In interviews with The Saturday Paper, Afghan women describe their fears of retribution and torture by the Taliban, while others in Pakistan hope to be granted asylum by the Australian government. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Women kidnapped, Australian’s family abandoned

An Afghan woman wears a burqa on a road in Kandahar.
An Afghan woman wears a burqa on a road in Kandahar, about 690 kilometres south-west of the capital, Kabul.
Credit: Sanaullah Seiam / AFP

For the first minute or so, Zainab Haidari holds it together. On a halting video call from Afghanistan, with the help of a translator, she outlines what she knows about her missing friend, Parisa Azada.

The pair are members of an Afghan women’s rights group and have protested publicly since the Islamist Taliban overran their country in August 2021.

Azada was organising a protest and noticed men following her before she was arrested on November 15. They believe the owner of a poster-printing shop gave her up. There has been no contact since.

“The Taliban have been telling the women’s rights activists that they are the reason the world is not recognising their government,” Haidari says. “And that the Taliban are perfect.”

Zainab Haidari is a pseudonym, used for her protection. However, she and other friends insist on using Azada’s real name, arguing the Taliban seek to make women invisible and Parisa had indicated that if she was arrested her story should be told.

Both women are from the Hazara minority. Haidari believes her friend is being held in one of the Taliban’s notorious “intelligence directorates”, another name for prison. It can’t be confirmed but their kind of protest brings its own awful certainties.

“I know she is being tortured,” Haidari says, as tears start to fall. “We know the Taliban. The Taliban have been violent for as long as we have known them.”

For Parisa Azada, that is 24 years. For Zainab Haidari, it’s a few years longer. They are among a network of defiant Afghan women, young and older, who refuse to stop fighting the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam. They highlight the cruelty inflicted on women, attracting the worst of it when they do.

Karima Rahimi was also a women’s rights campaigner, even before the Taliban takeover. She fled to Pakistan with her family two years ago after receiving a letter from the Taliban to their home threatening to kill her and her military-officer husband, and demanding their three resident daughters be surrendered as brides.

At the time, the daughters were aged 24, 14 and 13. The eldest is deaf and has other disabilities, requiring care. Reaching Pakistan on their second attempt, the family heard terrible stories of young Afghan girls being kidnapped there, too.

“We are in a very rough situation, especially my three daughters,” Rahimi says, as her son Moien, translates on the phone. “They find themselves in a very vulnerable situation. We don’t have a base ... We are not living freely. We are living in a very bad situation.”

Moien was on a scholarship in Turkey when the Taliban took over and is now in Sweden. Another adult daughter, Raziyha Khan, lives in Newcastle, north of Sydney. Khan and her husband are Australian citizens, resettled in 2014 because he had been an interpreter for the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August 2021, Khan applied for her parents and sisters to join her. The Australian government’s swift acknowledgement letter gave them hope. There has been not a word from anyone in government since.

“I have a very bad feeling,” Karima Rahimi told The Saturday Paper from Pakistan this week, where locals are housing the family. The Pakistani government no longer tolerates Afghans streaming in and is deporting people back across the border, paying some exiles to reveal the locations of their compatriots.

The Rahimis’ Pakistani visas have expired so they are in hiding, even in the country to which they have fled.

“It’s frustrating that I didn’t receive anything for two years from the Australian government,” Rahimi says on an encrypted phone call, before describing her daughters’ intense anxiety. “We are really suffering and we are in a depressive state and we seek urgent help from the Australian government.”

Rahimi’s husband is also at risk, for his past work with coalition forces. The Taliban know about that, too, and about their son-in-law’s work as an interpreter. On paper, the family meets Australia’s priority resettlement criteria in multiple ways. It is unclear if there is a security-clearance problem – none has been acknowledged – or just a sheer administrative backlog. The government does not comment on individual cases.

There are 26,500 places earmarked for Afghans within the offshore humanitarian migration program to 2026. This comprises 2000 a year, starting in 2021, as part of the regular humanitarian intake – which was recently increased from 17,500 to 20,000 a year – plus an extra 4125 a year on top, from 2022.

