Vancouver protest speaks out against oppression of women in Afghanistan

The protest called on the government to sanction the Taliban

This is a photo of the protests outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The protestors are standing on the steps, holding a microphone, looking out to the crowd.
PHOTO: Olivia Sherman / The Peak

By: Olivia Sherman, SFU Student

Activists and allies gathered on the corner of Georgia and Hornby in Vancouver on January 8. The protest at the Vancouver Art Gallery was organized by Afghan activist and journalist Humaira Saqib, in partnership with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.  

Saqib looked at the crowd, and said, “Everywhere is silent [ . . . ] We should scream!” Saqib then led the crowd in a series of cheers: “Recognize gender apartheid in Afghanistan! Sanction Taliban!”

A large gathering of people had rallied to show support for the women of Afghanistan. After America’s military withdrawal from the decades-long war in Afghanistan, the Taliban took over the government in 2021. Since then, women’s rights in Afghanistan have steeply declined: women are forced to cover their faces at all times, are required to be accompanied by a male escort, and are not permitted to get a job. In December 2022, the Taliban banned women and girls from attending school. “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights,” declared Saqib.

Dr. Lauryn Oates is the executive director for Canadian Women For Women in Afghanistan, an organization that provides outreach for vulnerable families and women. The Taliban claimed their new regime was different from regimes of the past, and that women’s freedoms would remain intact. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled with extremely strict mandates of sharia law. When the Taliban returned to power in 2022, scholars noted their effort to improve their public image, although they have ultimately not changed their fundamental beliefs. Mandates against women’s rights quickly began rolling out, as well as the enforcers of these mandates. “The Taliban literally want women to disappear. They want them to have no visibility in public life whatsoever,” said Dr. Oates, who worked in Afghanistan for many years providing outreach and educational opportunities.

Many protestors called for solidarity and support from non-Afghans. “This is not just a woman’s problem. This is not just a feminist issue, a gender equality issue. It’s not an Afghan problem. It’s not a Muslim problem. It’s a human problem.” Dr. Oates continued, “You don’t need to be Afghan to stand with Afghans, you just need to be human, and to recognize that other humans, just like you, are in need right now.”

The protest was also calling on the Canadian government to intervene and further sanction the Taliban. According to Open Canada, the Canadian government spent $18 billion on warfare in Afghanistan, and over 40,000 Canadian troops served from 2001 to 2014. Canada’s sudden withdrawal after two decades of action proved catastrophic for women’s rights. This protest called for more action from the Canadian government against the Taliban. 

“To the Taliban, violence, misogyny, hate, oppression are not a means to an end. They are both the means and the end,” said Oates. “They don’t care about the statements of condemnation, they don’t care about the finger-wagging [ . . . ] The silence of the world has been absolutely deafening.” 

“We cannot forget what is happening in Afghanistan, because the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place in Afghanistan will only get worse,” said Taleeb Noormohamed, BC’s first Muslim member of parliament, who showed solidarity at the demonstration. He noted, “It will only get worse if the Taliban are allowed to continue to behave as they are, to act as they are.” 

Activist and poet Sahar Maqsoodi read an original poem at the protest. “Do not take my identity. I am a woman. I know who I am and what I deserve,” said Maqsoodi.

Dr. Lauryn Oates concluded, “That’s what human rights are about, that’s what agency is: the idea that you can do anything, and believing in one’s self. That every human being, everywhere in the world, deserves to have the right to have those dreams. To do whatever they want.”