Solidarity Language of Rights Episode 24June 06, 2022

24. Afghanistan: Can the Taliban tame the hunger for rights?

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

Eighteen months ago, Shaharzad Akbar was still leading Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission and gave this podcast an insight into what it meant to try and infuse rights into the laws, institutions and culture of a country that was a crossroads for conflict and competing foreign interests.  She acknowledged that for many, the language of human rights felt like a foreign import but she believed citizens’ hopes and expectations of government had fundamentally changed over the past two decades.  At the time of our interview, the US was planning to withdraw its forces and talks with the Taliban in Doha were underway. Akbar worried about what their return to power might mean, especially for women’s rights. Fast forward to today, the Taliban is in Kabul and worst fears with regard to rights and freedoms have been confirmed. Shaharzad Akbar, now exiled, joins us again to reflect on whether the Taliban will be able to enforce its regressive authoritarian values and what’s next in the struggle for rights.  And in the Coda, a human rights defender in the Philippines looks for a way to stay hopeful, despite the return of the Marcos family to the presidency, nearly four decades after dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ejected by People Power.

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The Interview

‘Women are protesting – you may not agree with them, but you should listen to them’

“They are your citizens, and they have demands,” Shaharzad Akbar tells the Taliban, “Why are you so scared of listening to them?” Akbar sees the possibility of constructive engagement if ruler and citizen can talk to each other, but she says the Taliban are doing everything they can to avoid it.

The Coda

Staying hopeful in dark times

Last month, Ferdinand Marcos Junior was elected president of the Philippines, thirty-six years after his father was chased from office by the People Power revolution in 1986. For activists like Mary Jane Real, this is grim news, bringing back memories of brutal rule, torture and impunity. But an essay by Rebecca Solnit has given her a surprising insight.


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity

AA: I’m Akwe Amosu…with Episode 24 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used by human rights activists around the world…  And in a moment:

  • Back in power, the Taliban is finding a changed Afghanistan – can they tame it or will they have to adapt? Former human rights Commissioner Shaharzad Akbar on the future of rights in her country
  • And in the Coda, the Marcos family is back at the top in the Philippines… a women’s rights activist tries to find hope

AA: Episode one of this podcast – about 18 months ago – featured Shaharzad Akbar.  She was then the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and gave me a moving and sometimes jarring picture of what it meant to advocate human rights standards and practices – in jails, courts, government ministries, in social policy and people’s homes. It was sometimes dangerous work – she had lost staff to violence and conflict. And even as she and her team worked to hold consultations and infuse laws with rights, she acknowledged that for many, the language of human rights felt like a foreign import. But, on the other hand, she said, at the level of ordinary citizens’ hopes and sense of fairness, and of what they felt entitled to claim from their government, there had been a sea change over the past two decades.  We were speaking ahead of the planned US withdrawal, as talks with the Taliban were underway, and Akbar hoped that the incoming rulers would recognize and adjust to the new reality. Her comments have echoed in my mind as the Taliban administration has reversed freedoms for women and girls, and as public protest has risen against their edicts.  As the Taliban arrived, Akbar helped as many of her staff and rights activists as she could to leave the country and then left herself.  I invited her back to the podcast to reflect on this new reality.

AA: Welcome Shaharzad.

SA: Thank you. Thank you for having me again.

AA: I’ve thought about you so many times in the past months, uh, because you know, we looked ahead in our conversation to this moment and you, with courage and, uh, also clearly anxiety, you tried to anticipate the best case scenario – Could you just give your reflections on where we’ve landed at least for today?

SA: Yeah. Thank you, Akwe. I mean, yes, as I was also looking back at that conversation, I thought that I was trying to hold onto hope against all the evidence around me in a way, which was necessary because every day with the work that we were doing and the risks that we were taking, it was necessary to have some sort of hope. Unfortunately the situation is worse than we feared. I mean, at least in terms of women’s rights, there seems to be, a complete reversal. And then in terms of the closure of civic space. At this point, it’s clear that there is a policy and there are systems put in place to actively stifle dissent, um, punish criticism, censor media, and completely close the space for human rights activism. The legal framework has been scrapped. The institutions have been abolished or they are inactive so it seems quite hopeless at times.

AA: And I’m reminded that one of the things you anticipated is that the Taliban had been away from civilian life – they’d been in the mountains, they’d been fighting and, you said, they don’t realize that society has changed while they’ve been gone.

