Campaigns and discussions on the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan, however welcome for the attention they bring to these issues, must delve deeper still, to expose the multifaceted nature of the Taliban’s gender-apartheid regime. In January, the Taliban began a new wave of arrests and detentions, disproportionately affecting Hazara women and girls. The Taliban claimed falsely that the women “did not comply, or are perceived not to comply, with the gendered roles that the Taliban has assigned for them in society,” according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan, exposing them to intersecting forms of discrimination.”  In neighborhoods with predominantly Hazara residents, such as Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul, armed Taliban fighters abduct Hazara women and girls for alleged “improper hijab” (a term the Taliban uses randomly and often falsely related to women’s head coverings, veils, or the burqa), subjecting them to arbitrary arrests and detentions, mistreatment, and other human rights violations.

Hazara women have long experienced multilayered discrimination based on the grounds of their ethnic and religious identity, gender, and social and political activism. But much of the existing discourse remains focused on Afghan women in general or on the vulnerabilities of the broader Hazara community, without specific language and framing to capture the unique, intersecting experiences of Hazara women. Discussions and programming should more often address the specific plight facing Hazara women and acknowledge that different social identities can overlap, compounding experiences of discrimination and violence. While acknowledging the targeting of other groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community and ethnic Tajik women from Panjshir province due to the armed resistance, there is also an urgency to recognize and address the longstanding discrimination and violence against Hazara women, which predates the Taliban regime.

At the Intersection of Ethnicity and Gender

The Hazaras – and Hazara women specifically – have faced persecution and genocidal crimes throughout different regimes in Afghanistan, beginning from 1890 under Abdur Rahman Khan’s rule, when Hazara women were profiled on the basis of their ethnicity and subjected to gender-based violence such as enslavement and rape. Hazaras make up about 19 percent of Afghanistan’s population, and predominantly practice the Shiite form of Islam in what is otherwise a Sunni-majority country. From the outset of the historical injustices and discrimination against the Hazaras, the community’s women and girls bore double suffering because of their ethnic and gender identities. In the first Taliban regime, Hazaras were the target of several massacres, such as one in August 1998 in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and in Bamiyan city and Yakawlang district, both in Bamiyan Province, in the early 2000s. Once again, in each of those cases, Hazara women were subjected to abductions, rape, forced marriage, and other sexual assaults.

After the U.S. invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 al-Qaeda terror attacks, Hazara women became more visible in public spaces. Over the intervening two decades, women’s participation in elections was highest in Hazara provinces. Dr. Sima Samar, a leading Hazara woman who has championed women’s health and girls’ education in Afghanistan for over four decades, was the Vice President of the Interim Government and the first Minister of Women’s Affairs. Afghanistan’s first female governor was Dr. Habiba Sarabi and the first female mayor was Azra Jafari, both Hazara women. Hazara women served in the Afghan army and police in large numbers. They were a leading voice in Afghanistan’s civil society and media.

Hazara women and girls in Bamiyan province in the late 2000s, sitting in a large group on and around crumbling walls, with mountains patched with snow in the background. (Photo by Muzafar Ali, courtesy of the authors)

Hazara women and girls in Bamiyan province in the late 2000s. (Photo by Muzafar Ali, courtesy of the authors)

Yet – and perhaps because of their advancements and expanded rights in society and positions of prominence – targeted violence continued against the Hazara community, with specific attacks directed against Hazara women and girls. Most often the perpetrators were the Taliban and  IS-Khorasan Province, the Afghanistan arm of the self-styled “Islamic State” extremist group, which has systematically attacked the Hazaras. Thousands of Hazaras were killed, injured, kidnapped, disappeared, and forcibly displaced over the two decades. Hazaras were targeted everywhere – at places of worship, education centers, weddings and other celebratory events, markets, social gatherings, sports halls, hospitals, voter registration centers, and work sites.

The gender dimensions of these attacks were seen in the killing of 22 Hazara mothers and infants at a maternity hospital in May 2020; an attack on Hazara girl students at Kawsar-e-Danesh Educational Centre in October 2020; a twin suicide bombing in May 2021 at Sayed-ul Shuhada, a Hazara girls’ school, killing at least 85 civilians (most of them women and girls) and injuring another 216; and a suicide attack on Kaaj Educational Centre in September 2022 that killed more than 35 Hazara girls and injured at least 82 others. The Hazara community inside and outside Afghanistan have for long called for the recognition of Hazara genocide, which they perceive as an important step in addressing recent and ongoing attacks against them.

During the U.S. and international evacuation efforts beginning in August 2021, as the Taliban again captured control of all of Afghanistan, many Hazara women leaders in civil society were left behind. Like other marginalized Afghan women without connections with foreign embassies or similar support networks, they were not included in evacuation lists. Hazara women and girls were more likely to have been active in grassroots movements than in Western-funded NGOs, many of which were run by women from Afghanistan’s majority groups. Today, they are hiding underground inside Afghanistan or live in devastating situations in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, with no opportunities for official resettlement as refugees, for example.

