Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

As the two-year mark of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 15 approaches, we revisit a particularly moving panel discussion from the 2nd Annual Vital Voices Festival centered around gender apartheid in Afghanistan and Iran featuring Afghan Women’s Rights Activist Metra Mehran and Iranian Actress & Activist Sepideh Moafi. The two sat in conversation with renowned Iraqi Women’s Rights Activist and Vital Voices Board Member Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International and cofounder of Daughters for Earth.

Salbi, opened the discussion by explaining the genesis of the End Gender Apartheid movement as a campaign created by Afghan and Iranian women from inside and outside of these two countries demanding an end to systemic oppressions that quell their freedom and dignity. They also demand that the international community join their calls for justice reform.

Afghan and Iranian women are currently experiencing gender apartheid in the severest of forms.

“There was an official definition for systematic oppression from institutionalized racism in South Africa that defined it as apartheid. That definition caused outside countries to boycott, divest, and, essentially, shame and isolate the apartheid regime, which helped the internal struggle for nonwhite South Africans and, ultimately, led to the toppling of the apartheid regime. Similarly, in Iran – with the Islamic Republic and Afghanistan with the Taliban – these are two extreme governments that systematically oppress women,” explained Moafi. “We’re long overdue calling it what it is, gender apartheid,” said Moafi.

Moafi noted that it’s essential  for the international community to know that the apartheid happening in Afghanistan and Iran is beyond a cultural or religious matter. 

“In both Iran and Afghanistan, women are sacrificing and risking everything to demand their freedoms, they are pouring their bodies out onto the streets demanding a right to education, gender equality, bodily autonomy, a right to their freedoms and they are met with brutal tactics, violence, they are being imprisoned, they’re tortured, raped and even killed. So I think that it’s an insult to sort of dismiss this as a sort of cultural norm,” said Moafi. 

Mehran agreed. 

“This is not an individual act, but it’s a part of the governing system in those countries,” said Mehran. “In Afghanistan in the past 18 months, around 45 decrees have been issued by the Taliban to limit freedom and basic human rights of women in Afghanistan,” said Mehran on the May 5, 2023 panel. “Women in Afghanistan are basically dehumanized, which means they don’t have access to education, they are not allowed to work, they don’t have freedom of movement, they don’t have access to services,” said Mehran. 

Mehran is calling for these structural systems that support gross inequities that cripple women, girls and entire societies to not only be condemned by international governing bodies, but to be criminalized.

How can this be accomplished? Apartheid standards in international law, developed primarily in the 20th century, were designed to address racial apartheid, hence the reference to South Africa above. A coalition of Iranian and Afghan legal experts, activists, and women leaders worldwide across the world, including Mehran, Moafi and Salbi, are calling for the definition of apartheid under international law to be interpreted to include gender hierarchies, not just racial hierarchies. Through the End Gender Apartheid campaign, they seek to expand the set of moral, political and legal tools available to mobilize international action against and ultimately end systems of gender apartheid.

“It’s a very right time, women, both in Iran and Afghanistan are protesting, demanding justice,” said Mehran. 

We're not asking you to save us, we're asking you to stop saving our oppressors.” - Sepidah Moafi quoting a renowned human rights activist.

  • Listen to the full discussion on Apple Podcasts
  • Watch the full discussion on C-SPAN or the Vital Voices YouTube Channel
  • Watch Metra Mehran’s Story: Escaping the Taliban in Afghanistan

Listen to the episode: