"Right now, millions of Afghan girls are effectively imprisoned. But they fight on; calling for justice, calling for the world to stand with them. They are the heroes the history books can teach us about. We must be their champions, until they are free."
Johannesburg, South Africa
Good afternoon, everyone. Distinguished guests, Professor Ndebele (IN-DE-BEAR-LAY) and the Nelson Mandela Foundation Team, it is an honour to be here. This is my first visit to South Africa and you have made it very special.
Graça Machel, it is a particular honour to be with you. Thank you for fighting for girls and women everywhere, and for always championing the voices of young people.
Thank you to everyone here with me today, and to all those listening online from around the world.
And thank you to the activists and experts who will be joining us in conversation after my speech.
I know I am here to give a lecture, but you all know me—I will always be a student first.
It is as students that we first open our eyes to injustice.
It is as students that we first ask difficult questions about the world.
It is as students that we first find friends who embolden us to speak out.
So when I thought about what I want to share with you today, and what it means to lead for a just future, I approached the assignment not as a lecturer but as a student.
And with Mandela’s legacy in mind, I asked myself: What injustice is the world overlooking? Where are we allowing inhumanity to become the status quo?
The answer for me was very clear, and very personal: the oppression of girls and women in Afghanistan.
My family and I know how it feels to live under the Taliban ideology.
At 11, I was banned from school.
At 15, I was shot and nearly killed for standing up for my right to receive an education.
We were always looking over our shoulders.
Nelson Mandela and his fellow South Africans knew that feeling well.
And their resilience and collective action in the face of injustice can inspire us.
Just two years ago, women in Afghanistan were working, serving in leadership positions, running ministries, travelling freely.
Girls of all ages were playing soccer and cricket, and learning in schools.
Though all was not perfect, there was progress. And fundamentally, girls and women had opportunities, they had choice, they had agency.
Then, the Taliban seized power a second time.
As they did in the 1990s, they quickly began the systematic oppression of girls and women.
For a short time, this made headlines.
But since then, the world has turned its back on the Afghan people.
Maybe this reflects the sheer number of crises the world is facing:
Violence and displacement in Sudan…
Famine in Yemen…
The climate crisis being debated right now at COP28…
War in Ukraine…
And of course, the unjust bombardment of Gaza… where a child is killed. Every. 10. Minutes.
So much of humanity is wounded.
But we cannot allow ourselves to buy into the false notion that we can only care about one crisis at a time.
We must be able to hold space for suffering wherever it is happening in the world.
So today, I would like to bring attention back to the girls of Afghanistan, whose suffering has been sidelined.
Our first imperative is to call the regime in Afghanistan what it really is.
It is a gender apartheid.
We know that gender-based discrimination exists in every country.
Gender-based persecution exists in many countries.
But gender apartheid is different.
Apartheid is a system that is imposed and enforced by those in power—the very people who are supposed to protect their citizens.
In South Africa, defenders of such a system insisted that it was somehow the natural order of things to segregate whites from non-whites.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, the Taliban say that oppressing girls and women is a matter of religion.
So let me say this as plainly as possible: that is only an excuse, but it is also not true.
Many Muslim scholars, including from Afghanistan, have made clear that Islam does not condone denying girls and women their right to education and to work.
But the Taliban are not interested in the truth. They are interested in maintaining power. And they will use any excuse, from culture to security, to justify their actions.
In the name of their false vision, they have introduced more than 80 decrees and edicts restricting girls’ and women’s rights.
If you are a girl in Afghanistan, the Taliban has decided your future for you.
You cannot attend a secondary school or university.
You cannot find an open library where you can read.
You see your mothers and your older sisters confined and constrained in a similar way.
They cannot leave the house on their own.
Not to work.
Not to go to the park.
Not to get a haircut.
Not to even see a doctor.
And the punishment for doing these very ordinary, everyday things is severe: Indefinite detention. Forced marriage. Beating. Death.
In effect, the Taliban have made girlhood illegal.
And it is taking a toll.
Girls kept out of school are experiencing depression and anxiety.
Some are turning to narcotics, attempting suicide.
No girl, anywhere in the world, should have to suffer this way.
If we, as a global community, accept the Taliban’s edicts, we will send a devastating message to girls everywhere: That they are less human. That your rights are up for debate. That we are willing to look away.
