In Afghanistan earlier this week, another female leader came under attack. Shukria Barakzai, an outspoken and high-profile member of Afghanistan’s parliament, narrowly escaped death when a suicide bomber rammed her armored car as she headed to work. At least three people were killed and many injured, but Barakzai escaped with only minor injuries. No stranger to death threats and assassination attempts, Barakzai has experienced several near misses during her many years as an activist and politician, and she readily accepts the personal risks she faces on a daily basis.
When I interviewed Barakzai several years ago in her parliamentary office in Kabul, she matter-of-factly acknowledged that she is on the Taliban’s assassination list. “I don’t care,” she insisted. “I would be proud to die for my country.” Knowing that she has three young daughters, I pushed her on this sentiment, but she replied without hesitation, “I love my country and my people even more than my girls. Maybe in the future my children will be proud of their mother and understand that I am working for my beliefs on behalf of all the children of Afghanistan.”
Barakzai’s steely determination is not unique. I’ve interviewed scores of women leaders from across the region, from Libya and Yemen to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who echo a similar message. They are willing to lay down their lives in the fight against extremism.
Too many of them do. Earlier this year, extremists in Libya assassinated Salwa Bugaighis, a leading civil society activist and human rights lawyer who was particularly outspoken on women’s rights. In Somalia in July, al-Shabab assassinated Saado Ali Warsame, a popular singer-turned-parliamentarian, for her politics. In Iraq, ISIS has also targeted women leaders. In mid-September, the group publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a lawyer and human rights activist, and then, in October, it killed Iman Mohammed Younis al-Salman, a Turkmen former lawmaker from Ninevah. In Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai was only fifteen years old when the Taliban tried to kill her for speaking out on behalf of girls’ education.
Afghan women have paid a particularly high price for simply trying to change the narrative on women’s role in society. Dozens of women leaders, like Lieutenant Islam Bibi, Afghanistan’s most senior female police officer at the time, have been gunned down, often on their way to work. The assassination of women leaders reverberates far beyond the personal tragedy. Picking off women who have risen to prominence aims to silence not only this generation, but the next as well. While in terms of sheer numbers, men make up the majority of victims of extremist terror campaigns, the impact of assassinating women leaders is compounded by the fact that there are fewer of them. Female politicians—and the women doctors, civil society activists, entrepreneurs, journalists, and others who dare to lead—are targeted precisely because they refuse to conform to extremists’ medieval demands for submission.
As the United States draws down its troops in Afghanistan, expect Taliban attacks on women to increase. These attacks, like much else the Taliban does, will sow terror but generate little public sympathy for their extremist ideologies. As the recent 2014 Asia Foundation Survey of the Afghan People (its tenth nationwide public opinion survey in Afghanistan) notes, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of Afghans support the right of women to work outside the home. Not surprisingly, survey results indicate that in recent years, substantially more women are seeking employment outside the home and a growing number of Afghans acknowledge that female members of their family contribute to household income (22.4 percent in 2014, up from 13.9 percent in 2009).
The political arena, however, remains a tough place for Afghan women. More Afghans (46.1 percent) believe that political positions in government should be mostly for men than believe such positions should be shared equally between men and women (42.1 percent). The right of women to serve in parliament has been a contested issue from the earliest days of the country’s 2004 constitution, which reserved a quarter of parliamentary seats for women. Last year, opponents of this quota spearheaded a movement to eliminate it. Due to the efforts of activists and committed female politicians such as Shukria Barakzai, the quota was retained, although it was reduced from 25 percent to 20 percent.
Despite the challenges, Barakzai and her determined female colleagues in parliament will continue to champion rights for women in the face of real security threats. As Fawzia Koofi, another indomitable female parliamentarian who has survived assassination attempts, said in an interview earlier this year: “You cannot talk about women’s education, women’s economic empowerment, and social empowerment without their political participation. So for any young woman, I would encourage them to have the courage to put herself forward.”