of these women as we can,” she said.

Susan Hutchinson is an advocate for women and one who has been instrumental in helping vulnerable Afghans get out.

She believes the Australian government could do more to help women who are still at risk in Afghanistan.

“The practical reality does not meet the rhetoric of getting high-risk women’s human rights defenders out of Afghanistan,” she said.

Thousands of Afghans have already arrived in Australia on temporary protection visas.

From there, they must apply for a place in Australia’s humanitarian program.

The federal government promised that 3,000 seats in the annual humanitarian program would be allocated to people fleeing violence in Afghanistan.

But this week, a Senate inquiry heard that Australia had not yet issued any of these visas to Afghans who had applied.

The survey also heard that there had been more than 32,000 applications, but with many often involving entire families, the actual number of applicants is thought to be at least 150,000.

When the government initially announced that 3,000 seats in the humanitarian program would be given to Afghans, it said the allocation would focus on “family members of Australians, persecuted minorities such as women and girls, children, Hazaras and other vulnerable groups”.

In a statement, a DFAT spokesman said Afghans remained a priority for the 2021-22 humanitarian visa program.

They maintained that “special priority” would be given to persecuted minorities, women and children and those with links to Australia.

“We will also continue to use our close cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UHNCR) to identify the Afghans who are most in need,” the spokesman said.

Ms Hutchinson said the government had the option of issuing more temporary visas to women still in Afghanistan.

“It seems to me that there are no practical mechanisms that the government is using to get these women out of harm’s way,” she said.

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