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International Gender Equality Prize Awarded to Afghan Activist Ignites Debate

Award for Mahbouba Seraj

In a ceremony held in Tampere, Finland, on December 11, prominent Afghan women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj received the International Gender Equality Prize, sparking controversy and reflection on the future of women’s rights under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Seraj, known for her persistent advocacy for women’s rights and her decision to remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover, shared a bittersweet acceptance speech, acknowledging the potential backlash in her home country.

More controversy

The controversy surrounding Seraj was further fueled by her exclusion from the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize, an incident she attributed to the stance she took regarding the Taliban. Despite the recognition from Finland, the Nobel committee’s handling of the situation left Seraj feeling betrayed by her own people. Notably, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo had shortlisted her for the prize alongside Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi for their efforts in advancing women’s rights, but only Mohammadi ultimately received the honor.

Biggest Taliban lobbyist

Seraj’s unique position as one of the few Afghan women activists who chose to stay after the Taliban’s ascent has generated mixed reactions. While she actively operates a shelter aiding women facing domestic violence, her approach involves cooperating with the Taliban, earning her the label of the “biggest Taliban lobbyist” by some critics. Seraj emphasized the necessity of working with the Taliban, acknowledging the challenges in dealing with authorities who vary in their willingness to engage.

Finland’s International Gender Equality Prize, accompanied by a €300,000 cash award, serves as a reminder that the global community has not forgotten Afghan women, especially in a country currently ranked as the worst for women’s well-being. The prize will be allocated to support Seraj’s shelter, enabling her to continue her crucial work.

However, the decision to award Seraj has sparked confusion among some Afghan politicians, who question the international community’s stance on the future of Afghanistan. A sense of ambiguity surrounds whether the support should be directed towards Afghan women in distress or if there’s an attempt to engage with the Taliban authorities indirectly through figures like Seraj.

Katri Viinikka, Finland’s ambassador for gender equality, defended the award, highlighting that the independent committee’s selection acknowledges the difficult balance between assisting Afghan women and avoiding legitimizing the Taliban. Seraj’s pragmatic approach aligns with the necessity to deliver aid while understanding the challenges faced by Afghans inside the country.

Hope

Seraj remains hopeful for positive developments in the coming months but emphasizes that Afghans themselves must play a crucial role in resolving their country’s multifaceted challenges. As the international community grapples with its approach, Seraj advocates for open and honest dialogue with the Taliban, addressing the erasure of Afghan women from public life, and hopes that the world will not forget their plight.

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