Sexual Violence in Conflict: Afghanistan War
Updated: Apr 29
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the conflict:
Afghanistan, a country that once was illustrious for its scenic splendour and cultural diversity is now recalled for its unsettling history and present civil conflict. The world witnessed its invasion by the Soviet Union 42 years ago while the country was already in political turmoil (Why is there a War in Afghanistan? The Short, Medium and Long Story, 2020). The Soviet agenda aimed at establishing a communist regime, an action that was met with fierce opposition by the Mujahideen, a guerrilla group of Muslims fighting to support their community and faith (Id.). In due course, the Mujahideen began to receive global support and superior ammunition from America to further their efforts. At the same time, the Soviet Union failed to establish communist regulations in villages, districts, and states, which eventually led to their secession (Why is there a War in Afghanistan? The Short, Medium and Long Story, 2020; Kamrany, 2012). The Soviets withdrawal led to ethnically divided clashes amongst Mujahideen members, prolonging the conditions of civil unrest (Kamrany, 2012).
In 1996, the void in governmental administration was filled by the Taliban, an organization that claimed to end corruption and improve safety for all its civilians (Why is there a War in Afghanistan? The Short, Medium and Long Story, 2020). During their rule, the Taliban supported the militant group Al-Qaeda and permitted the establishment and operation of their training camps in Afghan territory. By 2001, the Al-Qaeda had become infamous for its execution of the 9/11 attacks in America which killed nearly 3000 civilians. The outfit's leader, Osama Bin Laden, was provided asylum by the Taliban, consequently deteriorating political relations between America and Afghanistan, eventually culminating in war. America, alongside the Northern Alliance, entered Afghanistan using military force and strategic bombing techniques (The History of the Afghanistan War, 2012). The increasing territorial control over Afghan provinces by the Northern Alliance ultimately led to the Taliban's temporary exile and was followed by presidential and parliamentary elections for the country along with nations pledging financial support (The History of the Afghanistan War, 2012; (Kamrany, 2012).
Today, the Taliban continues to remain in conflict with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). In 2020, the American administration agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan as the Taliban arranged to significantly reduce its violence countrywide (War in Afghanistan, 2021). However, the man-made calamity over the years has left Afghanistan with immense destruction and complications including security issues, widespread poverty, unemployment, heightened drug distribution, deceptive election processes, etc. (Kamrany, 2012). Injury, murder, and sexual and gender-based violence are few of the many problems faced by innocent civilians in the country (War in Afghanistan, 2021).
Systemic targeting through sexual and gender-based violence:
Most decisions regarding commencing or ending a war are made by men, and women and children endure the consequences of these choices. The Afghanistan war has been no different as women continue to face heightened risk to their safety (Chandler, Wang, & Fuller, 2010). Data on the conflict highlights a pattern of sexual and gender-based violence against women that has accompanied each invasion or rise to power. In the Soviet regime, it was common for the Soviet military to use helicopters in search of Mujahideen affiliates. Instead, this strategy became convenient for kidnapping women working in fields, while in many other cases, tanks and other vehicles were also used to carry out such abductions. Women were assaulted and murdered or sent back home only to be branded as “dishonourable” by their family members (Rape in Afghanistan, 2021).
From 1992 to 1996, women’s circumstances worsened as the Mujahideen began to forbid women from working specifically in the public service, television, and media sectors. They were forced to wear the Burqa, a traditional veil, and rapes, murders, mutilations, forced marriages, and child marriages became frequent occurrences that led to high rates of suicide and self immolation (Ahmed-Ghosh, 2003). Since women were forbidden from working as entertainers, young boys were dressed as girls, bought by rich men, and made to enthrall them through dance or were sexually exploited. This practice was known as Bacha Bazi and was highly prevalent during the Mujahideen's regime. These boys were denied education and subjected to various forms of torture including beatings, strangulation, mutilations, rapes, and even death (Somade, 2017)
The Taliban's rise to power brought along extreme and oppressive gender policies for women. Women were not allowed to be seen or acknowledged in public and this idea was enforced through the law. House windows were painted black so that women could not be viewed from the streets and entering balconies was not permitted. Wearing high heels, make-up, and nail polish was banned to avoid arousing men. Laughing and talking on streets was illegal. A woman's appearance in videos, photos, or any media was made illicit. Their movement was thwarted as cycles, motorcycles, or taxis were barred from use and travel could only occur through gender segregated buses. A woman was only permitted to wear a burqa in public and could only walk on streets if she was accompanied by a male blood relative (mahram). This deeply impacted women who could not afford a burqa and/or did not have a mahram, forcing them to be under house arrest. (Taliban Treatment of Women, 2021; (Goodson, 2001). The practice of Bacha Posh also rose. As part of the practice, preadolescent girls were dressed as boys to help their families access food, supplies, and water. As girls were not allowed to be seen in public, families that had no men, had to rely on Bacha Posh. (Corboz, Gibbs & Jewkes, 2019).
