Afghanistan: where violence against women is not inevitable

The endless cycle of apparently targeted killings in Afghanistan is …. utterly depressing. There’s no other way of putting it.

Yesterday, in the space of just a few hours, the police chief of Nimruz province - Musal Rassouli - was killed in a car bombing, and the acting director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Laghman province - Nadia Sidiqi - was shot dead by two assailants on a motorbike as she was on her way to work.

Their names can be added to an enormous list of people killed in similar circumstances in Afghanistan - apparently because of the work they were doing. Sidiqi’s murder is particularly ominous. She was only doing this job because her predecessor - Hanifa Safi - had been killed in a bomb attack in July.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the police chief’s killing (along with the murder of Afghanistan’s intelligence chief Asadullah Khalid last Thursday), though not for either Sidiqi’s killing yesterday or Safi’s in July.

Actually, that’s interesting (in a macabre sort of way). Could it be that the Taliban in Afghanistan is murdering prominent women but seeking to avoid the bad press that goes with some of these gendered attacks? I wouldn’t be surprised. The Pakistani Taliban’s attempt to kill the teenager Malala Yousafzai led to an enormous international outcry against them - and some signs of backtracking by their spokespeople. I can only presume that their Afghan counterparts (if they were responsible for the Sidiqi and Safia killings) are wise to this. Intimidate, kill, continue to intimidate … but avoid the international ignominy that may attach to certain kinds of killings (and presumably worry even their backers overseas in certain parts of the Gulf and elsewhere).

The New York Times’ piece on Nadia Sidiqi’s murder in Laghman includes this from Zufenon Safi, a female Afghan MP from the same province:

“Targeting important government officials is part of the Taliban strategy to undermine the government’s and the foreign forces’ efforts in the country … There is only one reason behind killing women: to prevent women from working in the government … We should expect more similar assassinations in the upcoming weeks and months because they have threatened every female civil servant, including members of the provincial council and teachers.”

In other words - people like her as well, an outspoken female MP. This fits all too well with research Amnesty has conducted, including how the Taliban and other armed groups send so-called “night letters” warning women - and their families - of the dangers of taking up a prominent position in occupations like education or politics. The message - enforced in the most brutal way - is: stay in your homes or you will end up like the others.

Except … Afghan women continue to defy the Taliban. So, hats off to groups like Young Women For Change, a grassroots organisation of women determined to assert their independence in the country. The UK’s estimable Caroline Lucas praises them in this post, while Amnesty has a solidarity campaign running for them here. Meanwhile, as this excellent BBC news item shows, more women in Afghanistan are daring to report sexual violence against them, and some high-profile cases are breaking the country’s ultra-conservative mould.

So, the dead bodies continue to pile up and the Taliban’s scare tactics go on and on. But every time they resort to killing women workers the Taliban undermine any political legitimacy they might claim for themselves. Their tactics are doomed to fail in the end.

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