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Angelina Jolie urges support for jailed Afghan man who championed higher ed for girls

Matiullah Wesa, cofounder of the education charity PenPath in Afghanistan, speaks to children during a class next to his mobile library in a district of Kandahar Province. Wesa and his brother were among the Afghan men who have called for the Taliban to reverse its bans on higher education for girls. He was arrested in March and has been held in prison since then with no formal charges.
Sanaullah Seiam/AFP via Getty Images
Matiullah Wesa, cofounder of the education charity PenPath in Afghanistan, speaks to children during a class next to his mobile library in a district of Kandahar Province. Wesa and his brother were among the Afghan men who have called for the Taliban to reverse its bans on higher education for girls. He was arrested in March and has been held in prison since then with no formal charges.

On March 27, the Taliban arrested and jailed Afghan education activist Matiullah Wesa. The cofounder of a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting education in rural parts of Afghanistan, he had been speaking out to demand that the Taliban reverse their decisions in 2022 to close high schools for girls and ban girls from university.

The United Nations and various diplomats called for his release. High-profile media groups wrote about him and the outpouring of support for his case. According to the Associated Press, "the U.N. urged authorities in Kabul to clarify Wesa's whereabouts, reasons for his arrest and ensure his access to legal representation and contact with family."

Nearly five months later, Wesa is still in prison. Media attention has faded. And the Taliban has still not stated the reason for his arrest, although individual Taliban leaders have, on social media and local news channels, accused him of being a spy and working against the interest of the country.

Now Angelina Jolie is trying to bring his case back in the public eye. Last week, the actor and humanitarian activist sent an email letter to Wesa in care of his brother.

She wrote: "I know that you have dedicated over a decade of your life to helping Afghan children, particularly in rural areas, to have access to books and the means and the opportunity to go to school ... I add my voice, with humility, to those of everyone calling for your release, so that you can continue your important work, and for the lifting of all restrictions on education for girls."

Jolie also urged her 14 million Instagram followers to express support for Wesa: "You can leave your own message @penpathvolunteers."

'Brothers who bring them books'

As Jolie noted, Wesa has long advocated for better education for Afghan youth. In 2009, he and his brother Attaullah co-founded Penpath, a nongovernmental organization, to advocate for the reopening of schools in Afghanistan that had been closed due to decades of war.

The brothers would hop on their bikes and travel to remote districts of the country to try and convince tribal elders and others to reopen schools in their villages.

They often brought along books and school supplies donated by Afghan philanthropists, earning them the nickname "mobile librarians" or "brothers who bring them books."

"Our struggle has always been to ensure education for all Afghan children, no matter where they live or who they are," Attaullah Wesa explained to NPR.

Men who speak out for higher education for girls

Since the Taliban ban on girls' higher education, the work of Penpath has increasingly shifted to campaigning for restarting girls' schools. As Afghan women pushed back against Taliban restrictions on their freedoms, the Wesa brothers became some of the strongest supporters of this cause.

Since the Taliban's ban on higher education for girls, Matiullah Wesa has traveled around the country to call for an end to bans on education for girls. At a time when the Taliban is detaining and punishing those who publicly criticize them, he is one of the few men to take a public stand on this issue.

Wesa's brother Attaullah, who co-founded Penpath with his brother and now serves as the group's director, joined Matiullah in speaking out. Attaullah is now in hiding because of Taliban efforts to locate him. Taliban representatives came to his office and his home to search for him but he had received advance word and fled. Attaullah Wesa spoke to NPR from an undisclosed location. "They raided our home, detained and beat my other brothers, and have sought to arrest me," he said. "But they won't tell us what our crime is."

He told NPR he has spoken to his brother one time since his arrest, three weeks ago: "He is being held without any charges. No one was allowed meet him, not his family, nor a lawyer. He told me that he had been mistreated and beaten."

"We were among the few Afghan men who supported women openly and encouraged other men to join. And we have no regrets about it," Attahullah Wesa sad. "We believe it is their very basic right. It is not possible to raise a generation that can contribute to the nation's growth without educated women," he added.

Spokespeople for human rights groups told NPR they have seen a dearth of male support for women's causes in Afghanistan. They blame the Taliban for putting a damper on all forms of criticism.

"There was an order fairly early on by the Taliban had said they would imprison men if their women went out uncovered," pointed out Heather Barr, co-director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

That kind of sweeping statement had a chilling effect, said Barr.

"That order was an explicit articulation of what has been an unspoken theme throughout the Taliban's abuses — that every man is expected the enforcer of the Taliban's rules – and that failure to support the Taliban, or to speak out for the rights of women, will result in punishment," she said.

Samira Hamidi, an Afghan activist who is now based in the U.S., where she is a works for Amnesty International, agrees: "Critics who question the Taliban's draconian polices and restrictions continue to face the Taliban's repression, intimidation, abuse, arbitrary detention, torture, forced confession and long-time illegal imprisonment," she told NPR.

"Dozens of them had to make difficult choice of leaving the country after being abused by the Taliban," she added.

Matiullah Wesa and his brother chose to stay, despite the risk. "But looking at Wesa's arbitrary detention for the past four months, it is evident that the Taliban is not only waging war against women but also those men who challenge them," said Hamidi.

"A man promoting education and speaking against closure of girls schools is behind the bars. We need the whole world to speak for him and do not forget him," she said.

Will support from Angelina Jolie make a difference?

Attaullah said that his brother, in their one conversation, told him that the "time in jail is just another kind of a struggle that he must endure for what is right," he said.

"Matiullah said that [during interrogations] the Taliban even threatened to have him executed. He told them, 'I have no problem [with dying]. I'm willing to be killed, to stay imprisoned, because this is our struggle for our nation," Attaullah said.

"He is so strong," he added with a deep sense of admiration — one that was evident in Jolie's letter too, which calls for Wesa's release and lifting of all restrictions on education for girls.

The impact of Jolie's letter is impossible to determine. Even though it might seem an expression of support from a prominent woman in the West could backfire, human rights advocates believed that the letter could help draw attention to the arbitrary detention of Wesa and other Afghan activists without charges.

Jolie's letter concluded with a message of hope: "As the proverb says, "every dark night will end with a light morning."

Attaullah has not yet been able to share Jolie's letter with his imprisoned brother.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

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Ruchi Kumar