There is another reason to call this gender apartheid.
Apartheid is more than just a description; it is a legal concept.
South Africans fought for racial apartheid to be recognised and criminalised at the international level.
In the process, they drew more of the world’s attention to the horrors of apartheid.
More people joined the anti-apartheid campaign, driving political and cultural change.
By defining systemic oppression in legal terms, they named it and made it easier to enlist allies against it.
But gender apartheid has not been explicitly codified yet.
That is why I call on every government, in every country, to make gender apartheid a crime against humanity.
We have an opportunity to do that right now.
The UN is currently drafting and debating a new Crimes Against Humanity Treaty.
This is the moment for world leaders to stand with Afghan girls and women.
Adding and adopting language on gender apartheid to the treaty would codify it under the international law.
Member states like South Africa can play an important role in championing this cause.
This legal approach might seem disconnected from everyday lives and human suffering.
But the international law is not an abstraction. It is a practical tool.
It is a way to protect the oppressed.
It is a way to hold the Taliban to account—and to hold anyone who helps them legally complicit.
And, as we saw with South Africa, it can spur and strengthen collective action.
In these ways, codification will help prevent gender apartheid from happening elsewhere.
It will send a strong message of support to the girls and women of Afghanistan who have been demanding this: That we hear them. That we will not let them fight alone.
I want you to know about Hanifa, a 16-year-old girl from northern Afghanistan.
When the Taliban pushed girls out of secondary school, Hanifa was stuck at home, feeling like the walls were closing in.
She took matters into her own hands, gathered her friends and their sisters in her living room to teach them English and maths in secret.
I want you to know about Zarqa Yaftali, a researcher and human rights advocate.
Three years ago, Zarqa warned the UN that if the Taliban returned, girls’ and women’s rights would be crushed.
Zarqa’s worst fears were confirmed and she was forced into exile.
But she is not giving up. She is helping build the case for codifying gender apartheid. It is time for all of us to stand with her.
Hanifa and Zarqa are two of many Afghans rising up—as Madiba did—against injustice.
But they cannot do this alone—nor should they have to.
As we press to make gender apartheid a crime against humanity, there is more we can do now.
First, international actors must resist normalising relations with the Taliban.
This includes governments, conference organisers, and UN officials engaging with the Taliban as if they were just another partner. This also means companies seeking to make business deals with them.
Those who prioritise political or financial gains over human rights are condoning gender apartheid.
If we want to send a clear signal that the world stands against apartheid, we cannot allow any cracks in our resolve.
This is important, because despite appearances, the Taliban are not immune to international pressure.
Last spring, they unjustly detained Matiullah Wesa, a champion for girls’ education. But activists in Afghanistan and around the world rallied around his case, and eventually, he was released.
If it weren’t for the international pressure, we may never have seen him again.
Second, we must find and create ways to bring education to Afghan girls at home.
Afghan organisations and international partners are already piloting digital learning platforms, science and maths lessons on TV and radio, and interactive lectures via SMS and social media.
We need philanthropists and institutions to fund these innovations, which is the only way that Afghan girls are going to learn while they are banned from going to school.
Finally, we must build a global movement against gender apartheid.
Student groups, feminist campaigners, religious leaders and other human rights activists have a big role to play in building public pressure.
As the South African scholar Penny Andrews told me in a recent conversation, student activism was the heartbeat of the anti-apartheid movement.
I was reminded of it on my visit to the Apartheid Museum this week where I saw images of the 1976 Soweto uprising.
It was in response to that brutality that young people around the world spoke out in solidarity with their fellow students to pressure individuals and institutions to take action.
Now, as then, students and activists everywhere must spread the word about atrocities happening in Afghanistan, and make this cause their own.
It took a bullet to my head for the world to stand with me. What will it take for the world to stand with the girls and women of Afghanistan?
To anyone who says they care about protecting girls and women, to anyone who says they care about education, to anyone who says they care about oppression…
What are you waiting for?
The case could not be clearer.
Right now, millions of Afghan girls are effectively imprisoned. But they fight on; calling for justice, calling for the world to stand with them.
They are the heroes the history books can teach us about.
We must be their champions, until they are free.