By Malali Bashir
Nargis Momand Hasanzai
February 10, 2023
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
When the Taliban seized power in August 2021, hundreds of women’s rights activists fled Afghanistan, fearing reprisals from the militant group. But Mahbouba Seraj, one of the most prominent rights campaigners in the country, refused to leave, even though she holds a U.S. passport.
Despite intimidation from the Taliban, the 75-year-old has continued to advocate for the rights of women and girls and operate a network of shelters for women fleeing domestic abuse.
During the last 16 months, the hard-line Islamist group has imposed severe restrictions on women’s appearances, freedom of movement, and their right to work and receive an education.
The Taliban has also waged a brutal crackdown on dissent that has targeted human rights defenders, women activists, journalists, and intellectuals. The militants have violently dispersed peaceful protests staged by women demanding their basic rights.
Seraj has called for engagement with the Taliban’s internationally unrecognized government, a view that has attracted criticism from some Afghans.
Seraj’s work and courage were recognized when she was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month. She was nominated jointly with Narges Mohammadi, the jailed Iranian human rights activist and lawyer. The winner is expected to be announced in October.
In announcing the nominees on February 1, the Peace Research Institute Oslo said both women have shone “a spotlight on the nonviolent struggle for human rights” and are “highly deserving nominees to share the prize, based on their tireless efforts to improve women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan.”
Seraj told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi that winning the prize would be a “great honor for me and for Afghanistan.”
“This nomination is the result of all the sacrifices and efforts of Afghan women,” she said. “From the girls who have taken to the streets of Afghanistan and raised their voices to those who have lost their lives, been imprisoned, or suffered.”
Many Afghan women have praised Seraj for standing up to the Taliban and fighting for the rights of women and girls.
“Women who work in these difficult circumstances inside Afghanistan deserve to be acknowledged,” Samira, a Kabul-based rights activist who did not want to reveal her full name for fear of retribution, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
Halima Kazem, an Afghan-American historian at Stanford University, said Seraj’s nomination has put an “important spotlight on the fight that women and girls in Afghanistan are waging against the Taliban and other societal pressures.”
Seraj has been outspoken in her criticism of the Taliban’s policies on women in her appearances in international media and forums, which Kazem said has energized “resistance by women in Afghanistan and mobilized support abroad.”
Still, Seraj has called for dialogue with the militant group, saying there is no choice but to talk to Afghanistan’s new rulers.
“The problem is not going to be solved if we don’t sit down and talk,” she told Radio Azadi. “We must have a country in which we can all live in.”
Her views run contrary to some Afghans who have called for the international community to further isolate and punish the Taliban.
Seraj hit back at her critics, saying engagement with the Taliban is the only way to ease the devastating humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan.
“Do you have any other suggestions?” she asked. “Or do you want all of us to die here in Afghanistan?”
Seraj is the niece of reformist Afghan King Amanullah Khan, who won independence from Britain in 1919 and ruled until 1929. Her career as a journalist, humanitarian, and activist spans more than four decades. She has not left Afghanistan since 2003, when she returned to her homeland after 26 years in exile in the United States.
She founded and ran various organizations, such as the nonprofit Afghan Women’s Network, the Organization for Research in Peace and Solidarity, and the Afghan Women Skills Development Center. The latter runs shelters for vulnerable Afghan women and children fleeing domestic abuse.
Local and foreign NGOs have come under mounting pressure from the Taliban, which has forced many of them to either shut down or restrict their operations.
But Seraj has been able to convince the Taliban to allow her to continue some of her activities, even as she protests the group’s restrictions on women.
“It is a brave act of resistance,” said Mariam Atash, an Afghan-American lawyer and women’s rights campaigner.