SA: I mean, they have certainly faced resistance from the corners that they didn’t even, uh, expect. For instance, it was very remarkable to see how many voices from the religious community, the very conservative religious community, spoke up in favor of women’s education and against the Taliban ban, they realize that the opposition is far greater. But I think they also underestimated the challenge of governing as a group, because when they had one, and one aim only, to defeat the, what they call the invasion and the regime backed by the invasion, there weren’t a lot of policy issues up for discussion internally, but now that they have to govern, they have to discuss how to govern internally. And they’re not always on the same page.

AA: And again, I’m reminded of your comments last year, where you said that there’d been a real shift in public expectations, that where citizens had had little to no expectation of a state delivering, they had now got a higher appetite and demand for services. And so I, I imagine that is also, shaping the situation that you describe.

SA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s three areas we see a lot of resistance, right, to Taliban, and it’s an indication of where we have seen greater social and cultural change and change in aspirations. One area is where a lot of people went about criticizing the government in the same way that they did before on social media, because, you know, it was very normal in Afghanistan on primetime TV for ordinary people to go and scream at the president. People felt like they could continue with that. And then Taliban started going after them, you know, really cracking down on that. And that has had a very negative, impact in terms of people feeling like not only we are hungry, we are starving, you know, violence is not over, but also we are not able to complain about the situation and make our voice heard. The other aspect where they have seen a lot of push-back is of course in the past 10 years, we had a very flawed, deeply flawed attempt at inclusion, inclusion of different ethnic groups, inclusion of different aspects of Afghanistan’s diversity into the governance, into service delivery, and into the politics. Taliban are really bad at this. They are a very homogenous group. And this is partly where you see some of the armed resistance or conflict coming from, is where people feel like now we are entitled to be part of this government, part of the service delivery machine, and you’re kicking us out and that’s people’s livelihoods and that’s people’s political ambitions. And the other aspect is of course, women’s human rights. On that, I mean, the picture is very mixed, of course, because the majority of Afghans side with Taliban on many issues when it comes to women’s rights, I would say, but on women’s education, particularly, that there was this universal acceptance and demand. And so there, you see, even religious scholars and religious communities pushing back on the Taliban. So on these three issues – on freedom of expression or people being able to hold their leaders on account; people having a say about who gets to govern them; and then issues like women’s education unless they really realize that the society has changed in these areas, it’s going to be a struggle.

AA: And how do you anticipate that they either will or can respond to that pressure? I mean, you know, it’s human to be affected by your environment and you’re describing quite deep shifts, not momentary change, so do you think that these new rulers and those who support them will be shaped in some way by this pressure, by this push-back? And if so, how?

SA: I mean, I think that maintaining the internal pressure is very important. So what I keep asking also, the international colleagues and partners and community is, to the extent possible, you have to focus on telling Taliban to listen to their own people. You’re not telling them, you know, have the same women’s rights that we have in Norway, you’ re telling them, women in Kabul are coming to the streets. Women in Mazar are coming to the streets. Women in Herat are coming to the streets – you may or may not agree with them, but you should listen to them. They’re your people, they’re your citizens. And they have a set of demands, sit down and listen! Why are you so scared of listening to them? So where I see the possibility of some constructive engagement is where Taliban are forced to face the Afghans.  But the problem is they’re doing everything they can to not make that happen because they don’t want to lose their internal cohesion.  Not all of them, and I’m told this repeatedly, not all of them believe in preventing girls from going to secondary school, for instance, but some very powerful people among them do. And rather than having that difficult conversation and trying to form a consensus which could have implications for their internal cohesion, they think, let’s alter the reality outside. Let’s squash this demand if we can.

AA: And what I find interesting about that, I mean, we always, you know, in some way we’re biased to whole solutions and, and wholesale change, but it would be a very significant shift if, as you imply, those disagreements or divisions within the Taliban would start to widen and it would be possible for a more, fragmented, but also more diverse and multi-opinion conversation to start taking place.

SA:  Absolutely. Like when we look at the human rights situation when my colleagues and I look at it, I have explicitly asked them to not look only at areas where violations happen to a large scale, but also to look at provinces and areas where we see less violations and figure out why? What are the ingredients that in that locality allow a little bit more space? You know, there is one province or two provinces or eight provinces where girls are going to secondary school, it’s being kept very quiet, but it’s happening. So what’s common in those areas? But I think the worrying part for me is that, if there are these fragmentations within the Taliban, which we think there are, what side do we see coming up victorious again and again? What we are seeing is that these pragmatic people seem to be quite marginalized.

AA: Well, I mean, it isn’t just, I presume, about what goes on inside the Taliban, I wonder whether you hear from people inside the country, trying to find people that they can at least talk to in the Taliban that they can start to build a connection and a bridge to?