Schools for girls were closed citing safety reasons due to civil conflict and their re-opening was continually postponed. Very few below the age of 8 years were allowed to study the Quran. Women remained unemployed as the Taliban believed men must be sole providers for each household and preventing women from working could increase male employment rates. This greatly affected the general income of families especially women headed households causing many to beg or become prostitutes. Only female healthcare professionals were allowed to work, as men were restricted from seeing or touching another woman. However, their tasks became twice as difficult due to lack of hospital equipment in gender segregated hospitals. Female doctors were only permitted to treat female patients who were veiled, question the mahram about health problems, and were forbidden from examining the affected body part on another woman. Public bath houses that were a source of hygiene and hot water for women were shut indicating a drastic decline in appropriate healthcare (Taliban Treatment of Women, 2021; (Goodson, 2001).
Women could only enter government buildings through isolated side entrances. The laws of the land remained in favour of men as women did not have equal rights to inheritance, child custody, divorce, and other domestic issues and women’s testimonies mattered only half as much as men’s. Those who violated these laws were publicly insulted, harassed, beaten, lashed, whipped, disfigured, stoned, or executed on streets and stadiums or imprisoned and killed (Taliban Treatment of Women, 2021; (Goodson, 2001). Gang rapes and sexually violating midwives or spouses of police officers or soldiers was rampant (Rape in Afghanistan, 2021).
During the temporary exile of the Taliban, USA played a key role in the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections, whereupon known members and warlords who have committed heinous crimes like mass rape became lawmakers for the country resulting in increasing corruption and reduced security for women. Although Americans promised democracy, healthcare, and education to all citizens of Afghanistan, injustice continued to exist as women were still forcefully veiled, coerced into prostitution or marriage, could not vote, and did not receive jobs and education. Laws including legalizing marital rape, denying inheritance rights to women and keeping the marriageable age as 16 years for girls persisted (Chandler, Wang, & Fuller, 2010). Bacha bazi, a custom that was outlawed by the Taliban, re-emerged and became highly prevalent after the US invasion (Somade, 2017).
Basis of sexual and gender-based violence:
Members of the Taliban and Mujahideen identify themselves as Pashtuns, referring to a native ethnic group in Afghanistan (Goodson, 2001). Pashtun culture and traditions decree that women’s lives be restricted by men causing Pashtun families and clans to believe that a woman’s character including her chaste and virtuous behaviour brings reputation or disgrace to her family (Goodson, 2001; Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in Men’s Power Struggles, 1999). Therefore, sexual violence against women perpetrated by Afghan political groups was a method used to bring dishonour to families (Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in Men’s Power Struggles, 1999). Sexual abuse against women was also a systematic process to insult a woman and the mahram who failed to protect her (Chandler, Wang, & Fuller, 2010).
Political groups, especially the Taliban, have extracted support from the Shariah law for their cruel gender policies (Goodson, 2001). Shariah refers to the laws of a region that are derived from religious Islamic texts like the Quran that form a part of the Islam religion (Sharia, 2021). Unfortunately, the process of interpreting these religious texts have been entirely performed by men to serve androcentric desires, completely ignoring the basic rights of other genders. As a result, women continue to endure physical and psychological hardships like trauma and a decreasing sense of nationalism and pride towards their country, traditions, culture, and religion. (Chandler, Wang, & Fuller, 2010).
Ahmed-Ghosh, H. (2003). A history of women in Afghanistan: Lessons learnt for the future or yesterday's and tomorrow's: Women in Afganistan. Journal of International Women's Studies, 4(3), 1-14. Retrieved from https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1577&context=jiws
Amnesty International. (1999, November 11). Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in men’s power struggles. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3ae6a99513.pdf
BBC. (2012, March 7). The history of the Afghanistan war. https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/15214375#:~:text=There%20was%20a%20lot%20of,fighters%20and%20also%20the%20Taliban.
BBC News. (2020, February 29). Why is there a war in Afghanistan? The short, medium and long story. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49192495
Britannica. (n.d.). Mujahideen. https://www.britannica.com/topic/mujahideen-Islam
Chandler, R. M., Wang, L., & Fuller, L. K. (2010). Women, war and violence: Personal perspectives and global activism. Palgrave Macmillan.
Corboz, J., Gibbs, A., & Jewkes, R. (2019) Bacha posh in Afghanistan: Factors associated with raising a girl as a boy. An International Journal for Research, Intervention, and Care, 22(5), 585-598. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2019.1616113
Council on Foreign Relations. (2021, April 15). War in Afghanistan. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/war-afghanistan
Goodson, L.P. (2001). Perverting Islam: Taliban social policy toward women. Central Asian Survey, 20(4), 415-426. doi:10.1080/02634930120104618
Kamrany, N.M. (2012, April 19). Ending the 30 year war in Afghanistan. https://www.mei.edu/publications/ending-30-year-war-afghanistan#:~:text=Afghanistan%20has%20been%20plagued%20by,and%20its%20people%20is%20enormous.
Rape in Afghanistan. (2021, April 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_in_Afghanistan
Sharia. (2021, April 19). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharia
Somade, J.E. (2017, August 18). Bacha bazi: Afghanistan’s darkest secret. https://humanrights.brightblue.org.uk/blog-1/2017/8/18/bacha-bazi-afghanistans-darkest-secret
Taliban Treatment of Women. (2021, April 2). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taliban_treatment_of_women#:~:text=Other%20restrictions%20for%20women%20were,should%20hear%20a%20woman's%20voice.
Documented by Rasika Sundaram