By Kirthi Jayakumar
Even if the current series of events emerged from a surprise announcement from the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, it was never likely to be any other way. Today, with the US and NATO forces having withdrawn, and the Afghan president having fled the nation, the Taliban have taken effective control. The rawest end of the deal continues to be faced by the women of Afghanistan: as it has happened, and continues to happen in any armed conflict across time and space.
The advent of the Taliban in a ruling capacity back in 1996 spelled the death-knell for progressive lifestyles of women in the country. Under its rule, women were denied some of their most basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. The right to life, work, education, health-care, freedoms of expression, movement and religion were no longer allowed to be enjoyed by women. When women asserted their rights under the Taliban regime, they were subjected to public lapidation, beatings and imprisonment. Women were not allowed to leave their households unless they had a burqa and had a male-member of their family to accompany them. These policies rendered many women immobile and confined to their houses, because they were either too poor to afford a burqa, or, had no male relatives left after war. The women who remained at home had to paint their windows so no one could look in from outside (Rostami-Povey, 2007).
The few women, who once held respectable positions prior to the five years under Taliban rule, were forced to beg to survive, or to stay confined in their houses. Women teachers who functioned before the Taliban regime could no longer teach at schools. This led to the redundancy of many schools, and the imposition of a severe strain on the education system. Women in medicine were allowed to continue, because women could only be treated by female physicians only. Despite that, a steady decline in access to medical care and health-care ensued, because it was frowned upon for a woman to go to a hospital. The few that tried were beaten. Braving all of that, if a woman made it to the hospital, there was no guarantee that a doctor would see her (Skaine, 2008). A parallel market of human-trafficking, prostitution, and slavery continued unabashed (McGirk and Shomali Plain, 2002).
Women have made significant strides over the past twenty years in the economic and political arenas. With the shoddy troop withdrawal and poor transition plan, one can already begin to the massive backslide in women’s rights in Afghanistan. The impact this has on women’s rights are already event: after taking control of Badakhshan and Takhar in July, the Taliban issued an order demanding that local religious leaders provide them with a full list of girls and widows aged between 15 and 45 years, for marriage with the Taliban fighters. The aim is to “return these girls to Islam” after taking them to Waziristan, Pakistan. It isn’t certain whether the religious leaders responded and if so, in what direction. For its part, the Taliban has claimed to have changed their stance on women’s rights – but their actions tell otherwise. They have made very clear affirmations that they will prevent girls from seeking education beyond 12 years, prevent women from seeking employment, and ensure that any woman seeking to move about in public must be accompanied by a man.
The United States has justified its war and occupation of Afghan territory through multiple lenses, including pinkwashing and homonationalism. Its longest-standing claim has been that it aimed to protect the women of Afghanistan: calling on Afghan women “to speak their stories” was a pet project of the Bush administration. To see the United States shamelessly renege on its commitment to women – if one were to hold it to account for its own claim – is really to see how poorly it treats women’s rights, and how little the future of a nation it has consistently eroded to the dust matters to it. As the Biden administration makes noises around embracing a feminist foreign policy, it seems clear that the agenda of protecting women of colour from men of colour will continue to see light of day, just not in Afghanistan, and just that there will be no attempt to shift from militarism to truly holding itself accountable for the conflicts it has started and fuelled world over.
The withdrawal of US and UK troops from Afghanistan was neither going to be easy nor simple – simply because there was never a prioritization of peace. There have been consistent conversations on how the transition must be peaceful and the best way to ensure that is typically bringing all stakeholders – women, especially – to the peace table. The challenge, though, is that no actor was committed to transforming this conflict and building sustainable peace through justice, inclusion, and systemic overhaul. Peace is not about bringing women to the table to check a box: but about actively striving to strike at the very root and overhauling structural and systemic violence to build sustainable peace.
Transforming the conflict in Afghanistan is not possible without acknowledging the historical roots of what we see unfolding in the present day – a commitment that no actor that has had a significant role to play in shaping Afghanistan’s conflict has ever made.
Elaheh Rostami-Povey, (2007) Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion. Zed Books
Skaine, Rosemarie, Women of Afghanistan in The Post-Taliban Era: How Lives Have Changed and Where They Stand Today, McFarland.
McGirk, Tim and Plain, Shomali, (2002) “Lifting The Veil On Taliban Sex Slaver,” Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,201892,00.html