Column: How female activists in the U.S. are rescuing Afghan women — or trying to
Amid the anguishing news about the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan came the uplifting story of a 60-year-old Oklahoma woman who organized the escape of 10 members of the Afghan all-girls robotics team.
“I just decided to take any action I could to save a few,” Allyson Reneau wrote on Instagram, next to a photograph of her with the Afghan teenagers, whom she met in 2019 when they came to Washington, D.C., for a robotics competition.
The Wall Street Journal praised Reneau’s “pluck and enterprise,” and coyly suggested that President Biden put her in charge of the chaotic evacuation efforts.
Without a doubt, Reneau is a remarkable human being. She is the mother of 11 biological children, nine of whom are girls, and a professional gymnastics coach who graduated from Harvard in 2016 with a master’s in international relations.
And though she was the catalyst for a complicated rescue, she also had a lot of help and support — from a friend who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Qatar; the Digital Citizen Fund, which is the parent organization of the robotics team; and the government of Qatar, which provided visas and a plane and flew the teens from Kabul to Doha, Qatar‘s capital.
The team members are now somewhere in the United States, and Reneau has told reporters they have received scholarship offers from prestigious universities.
It’s wonderful that they will no longer be subject to the medieval practices of the Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, before it was overthrown by the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government.
But there are god-knows-how-many other Afghan women whose lives are now in danger, and who have been the subject of frantic efforts by women’s groups and others to get them out of the country to safety as the Taliban reimposes its brutal interpretation of Islamic religious law.
“There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country,” a Taliban representative told Reuters last week. “We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is sharia law and that is it.”
On Monday, I reached out to Katherine Spillar, executive director and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority Foundation, which has worked for the last 25 years to improve the lives of Afghan women. The foundation has collaborated with Afghan women leaders on training and education, urged U.S. policymakers to do more for Afghan women and girls, and has long demanded that the United States not officially recognize the Taliban as the country’s rightful government.
“We have been working around the clock for over a week and a half,” said a weary-sounding Spillar. She and her collaborators are trying to spirit 30 endangered Afghan women out of the country, so far with little luck. The women on Spillar’s list are outspoken feminists who work in government and for all sorts of nongovernmental organizations, including medical clinics and battered women’s shelters. Some are college students who have been accepted to American universities.
Twenty years ago, during its first reign of terror, the Taliban forced women and girls out of school and work, forbade them from leaving their homes unless escorted by a male member of the family, and forced them to cover themselves from head to toe. Before, the vast majority of teachers had been women; under the Taliban, the education system collapsed.
Now, or at least until last week, females in Afghanistan made up half of university students, nearly half of civil service employees and 40% of schoolchildren. Each province had a domestic violence shelter. Maternal and infant mortality rates plummeted.
Though Taliban spokesmen have vowed that women will still be able to work and go to school, reports on the ground say otherwise.
In an Aug. 15 interview with Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, BBC anchor Yalda Hakim said Afghan women told her that Taliban soldiers were barring them from entering a university in Herat, about 400 miles west of Kabul. Shaheen suggested that “maybe reports are exaggerated.”
He added: “What I am telling you is the policy. The policy is that women can have access to education and to work, and of course they will observe the hijab, that is it.”
He dodged a question about what, exactly, he meant by “hijab,” which often refers to a headscarf but can also mean the act of covering up.
Almost all analyses of the Afghan government’s collapse and the resurrection of the Taliban mention hopefully that Afghans may be less willing to accept its backward rule.
“The majority of the population is under 20,” said Spillar. “These are Afghans who have never known the gender apartheid restrictions of the Taliban. Cellphones are everywhere. They have relationships with governments and private businesses all over the world. An entire generation has come of age knowing there are fundamental human rights that belong to all of them, no matter what ethnic minority you are.”
The Feminist Majority Foundation and dozens of other human rights activists, including Dolores Huerta, Gloria Steinem, Cecile Richards and Mavis Leno (who crusaded for the rights of Afghan women in the 1990s), signed an open letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, pleading for the U.S. to fulfill the promises it made to Afghan women after we invaded the country in 2001.
The letter implored them to “take immediate action to save the lives of Afghan women’s rights and human rights leaders and advocates who have selflessly and courageously worked at great risk to advance the rights of women and girls and are now being targeted by the Taliban. ... Safe passage to the United States must be provided immediately.”
If a 60-year-old mom from Oklahoma can organize a rescue, the United States government has absolutely no excuse.
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