Last weekend, the government announced $20 million for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help support in-danger Afghans both still inside their country and displaced nearby. A government spokesperson said the Afghan caseload “continues to be a key priority”. Sources also insist the “non-discriminatory” program favours the most vulnerable, adding that conducting mandatory checks is extremely challenging.

Greens senator Nick McKim has advocated for many Afghan applicants. McKim acknowledges the enormous volume since 2021, the difficult security situation, and that the government has committed considerable extra resources to it. However, he believes still more needs to be done.

“There is a real urgency to this situation…” McKim says. “Australia bears significant responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan and therefore we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to provide a refuge for people from Afghanistan here in Australia.”

He argues Australia’s overall humanitarian quota is still too low. Labor’s 2023 policy platform commits to progressively increasing it to 27,000.

From Pakistan, Karima Rahimi pleads for “urgent shelter as soon as possible” and describes an impossible “dilemma” if the authorities find her: “Whether I have to be jailed in Pakistan or am a high risk of deportation and being killed by the Taliban.”

Despite the Australian government nominating women and girls as priorities for resettlement, advocates are concerned women’s rights defenders have slipped down – even off – the list.

“These women fought for their rights for years, for decades,” says Susan Hutchinson, executive director of the Canberra-based Azadi-e Zan, or “Free Woman”, and a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University. “They keep fighting for what is right. When that gets too unsafe for them, we should be able to grant them asylum, but we’re not.”

Hutchinson’s organisation has helped more than 300 women’s rights defenders secure resettlement, including in Australia.

“But it has been over a year since the government have responded to groups like ours requesting priority processing for extremely high-risk women’s rights defenders,” she says, “even when they have a close relationship with Australia and meet other priority processing criteria.”

Since 2021, a hail of international reports has described an increasingly oppressive and ruthless regime in Afghanistan, in which girls cannot be educated above primary-school level or work outside the home. Protesters are targeted, especially those from persecuted minorities such as Hazaras and Tajiks. A recent United Nations report on gender-based violence quoted the Taliban as arguingwomen were being jailed to protect them from family or other violence.

“The government of the Islamic Emirate is committed to protecting the lives and property of the people, and the life of any Afghan citizen, including women…” the Taliban’s response to the report says. It accuses critics of “a kind of ignorance and lack of knowledge” of sharia.

“Our religion is perfect, and our law is equal based on our religion,” it says. “The rights of men and women are respected. Comprehensive attention is paid to the rights of men and women in this system, particularly women and their rights are defended accordingly.”

The activists ridicule such claims. Zainab Haidari dismisses another Taliban claim, too – that the protesters are paid. She says women are being tortured for information, which is why she holds grave fears for her friend, Parisa Azada. Azada’s family has been ordered not to speak about her. “Parisa was a journalist and a women’s rights activist and she was speaking against the government,” Haidari says. “She is already considered a criminal by the Taliban.”

Haidari describes what life is like there now. “The cultural foundation that the Taliban have laid out – their cultural beliefs – tell them that the woman is there to fulfil a man’s desires,” she explains. “She does not exist to work or study or do anything else.”

In Kandahar province, which borders Uruzgan, where Australian forces were based for a decade, she says women leaving their homes not wearing the region’s full blue burkha have been shot dead.

Haidari was a child when al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, heralding the removal of the then Taliban government that harboured them. The subsequent 20-year insurgent war culminated in the 2021 withdrawal of US-led coalition forces and the Taliban’s triumphant return.

Zainab Haidari grew up with war but also with the hardliners on only the margins and women increasingly able to contribute to her country’s governance, justice system, commerce and culture. She went to university and dreamt of a professional future. Not anymore.

“The person I was two years ago was a strong feminist who would challenge journalists who remotely said anything anti-feminist,” she says. “But now I’m someone who needs to go to my family and ask for money to survive and it’s telling me that I’m becoming the weaker gender and the society has already rejected everything about who I was and what I stood for.”

