The Hazara’s Resilience against Taliban Persecution
Ali Kosha 26 February 2024

According to a 2022 Gallup survey, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the vast majority of the population, a staggering 92 percent of men and 96 percent of women, say they face hardships that make their lives sheer suffering. In this realm of agony, the Hazaras bear a disproportionate burden of suffering. And for Hazara women, the burden intensifies further.

The Hazara people speak Persian, practice mostly Shiia Islam, and make up about 20 percent of Afghanistan’s population. For most of Afghanistan’s history as a “state,” Hazaras have borne the brunt of being “the other” in the “Afghan nation,” because nationalism in Afghanistan is not an all-encompassing concept that includes all ethnic groups of the geography, but is based on Sunni Islam, Pashtun ethnic identity, and, to some extent, the Pashtu language. For the Hazaras, falling into the category of “the other” came at a high cost: genocide and loss of political autonomy in the 1890s, when Afghanistan was forcibly unified by the British-backed Amir Abdur Rahman, – also known as the “Iron Amir” for his brutality – followed by a century full of massacres and systematic persecution.

In the last two decades, when Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution at least theoretically guaranteed freedom and equal rights for all citizens, the Hazaras sought education as a last resort. Although Afghanistan’s education system fell far short of global standards, the Hazaras seemed to be thriving; nevertheless, the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups didn’t like it and continued to target the Hazaras, while the Afghan government failed to ensure the community’s safety. In the past few years, the Hazaras have been attacked everywhere, including educational centers, schools, sports clubs, and even maternity wards. With the return of the Taliban to power in 2021, the Hazaras face further ethnic and religious persecution.

The deteriorating situation of the Hazaras in Afghanistan has raised concerns of widespread abuse. Organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) have warned about potential mass atrocities against women and Hazaras and reiterated the need for urgent action. Some experts have described the current situation as “slow genocide,” underscoring the gravity of the ongoing threat.

The Taliban, armed to the teeth with US-supplied military equipment – intended for the collapsed Afghan army, emboldened by their “victory” and undeterred by the international community, have intensified their persecution of the Hazaras. Recently, the Taliban began arbitrarily detaining Hazara women and girls in the Hazara enclave of Dasht-e Barchi in western Kabul, and in Ghazni and Daikundi provinces for “not wearing the proper hijab.”

While the prevailing assumption is that the Taliban’s recent arbitrary detentions of Hazara women and girls stem from their extremist interpretation of Islam, particularly application of their draconian “Hijab Decree” of April 25, 2022, much evidence and testimony suggest that these detentions are motivated less by “hijab enforcement” and more by an intention to further marginalize and persecute the Hazaras.

According to Shah Gul Rezaie, a former member of the Afghan parliament, Hazara society, like other peoples of Afghanistan, is religious and people observe hijab by default. There is no one on the street without a hijab, and the Taliban’s arbitrary arrests have nothing to do with hijab or IslamImages from the detention centers show Taliban “policewomen” detaining fully covered women.

Human rights activist Tamana Rizaei, who has protested against the Taliban’s ban on women from work and education and the killing of Zainab Abdullah – a Hazara woman from west Kabul – by Taliban fighters, says the Taliban’s detention of Hazara women and girls is ethnically and religiously motivated to Reset DOC. Rizaie and the group of women she was protesting with were detained by the Taliban for nearly a month in 2022.

Explaining her position, Rizaei says, “Hazara women and girls, in their own way, resisted the Taliban’s infliction of terror and fear. The Taliban closed schools, but Hazara girls went to educational centers ordered to be segregated by gender. The Taliban said ‘Islamic hijab the way we [Taliban] say’, women and girls resignedly complied, but kept going to classes, with many trying to learn a foreign language and seek an education abroad. Then, when the Taliban realized they couldn’t stop the girls, they began arbitrarily detaining girls, accusing them of not wearing proper hijab. But hijab and Islam are excuses.”

Women’s rights activist Fariza Akbari, who also protested against the Taliban and was detained together with her husband at the same time as Rizaei in 2022, has a similar view of the Taliban’s detention of Hazara women and girls. Akbari says, “It is clear that the recent detentions are related with the girls’ Hazara ethnicity and their Shia faith.”