The Taliban’s Multifold Forms of Discrimination

The Taliban has enforced a system of gender discrimination in Afghanistan, severely restricting the basic rights and liberties of women and girls through a series of oppressive decrees, which have increasingly been described as gender apartheid.

The international community has shown solidarity with Afghan women in different forms, including by providing platforms and mechanisms to support women’s rights discourse. Recently, human rights lawyers and activists have been using the case of the Taliban’s  discriminatory gender policies to advocate for the recognition of gender apartheid as a crime in the Draft Treaty on Crimes Against Humanity.

But apartheid involves the segregation of and discrimination against a group on the grounds of their identity, and Hazara women form a unique social category within the Taliban’s gender apartheid. Hazara women are targeted on the grounds of both their gender and their ethnicity and religion. Therefore, discussions about the Taliban’s gender apartheid need to capture the intersectionality of Hazara women’s vulnerabilities.

The combination of their gender, ethnicity, and religious identity amplifies the discrimination Hazara women face, shaping the nature and severity of abuses inflicted upon them. This is evident in the harrowing accounts of arrested Hazara women. Mursal, who was detained by Taliban forces on Jan. 8, and held in custody for two to three nights, recounted to Zan Times that she was beaten with fists, cables, and feet and had her head submerged in water. One Taliban offender even taunted her with derogatory remarks, saying, “You are Hazara, you are not Muslim.” She lamented, “I will never forget that I was arrested for the crime of being a Hazara and being a woman.” Marzia, another Hazara woman who was detained on Jan. 2, reported being subjected to abuse and humiliation. A Taliban man pulled her hair and insulted her, calling her derogatory names like “prostitute” and “nasty Hazara.” These instances, along with the use of ethnic slurs, underscore the discriminatory aspects of the Taliban’s mistreatment of Hazara women.

The Taliban claimed that these detentions were for “bad hijabs,” yet both Mursal and Marzia were wearing hijabs, including covering their faces. Videos of similar arrests in Dasht-e-Barchi show women adhering to hijab. These incidents reveal a disturbing pattern of ethnic- and gender-based targeting, disguised as enforcing hijab regulations.

Hazara female protestors have also observed the starkly discriminatory behavior of the Taliban towards them compared with other female protestors. The Taliban’s treatment of women belonging to other vulnerable groups, including Hazara women and girls, is notably “harsher,” often involving a greater degree of violence, insults, and ethnic slurs. For Hazara women and girls, Taliban forces have often hurled derogatory labels at them, such as “prostitutes,” “ugly Hazara,” “infidels,” and “Western spies.” As one Hazara girl protester described her firsthand experience, the Taliban’s behavior is “not only misogynistic but also very clearly racial,” a reference to the ethnic element of the discrimination.

Despite their active participation in women’s protests, Hazara women remain underrepresented from the ranks of Afghan women representatives in high-level international platforms, conferences, and forums . Additionally, a Hazara women’s rights activist has expressed facing discrimination within the larger Afghan women’s rights groups, stating, “There is no hamdardi [solidarity] with Hazara women and we have faced tawhin [insult] and tahqir [humiliation].” This reveals the complex discriminatory behavior towards Hazara women, even in relatively safe spaces for women.

The Way Forward

To fully capture and address the situation of Hazara women in Afghanistan, the intersection of gender and ethnic discrimination needs to be more clearly recognized, acknowledged, and addressed in discussions on gender and ethnicity in Afghanistan. In the current context, this can be accomplished in several ways, including:

  1. Addressing intersectionality in gender apartheid: International campaigns and analyses advocating for the recognition of gender apartheid as a crime against humanity must account for the complexities of women’s intersecting identities. As noted above, such discussions have begun, and it is important to persist on this point. The case of Hazara women illustrates how overlooking these intersections can obscure the discrimination and unique forms of violence that specific groups of women face within an apartheid system.
  2. Representation in international women’s rights platforms: The devastating situation of women in Afghanistan is a litmus test for the international Women, Peace and Security agenda to protect women and girls in conflict and to increase their participation in security-related issues. It also tests the effectiveness of the international norms and mechanisms to protect the fundamental rights of women and girls. All actors advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan – State and non-State, U.N. mechanisms, and national and international civil society organizations — must adopt an inclusive approach. This entails ensuring the active participation of diverse groups of women in international forums, including Hazara women. Only through active presence, can Hazara women find agency, raise their voices, share their plight, and advocate for change.
  3. Hazara advocacy: Campaigns advocating for the recognition of Hazara genocide must incorporate a gender-sensitive approach. This entails acknowledging how gender shapes the specific targeting, forms of discrimination, and types of violence experienced by Hazara women and girls.
IMAGE: Afghan women display placards and chant slogans during a protest they call Stop Hazara genocide a day after a suicide bomb attack at Dasht-e-Barchi learning centre, in Kabul on October 1, 2022. Dozens of women from Afghanistan’s minority Hazara community protested in the capital October 1, after a suicide bombing a day earlier killed 20 people. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)