On 29th November, Women in War and International Peace (WIWIP) and Peace for Asia co-hosted an event titled “Afghanistan: Human Rights Safeguards and Perspectives on Reconstruction. Based at Kings College London War Studies Department, WIWIP’s research focuses on gender and its implications in war, conflict, foreign policy, and security practices. The speakers included Dr Amanda Chisholm, Dr Rita Anwari (President Peace for Asia and Founder, Women Empowerment and Leadership) and Sahar Fetrat (Researcher, Human Rights Watch). Born in Afghanistan, Rita and Sahar shared their personal experiences and their experience working to highlight the challenges faced by Afghan women. Both Rita and Sahar share similar experiences across different temporal phases as Rita left Afghanistan in the pre-Taliban Mujahideen conflict era and Sahar had to leave Afghanistan after the recent Taliban takeover. An entire generation of Afghans grew up in these years but Afghanistan remains at crossroads.
The discussion was chaired by Prof. Amanda, Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, Kings College London, whose research lies at the intersection of gender, political economy, and security studies. At present, Dr Amanda also heads the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies section of the International Studies Association.
The Taliban’s Gender Apartheid
At present, Afghanistan faces a Gender Apartheid. The prevailing conditions in Afghanistan are sufficient to conclude that the nation meets all parameters of apartheid on women. Afghan women are alone in this fight.
Soon after the US launched the War on Terror, women’s empowerment emerged as one of the main agendas of the international community. The memory of the Taliban’s atrocities and their treatment of women was fresh and there were hopes that the United Nations and the western allies would enable Afghanistan to emerge as a model of social equality and political stability. There was no dearth of promises of aid and institutional support to women from the international community as it was felt that women’s empowerment, besides addressing the challenges of social mobility and representation would also control radicalization in the longer run. For almost two decades, assurances came from no less than heads of states and international organizations, who successfully sold this utopia to Afghan women. Hopes were belied after the US decided to withdraw from Afghanistan and handed over the nation’s destiny to the Taliban. The alienation of Afghans has been accentuated by certain leading international media channels that reproduce the colonial and present-day stereotypes of Afghanistan, mainly the narrative that war is a natural part of Afghan identity. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, neither Afghanistan nor Afghan women appear to be a priority issue for the international community.
Sahar highlighted that notwithstanding the shortcomings, there was an institutional structure that allowed women some degree of politico-economic liberty under the post-9/11 elected regime. Between 2002 and 2021, many Afghan women became policymakers, judges, law enforcement officials and media personalities. For the international community, it would be difficult to understand the intensity of Human Rights violations and humiliation Afghan women face at present since the Taliban have curtailed information on these issues. Afghan journalists are subjected to violence and intimidation for documenting the state of women’s rights. Since coming to power, the Taliban issued over 30 decrees and most of them specifically target women. The intent is to ensure that women disappear from public life.
Ban on Girls’ education
We fear that we may not see Afghan girls finish their higher secondary education. Sahar pointed out that except for Balkh, girls’ schools have been abolished. Those continuing education are subject to strict social policing by the Taliban regarding the dress code and prevention of any interaction with the males. The ban on female teachers has affected girls and boys alike. Many Afghans have defied this ban by opening secret underground schools for girls. This is a welcome step since it ensures continuity of education opportunities for some students but this is not a solution especially when such schools operate under constant threat and hundreds of thousands of girls remain out of school across Afghanistan. The Taliban’s present focus seems to be rather on expanding the Madrassas that it intends to use to perpetuate its ideology.
Thus, we risk losing out an entire generation of women owing to the Taliban’s whims. Female civil society activists have been asked to leave their jobs and instead, their male family members are invited to fill in these roles. Taking women’s jobs and transferring them to their male family members is one way the Taliban is attempting to impose male guardianship over women, in addition to restricting women’s movement without Mehram. There is even evidence that in the absence of female doctors, instances of male doctors refusing to examine female patients are growing. Women are also being prohibited from registering Non-Governmental Organizations focusing on social empowerment. In face of such restrictions, it is commendable that women have still managed to make their anguish felt through innovative ways of public protests against the Taliban.
The other aspect of the Taliban’s totalitarianism is reflected in the flogging of women in public spaces.
Despite these challenges, Afghan women have managed to assert themselves through protests and communicating with the international community, urging the latter to act before it is too late for them. It would not be wrong to argue that women’s protests are a big reason why the Taliban is not being given any diplomatic recognition worldwide.
Overall the media coverage inside Afghanistan is tightly controlled and it is difficult to estimate the oppression women face. International correspondents are detained for covering the state of affairs in the country.
Evading responsibility for women’s rights
It is important to capture the shift in the Taliban’s attitude towards women. It must be recalled that when the negotiations between the Taliban and the US were taking place, the Taliban appeared to show some flexibility on women’s rights. This changed once they came to power. It is ironic that on the one hand, while women continue to be locked up, the Taliban leaders are provided with private jets to attend international negotiations. The Taliban’s strategy is to evade the international community’s demands to the point of exhaustion and it appears they have been successful.
In the 1990s they were not aware of technology and were new to politics. With time and greater awareness, the Taliban leadership appears to have learnt perception management. Ms Rita recalled questioning Taliban Spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid in a news interview about whether there was any space for women in the Taliban’s version of the Afghan constitution to which he replied that this was still under consideration. In other words, the socio-economic upliftment of Afghan women is among the last of the Taliban’s concerns.
It was the responsibility of the international community to scrutinize the Taliban over its treatment of women as it legitimized the negotiations and the subsequent illegal coup. Looking back, it appears that the immediate strategic goals of the international community were deliberately ignored to accommodate the Taliban. According to Ms Sahar, some of these issues could also be traced back to the initial discourses that deal with Afghan history writing. All the leading history writers have been men and, normally, such discourses subdue the historical role of women in Afghan national history.
Call for Global support
It is too early to give up hope. Despite global apathy, Afghan women’s struggles are internationally acknowledged and have found resonance in social media and feminist discourses globally. There are also interconnections between protests in Iran and Afghanistan as both countries have similar regimes and similar grievances. The resistance movements in Iran and Afghanistan inspired each other, as attested by the commonality of slogans and the massive support for Mahasa Amini, whose unfortunate death sparked massive protests. It is radical but possible to hope that one day women of the world will unite for the Afghan cause.