Now, she says, women cannot even go to a local park. “The only thing waiting for us is to become someone’s wife, or someone’s second wife … We are in hell and there is no hope.”

She urges the international community not to grant the Taliban government the formal recognition it seeks.

“I’d like governments like Australia to make sure they never recognise the Taliban’s government…” she says. “There should be more international pressure.”

She also pleads for a renewed focus on the women who “go to the street and put their lives at stake and hold banners up”. “We need the media to magnify the situation.”

Haidari is clear why the arrests are occurring. “It’s to inject more fear in people like me and the people in our group. They are trying to show they have power and that women need to be suffocated and silenced.”

Even before the Taliban’s ascendancy, the women’s own families often tried to force them into submission. “First we are fighting with our family for our rights and to fight for democracy,” Haidari says. “But now we have to fight the Taliban too. It’s too big to have to fight them both … The world should know what is happening inside Afghanistan.”

Karima Rahimi has heard about the violent punishment. She knows what awaits her if she is forced to go back to Afghanistan. Some arrested women are released after being detained for a few months. Others just disappear. “It’s not possible for me to go back to Afghanistan, ever,” she says.

Those who are released have terrible stories.

Held for a month last year, Parwana Ibrahimkhel Najarabi managed to flee and has now been resettled in Germany. In voice messages translated by a friend in Australia, she describes what she heard and saw. The Saturday Paper cannot verify her account.

“They tortured and killed people,” Najarabi says. “The walls were tainted with blood … They usually got rid of the bodies, throwing them in wells and hiding the bodies anywhere they could.”

She says she was taken to “one of the secret, hidden prisons”, where conditions are even worse than in official facilities, and threatened with being stoned to death during Friday prayers.

Leading Afghan activist Shamail Tawana Nasiri is in touch with some of the tortured women. Nasiri is co-founder of the Movement of Afghan Women for Justice and Freedom. What she describes is horrific.

“Women have been whipped, women have been beaten and they were told that they were not Muslim and some of them have been told they would be stoned to death because they did not have the right hijab,” she says.

One of the first arrested in the current crackdown told Nasiri she was made to strip and had electric shocks applied to her genitals.

Speaking from the US, where she has asylum, Nasiri echoes Haidari’s call for the global community to step up. She condemns the international deal that preceded the Taliban takeover, calling it “not gender inclusive at all”.

“The Taliban did not have military power. They were not able to take over a district. And then [after this deal] they were able to take over the country in a week.”

She says expressing concern is not enough. “The situation of Afghanistan will never change unless the world makes a serious decision about Afghanistan and about Afghan women,” she says.

While the Taliban have received millions of dollars in support, “no one has supported the women’s protests and no one has supported the resistance”. She says female protesters need “to amplify their voice”.

Afghan–Australian scholar and emeritus professor of Middle Eastern and Central Asian studies at the Australian National University Amin Saikal argues similarly.

“The only [way] that I see that Afghanistan’s direction can change is through close cooperation between internal resistance and outside pressure,” Saikal says. “The internal resistance is gaining pace. You’ve got these resistance movements emerging, but they have not received any support from a major outside power.”

Saikal also believes the international community must take responsibility for empowering the Taliban, especially the consequences for women. He criticises China for establishing diplomatic ties but also accuses other superpowers of once again using Afghanistan as a pawn in global power games.

“Nothing is being done to improve the situation,” Saikal says. “It’s like everybody’s just letting it happen and pretending it’s not.”

Inside Afghanistan, they cannot look away. Zainab Haidari asks the world to see her and her colleagues and understand why they won’t give up the fight.

“I want the people outside to remember to appreciate democracy,” she says. “To be able to go outside. To breathe. To appreciate what they have. To hope.” 

Karen Middleton is the author of An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Exclusive: Women kidnapped, Australian’s family abandoned".

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