Top Afghan woman’s rights activist fights back, refuses to wear the burqa

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Fariha Easer is one of the bravest souls you could ever meet.

For her entire adult life, the 35-year-old activist has fought tirelessly for the rights of women in her homeland of Afghanistan. She has stood in the face of death and destruction to take the hand of battered women, to push for patriarchal expectations to be tossed aside, to let her countrywomen know that their lives – and their voices – matter.

“My heart is broken because the truth is nobody cares about us – the world, the United Nations. I am so mad and crazy about our so-called leaders, those who fled and left us with no one to secure the people,” Fariha told me last week from Kabul while I was stranded 300 miles north in the Taliban-controlled city of Mazar-e-Sharif. “We worked for democracy, and yet we have been given over to a terrorist group. Shame on them, shame on all the leaders. Why say that they value human rights?”

I wanted to tell her that the world still cared; only my words felt hollow and meaningless. But, over and over, her faded by fierce voice gained momentum as she spoke in dismay of the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who quietly fled abroad with his top aides and a convoy of cash before the Taliban broke through the gates.

It all happened with the blinking of an eye, she laments. One moment, she and her three sisters were together pushing for a better future, continuing to expand on the many U.S.-funded programs implemented over the past 20 years to empower Afghan women.

“What is left of these efforts now? Genocide is happening in my country,” Fariha says breathlessly, as if struggling to wrap her head around how quickly her whole world was shattered.

She tells me the burqa is a “symbol of oppression.” Under no circumstances will she buy or ever wear one, despite the mandate from the Taliban leadership.

I first met Fariha in Kabul four-and-half years ago, her gentle face always sheathed by different silk scarves reflecting the colors of the ocean. She was pouring over painful case files, seeking justice for a woman tucked inside a remote village in Baghlan province who had been set on fire by her angry husband. In another case at the time, she was fighting for a fellow Afghan who was murdered and dismembered by her husband in Helmand province, yet the perpetrator was yet to be held to account in the eyes of the law.

Fariha describes the burqa as a symbol of oppression.
AFP via Getty Images

For Fariha, it was the kind of job that would never be over. And even back then, she braved insults and threats to continue what she believed to be right, coordinating with various government departments, including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Interior Affairs, to push for prosecution.

“Now we are suffering, in pain; we are now under a flag of a terrorist group,” Fariha says.

The tenacious activists speaks in long, poetic sentences about how far they have come, and how quickly, it all fell apart. Still, she will not cry. She will not cower to the Taliban’s harsh rule and stringent interpretation of Shariah Law, which summons women to their dank basements and forbade them to leave their homes unless fully covered in a burqa and escorted by a male relative.

At 35, Fariha is old enough to remember her early teen years under such a terrifying rule – bereft of education, treated as lower than property.

“I was just remembering the dark days. I was studying for my midterms exams and remember I heard on the radio that the Taliban had taken over Kabul,” she recalls. “It took six years of silence, of being unable to do anything because I was female. I was not even allowed to go outside to play.”

Fariha believes the Taliban have not changed nor will they despite the group saying otherwise.
Fariha believes the Taliban have not changed nor will they despite the group saying otherwise.
AP

The Taliban top brass has been quick to purport that they have changed, that they are not the same brutal insurgency that butchered and blasted their way to power 25 years ago.

Yet Fariha is under no illusion that anything will be different. And she will not simply stand by and allow her hard work to slip behind the mesh veil of oblivion.

“Nothing has changed. The Taliban is trying to say they changed their behavior just to smooth over their take over,” she persists, her tiny voice gaining momentum. “They have not changed nor will they change; they are defined by their violence, their killing, their violations of human rights.”

On Thursday, Fariha and a small contingency of other activists took to the streets in courageous protest – shaking their fists right in the face of the Taliban members, refusing to cover their faces, marching alongside other male supporters and waving the national flag in vehement dissent.

In many ways, Fariha acknowledges, the true brunt of her work may just be getting started. Friends abroad – fearing for her safety – are begging her to leave. Yet, so far, she will not go.

“Afghanistan is my home. It may take us one hundred years to get back to having our rights, the rights we still had a week ago,” Fariha adds. “But I will not accept this.”

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