SA:  Yeah. I mean, that’s very interesting, both inside and also I would say there is an outside element, right, with social media. So Taliban also became very social media savvy in the last few years, and somehow they also have a diaspora following. And some of their diaspora followers and supporters who are trying to use any platform to make it seem like Taliban are much improved, are also now put in a very difficult position of defending their indefensible decisions, for instance on women’s education, and movement and employment. So there is, there is all sorts of pressure happening, and there is definitely a constituency for the ones who are more pragmatic. If it is inside the country, you don’t hear so much from them again because of that environment of fear uh, but you see in the online kind of virtual space that, this outside circle are trying to highlight the voices of those and the profiles of those among the Taliban leadership who have a more pragmatic approach to issues.

AA: So you’ve mentioned a couple of times where the international community comes into this. I wondered what are the points of articulation between this internal situation you’ve just been describing and external actors?

SA : I usually try to understand what are the priorities for the countries who are engaging with Taliban, and if the priority remains as it was before with the former government, let’s say counter-terrorism, that actually opens a lot of space for Taliban’s oppressive policies. I have heard people say to me, well, Taliban are telling us if we open the schools for girls, then our fighters will join IS, and we’ll have a bigger terrorist problem in Afghanistan. So Taliban are also capitalizing on this counter-terrorism framework to justify their policies.  I was talking to people from a Western country working on Afghanistan and, I told them, what are your priorities in Afghanistan? They were like, these five priorities; one of them was, human rights. And I said, no, tell me what really is a priority, right? Is it counter-terrorism or human rights? They can both be, but how do you see their role in complementing each other or the trade-offs that they present? And this is the challenge, right?

AA: And I suppose, uh, the war in Ukraine and various other current events – there’s plenty to push Afghanistan off the agenda.  Are you seeing that, are you seeing a kind of level of distraction and a desire to just move on?

SA: Absolutely. I mean, events in Ukraine, it has been so painful because it’s, it’s revival of a lot of the trauma that we experienced in Afghanistan. I keep thinking about how hard it is to recover from a war and keep hoping every day that it wouldn’t have happened. So there’s that emotional aspect to it. But there’s also watching the response to refugees. You know, I, I tried to get, human rights defenders that worked with me, asylum or visas, um, what an uphill struggle it was and remains and how many people remain at risk in Afghanistan that have no place to go, compared to the way states opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees, which was model behavior, but it should have been for Afghans and Syrians as well. But also how the international mechanisms are being utilized, like Human Rights Council’s immediate response. We fought for a fact-finding mission following an attack on school girls that killed more than 80 school girls for so many months. And all these things happened at Afghanistan and we didn’t get a fact-finding mission, we got a special rapporteur. So you see, how it’s different.  And then the ICC investigation of Afghanistan. I mean, we kept asking the International Criminal Court for an investigation. U.S. President Trump went as far as putting sanctions on the prosecutor and then you see the same US, I mean different president but the same US, coming out saying, you know, the war crimes in Ukraine need to be investigated by the ICC and countries offering resources to the ICC for investigation of war crimes in Ukraine. And you’re thinking – isn’t the International Criminal Court supposed to be for all?

AA: I mean, let me just put a finer point on this I mean, it wasn’t just the border officials in Poland. It was also the Polish who were very selective about who they wanted to let in. And we’ve heard about, for example, black refugees coming out of Ukraine and, uh, telling a very different story than the one that Ukrainian refugees tell.  I know that you’re not attacking anybody, but how widely do you want to offer this critique?

SA:  Yeah, I mean initially when everything in Afghanistan happened I really saw a failure of the states, right? The states that, led by the US, had at least partial responsibility for what was happening, completely washing their hands of, or doing the least they could. And then I did see organizations and individuals stepping in, at least when it came to evacuations. I saw individual activists, people who had been to Afghanistan once, or have one Afghan friend, really trying to mobilize funding, find ways to, you know, secure a visa for a family at risk. So it was encouraging to see that while at the state level there is a failure, there is a level of solidarity among organizations and among individuals. But then as we watched the Ukraine situation unfold, I just wished that the level of solidarity at the individual level, at the organization level was not so different. And I think we keep talking about a human rights crisis in Afghanistan, the humanitarian crisis. But I do think that we do have a global human rights crisis. I think instance like this are a reminder we have made a lot of achievements, but where we have really failed and where there so much really work to do. I mean, it’s very clear that issues of racism in Western societies – It’s very, very clear that this is a huge challenge that the human rights movements in these countries have not tackled to the extent that they should. Of course this applies to other things: to the rights of all LGBTQI, to environmental issues. So it’s not just a single issue of racism, but I think this was an indication of the fact that human rights movements and human rights mechanisms really need to, have some soul-searching. You know, I have this dream of like bringing a panel of human rights activists from the south and having them grade Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international, UN Human Rights Council, all these supposedly international mechanisms and organizations to see from their perspective to what extent truly have we moved beyond Western assumptions and, um, have become more inclusive and more effective for humans everywhere in the planet. I don’t know if that makes sense, but like, it’s, there is definitely need for soul searching at the social and organizational level beyond just the states.