Akbari says that as her situation worsened during her detention, under interrogation, “I said I had committed no crime and wanted to be released. The Taliban interrogator said ‘You filthy Shiites are protesting against the Islamic Emirate and have to be punished’, in response to which I said I was not a Shiite and had converted to Sunni Islam years ago.” That, Akbari says, “instantly softened their tone”. Disclosing her faith might have softened the Taliban interrogators’ tone, but it did not save Akbari’s baby as she suffered a miscarriage after her release, which she believes happened only because she could not get the necessary the medical care she need while in detention.

Taliban detention was dreadful for Akbari and Rizaei. They were forced to fast during the day, pray at night and were sometimes punished for falling asleep. Rizaei says of the Taliban’s treatment of Hazaras, “The women Taliban are as brutal as the men Taliban.” She adds, “They did not even call us by our names, but by derogatory terms like filthy Hazara infidels.”

Rizaei and Akbari were released after confessing at gunpoint that they had been treated well and that their act of protest was wrong, and their families were forced to sign a guarantee that they would not protest again. They both confirm that the Taliban demanded copies of their families’ property deeds in addition to their IDs. Recent reports, however, indicate that the Taliban are demanding money for the release of women and girls.

Maryam, a student at Herat University, who prefers to be identified only by her first name, says, “The Taliban despise women and girls, and they despise Hazara women the most because, in their eyes, we [Hazara women] are born with four unforgivable sins: being Hazara, being a woman, being Shia, and wanting to get an education.” What she fears most is that “the Taliban may succeed in confining women to their homes by inflicting fear and violence on women and their families.”

A detailed account of the testimonies of three people held by the Taliban suggests that the group uses torture as the most common method of extracting confession, something both Rizaei and Akbari have also experienced.

While for many, arbitrary detention has irreversible psychological consequences, for many others it has cost their very lives, as women and girls who are detained by the Taliban are further stigmatized in society. According to Rina Amiri, the US Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls and Human Rights, “Some [of the detained women] who faced overnight imprisonment committed self-harm and suicide out of fear of dishonor.”

As for the Hazaras, the community’s rights are further threatened by the Taliban’s religious homogenizing policies that particularly target the religious freedom of Shia Hazaras. In early 2023, the Taliban removed Shia theology – taught at universities in Hazara-dominated provinces like Bamiyan – from the curriculum. Later, they ordered private universities to cleanse their libraries of non-Sunni Islamic texts, including Shia and other religious books.

The Taliban’s minister of higher education denied in a speech that Afghanistan was a country of multiple religions, saying “all [the people] are followers of Hanafi [the main branch of Sunni] Islam.” In a similar move, the Taliban governor of Herat, Noor Ahmad Islam Jar, in his recent book in Arabic, Research on the Māturīdiyyah Doctrine, describes Shiites as “infidels” and long-term “collaborators with the infidels”. All of this, along with the Taliban’s huge investments in Sunni jihadist madrasas will hardly leave any space for religious freedom.

The Hazaras have long faced insecurity. Months before the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the community faced unprecedented levels of violence. A United Nations report documented 20 violent attacks against them in the first half of 2021 alone.

The Taliban, who committed several massacres of Hazara civilians during their first time in power, began their return to power by killing and displacing Hazaras. When they took over parts of Ghazni province in July 2021, the Taliban killed 9 Hazaras. Months after taking over the entire country, they killed 13 Hazaras, including an teenage girl in Daikundi province. At the same time, the Taliban forcibly displaced Hazara villagers in several villages in Daikundi and later in other villages, including in Ghor, Daikundi, and Urozgan provinces.

Since the return of the Taliban, hundreds of Hazaras have been killed or injured in attacks claimed by ISIS across the country. The Taliban, as the “de facto authorities,” have not faltered in tolerating these attacks and continue to persecute the Hazaras. In the past two years, in cases of disputes between Hazara villagers and the Pashtun Kuchi nomads who move to parts of Hazara regions with their sheep flocks in spring, the Taliban have always sided with the Kuchis, forcing the Hazaras to pay extremely high amounts as arbitrary “compensations.”

According to reports, in 2023, Pashtun residents in the Urozgan-e Khas district of Urozgan province destroyed the property of their Hazara neighbors, cut down their fruit trees, torched their houses, and set fire to their wheat crops. These acts of violence and abuse, according to locals, were carried out in coordination with the Taliban.



Cover photo: Members of the Afghan Hazara community hold placards during a protest against the suicide bombing at a university in Afghanistan on September 30, in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad on October 8, 2022. Photo by Aamir Qureshi / AFP.

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