Human rights activist Malala Yousafzai brought fresh energy and new attention to the fight against gender apartheid in Afghanistan with a lecture and panel discussion featuring Michigan Law Professor Karima Bennoune, ’94.

Yousafzai delivered the 21st Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg on December 5, and then led a conversation with Bennoune and three other panelists discussing the situation in Afghanistan. Bennoune, the Lewis M. Simes Professor of Law, has been among the leaders in the movement to classify the Taliban’s treatment of women as a form of apartheid that demands international action

Interior shot of Nelson Mandela's office, featuring three people: one sitting at the desk and two standing nearby.
Professor Karima Bennoune, right, poses with activists Malala Yousafzai, center, and Metra Mehran in Nelson Mandela’s office.

“What has been tried…isn’t working”

In the lecture, sponsored by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Yousafzai argued for using the term “gender apartheid” and said the global community must not accept the situation in Afghanistan. “I call on every government in every country to make gender apartheid a crime against humanity,” she said, adding that such language should be included in a United Nations treaty currently being drafted.

In the panel discussion following her speech—which also included children’s rights activist (and Mandela’s widow) Graça Machel, National Assembly of South Africa member Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, and Afghan human rights activist Metra Mehran—Yousafzai asked Bennoune, the only lawyer on the panel, why it is important to codify gender apartheid in international law.

“What has been tried since the Taliban took power isn’t working,” Bennoune said in part. “Gender apartheid emphasizes that discrimination has become the system of government.

“It clarifies the legal obligation of other states to take effective action,” she continued. “A gender apartheid approach would mean, as was the case with racial apartheid in South Africa, that it is not legal for any state to be complicit with the Taliban’s illegal actions. There can be no recognition of the Taliban, at least until they end their system of gender apartheid.”

Bennoune also discussed roadblocks to such recognition as well as possible solutions, such as applying existing apartheid law with a gender-inclusive interpretation appropriate to the 21st century.

Applying painful lessons to new problems

Following the event, Bennoune reflected on its importance: "There are no words to adequately explain what it was like to take part in a Nelson Mandela Foundation event, on the 10th anniversary of his passing, with his brilliant widow, Graça Machel, and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, as well as a member of the South African parliament and an inspiring Afghan activist. 

“South Africans drew from the pain of their own history of racial apartheid to reach out in solidarity with Afghan women who are currently experiencing gender apartheid. Malala Yousafzai used the occasion of her Nelson Mandela speech to call on the world to codify gender apartheid so Afghan women have the tools they need to tackle the Taliban's oppression. As an international law professor, I was reminded of the power of legal claims when partnered with social movements and principled human rights activism. I wish I could have brought my students with me."

Bennoune’s work—including a landmark paper in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review—is part of a global campaign to end gender apartheid in Afghanistan. The campaign has drawn widespread media attention, and Bennoune has participated in many events organized by human rights organizations and academic institutions. In September, she addressed the UN Security Council on the issue.

Yousafzai, the 2014 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a human-rights and education activist who founded Malala Fund, which works toward “a world where all girls can learn and lead.” The Nelson Mandela Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on the legacy of the late South African leader and anti-apartheid activist, dedicated to “his lifelong vision of freedom and equality for all.”

Banner image: From left, Malala Yousafzai, Afghan human rights advocate Metra Mehran, Malala Fund staffer Humaira Waikili, Professor Karima Bennoune, and Ziauddin Yousafzai (Malala’s father) at the Nelson Mandela Foundation offices.