AA: I think it does make sense and I think a lot of activists in the global north would acknowledge the justice of the critique. Let me just ask you one question: is there anything, when you look back, is there anything that you think, “If we had done that differently, we would have had a better, or a different outcome”?

SA:. Yeah. I mean, there are several things. I think the biggest element of the past few months for me has been trying to reflect on that because there has been crippling sense of failure, sense of shame, guilt, um all of that, initially very paralyzing. And then I thought, okay, you know, me feeling embarrassed and guilty and a failure is really not helping anyone here. So what can I do with these feelings? And so I tried to think and talk and reflect, and yes, I mean, if the international engagement in Afghanistan hadn’t coupled the war on terror with human rights, I think the human rights movement of Afghanistan would have more credibility because our key partners in a struggle for the human rights were the nations that then, when it came to war on terror objectives, were very willing to let go of all human rights standards, to empower the worst people, to work with the worst people, to allow torture to happen, to look at the other side, when, you know, their Afghan partners were corrupt etc. We never tackled that. Afghanistan never really dealt with impunity because it was seen as too destructive to political stability and counter-terrorism objectives. There was also a lot of investment on laws, which I talked about last time as – which was good, I mean it was a consultative process, but it was the easiest thing to do in a way, because you just changed things on paper and you didn’t, the institutions that were put in place to deliver those changes were insufficient and the process of negotiating those changes was not inclusive. So then, okay, you have a different regime, you have a regime change, all the laws are out. What are you left with? The institutions are dismantled. The laws are out the door. The thing that you’re left with are ideas and people, and we fell short on spreading those ideas far enough, wide enough and turning them into reality. And we fell short in broadening that circle of people.

AA: Well, I honor your commitment to an auto-critique, we all need that, everybody needs to do that. But I would really encourage people listening to this to go back and listen to your interview from last year, in this context, because much as you are probably right, that the uninclusive aspects of the work you did, didn’t embed a change, I think there were many things, many places you went into dangerous settings; you committed, you described going into jails and knowing that you were helping to prevent torture taking place. I think it would be a very partial description to suggest that you were not doing things with your human body, if you like, to try and stand up for rights.

SA: Thank you, Akwe. No, I think the aspect of the work that looking back that I think had more value now that we see how things have evolved – you know, you see an illiterate woman from rural area in Afghanistan going on social media, her face covered with a chadari. You can’t see her any part of her face, but she’s talking about how the way her son is being held in detention by Taliban is unjust. And she talks in her own terminology, but she’s basically talking about the rights of detainees under international human rights law. So something’s happened, right? Some expectations were created and some language was adopted and people know that they deserve more and people know that this is not what they deserve.

AA: Listening to you, you seem like a woman unleashed. You seem like you are in your power at this moment, much as I imagine that these past months have been devastating in many ways. I’m struck by the fire behind the analysis and the critique, and just wondering, what are you feeling about this moment and your own role in it?

SA:. I mean, it’s so, it’s so, it’s so overwhelming, right? I think when Taliban went back on their decision to open the school (to) girls, and then when the whole policy came out on how women should cover themselves in public, both days I spent crying, like [the] full day, basically, completely overwhelmed with helplessness and hopelessness, because – how do you deal with this? How do you engage with these people? Where there is an opening and you know, what do you do? What do you do? That whole universe, that whole set of assumptions that I used to work with in my country, for my country, gone – at least for now. I know this won’t last, but at least for now. So what do you do? And after a lot of deliberation where I am right now, if I have any sense of strength or hope is, the fact that regardless of what happens politically in Afghanistan, people who live there, I have an emotional connection to them. And then I have a collective of friends and colleagues who care about Afghanistan and want to do something about human rights in Afghanistan. And I think three years from now, if I have been able to have conversations with more Afghans about human rights and how to make those rights more accessible and sustainable, then I will feel like less of a failure. And, the human rights community of Afghanistan: now, some of us, our colleagues, some people are working in warehouses in different countries. Some people are sitting in refugee camp. Some people are becoming Uber drivers. Some people are working in pizza delivery. They’re doing a whole range of things to sustain themselves. They’re trying to learn new languages. They’re trying to adapt to a new culture. They’re navigating a lot. Can we recreate that sense of community and say, regardless of what you’re doing as your day job, there’s a space where you can come and talk about human rights in Afghanistan, and there are people who listen to you and even maybe try to help you to do that kind of work even still now. So those are some of the things that gave me some sense of hope and, and strength.

AA: Shaharzad, thank you so very much.

SA: Of course. Thank you, Akwe. Good speaking to you as always.

AA: Shaharzad Akbar, former chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission and very much still a human rights activist.  You can find a transcript of our conversation on our website,


AA:  Our Coda this time comes from the Philippines where Ferdinand Marcos Junior was just elected president. His ascent to the highest office has brought back bad memories for those who remember his father, also Ferdinand Marcos, whose 20 years of authoritarian rule were brought to an end in 1986 by the People Power revolution. Mary Jane Real is a long-time activist and women’s rights advocate based in Manila and the election outcome hit her hard.

Mary Jane Real:  I have many friends who have died, have been tortured, jailed, disappeared. Recently I’ve just been, two weeks ago, to a wake of one of my friends who just recently died, having been tortured and jailed during the Marcos dictatorship. And what do we have to show for it, you know… The Marcoses are back in power so of course I’m in despair. Of course I’m in despair –

AA: Mary Jane told me she’s been reading an essay by American writer Rebecca Solnit which is a meditation on the British novelist Virginia Woolf’s reflections about hope. The essay starts with a thought-provoking observation from Woolf: she says: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Solnit finds that last note of doubt striking:

[Solnit reading] “It’s an extraordinary declaration, … a celebration of darkness… willing—as that “I think” indicates—to be uncertain, even about its own assertion.  Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night – in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made – is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed… To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.


AA: Now back to Mary Jane Real who, as she processes the election result, is finding these reflections useful:


MJR: A friend of mine sent me this article of Rebecca Solnit, as a way of consoling through my grief. We are in dark times. And there’s no other way to characterize it, except that it’s going to be a really challenging six years, which is the term of the new president, but what draw me to it was this powerful qualifier that Virginia attached to this pronouncement that the future is dark and that’s the best thing the future could be: She said, “I think.” And this, “I think” kind of propelled me to read further – What does she mean? For me, it’s like she opened up a place for a sense of doubt instead of a certainty in that pronouncement – maybe it is dark, but maybe there’s a different way of seeing this, Yes, yeah, the state we’re in now. 

I think this fear of darkness is related to a very positivist way of thinking, wherein we’re so schooled to name, to know, to measure, to hold things and grasp them and be concrete and in that sense anything that’s unknown, ignites fear in us… And I think what this article is trying to tell us is that this binary thinking doesn’t serve us well. Because as she right rightly points out, you know we make love in the dark, seeds are germinated in the dark, light and dark are so integral to life and living, there’s no way you can have life without the dark. And so this embracing of darkness is actually a liberating way of living, and yeah, it opens new doors for us because by staying open to what’s uncertain, to what’s unknown, we actually are able to engage better with realities. It’s interesting how Rebecca, in trying to interpret this pronouncement from Virginia, actually juxtaposed both despair and pessimism and optimism as forms of certainty, and actually that both are grounds for inaction – because you’re so certain there’s no point for you to do anything else.

What I value from Rebecca’s insight is that she actually opened a space, I think, for me for to come to terms with this darkness, to face it and find a way to cultivate hope. Maybe we should take Virginia’s cue to take the compass to get lost. And by getting lost, she doesn’t mean literally to lose your way or not find your way, but to be open to the unknown. And for me, that’s possibly the best that I could be now – if not totally in the dark, then at least in that moment of uncertainty and being in mystery and being, yeah, just being open to what will unfold.


AA: Thanks to Mary Jane Real for her reflections on the value of uncertainty.  And we read you an extract from Rebecca Solnit’s essay entitled, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”.  It appeared in The New Yorker on the 24th of April, 2014. We’ll post a link on the website.

AA: That’s it for Episode 24 of Strength and Solidarity… Thanks for listening… If you’re new to the podcast, check out the other 23 episodes!  They’re all easily accessible on our website, again, that’s strengthandsolidarity dot org…  A reminder that we love getting your feedback. Write and tell us how we’re doing… The address is For now, thanks to Meg Satterthwaite and Cate Brown for production help, and to our producer Peter Coccoma. See you next time.