What awaits Afghan women?
They have endured horrific floggings and beatings in public, they have endured violence at home, their access to education and healthcare have been restricted, and they have even been stoned to death—not too long ago. And now the women of Afghanistan fear more brutality and repression as the US starts pulling out its forces from the war-ravaged nation after two decades of intervention.
Not that in those two decades the lives of Afghan women had improved significantly. But with the Taliban taking a back foot, there had been some improvements for women in Afghanistan, especially in the more urban areas, easily accessible by the western powers and aid organisations.
In these past 20 years, girls and women had been allowed access to education, access to healthcare, access to income generating opportunities, among other facilities. For the supressed women of Afghanistan these are privileges; things that we are lucky to be able to take for granted.
"Though progress has been uneven, girls and women now make up about 40 percent of students. They have joined the military and police, held political office, become internationally recognised singers, competed in the Olympics and on robotics teams, climbed mountains and more—all things that were nearly impossible at the turn of the century," reported the New York Times recently.
However, there had also been multiple cases where women human rights activists like Fatima Khalil had been brutally killed. She was only 24. Brave journalists like Meena Mangal, Malala Maiwand, Mursal Wahidi, Sadia Sadat and Shahnaz Roafi, have been assassinated. Their fault: they dared to raise their voice for the truth, for what was right. And one cannot write about the suppression of female voices without remembering Zakia Herawi and Qadria Yasini—the two female Supreme Court judges, who had been assassinated by armed men in Kabul, earlier in the year.
A US government watchdog report, titled, "Support for gender equality: Lessons from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan", released in February, stated, "U.S. efforts to support women, girls and gender equality in Afghanistan yielded mixed results."
And this is especially true for areas that are controlled by the tribes and are not easily accessible owing to their remoteness. "Often, women's opinions are unclear in these parts, where roughly three-quarters of Afghanistan's 34 million people live, and are often unreachable because of geographical, technological and cultural constraints," wrote the New York Times in one of its reports in April this year, referring to the women living in rural areas.
However, the US has spent USD 780 million in the last two decades to support and facilitate women's empowerment in Afghanistan, which has led to some improvements for women, especially in terms of high education enrolment, fall in maternal death rates, among other factors. According to World Health Organization data, maternal deaths per 100,000 births came down to 638 in 2017 from 1,300 in 2002.
However, with September 11, 2021 approaching—the day when the US will fully withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—the Afghan women fear for the worst.
From female students to women workers to journalists, everyone is worried about how the new situation will unfold, post the US troop withdrawal. The Taliban for sure will try to establish its own grip over the country—be it through either corrective means or by striking some sort of an agreement with the government. But what happens to the girls and women after that? Would they have to go back to the old ways?
On July 9, 2021, the Taliban claimed that they control 85 percent of Afghanistan, as reported by Reuters. While the Afghan government has brushed off the Taliban claim, one cannot ignore the fact that the Taliban are actually gaining ground in Afghanistan.
But then who are the Taliban? They used to be a group of angry young men bound together by the hatred for a common enemy, and they adhered to a common set of beliefs to eliminate the enemy. The young men have now become battle-hardened hardliners, who cannot be expected to be flexible with their ideologies and beliefs. The possibility of reprisals and bloodshed cannot be ignored. And many of the victims will be the vocal women, who would not want to adhere to the Taliban's orthodox ideals.
However, in imagining an Afghanistan post US presence, one must also factor the existence of the fragmented, multi-ethnic tribe-oriented social system, in the bigger picture. There are many tribes in the country, who have their own social codes. Who would work to support the empowerment of the women living in those areas?
Moreover, Afghanistan is a country where in recent decades, the issue of women's freedom has been determined by the men. According to a 2019 UN study, a mere 15 percent of the men think that women should work outside the house after marriage.
Domestic violence is another dimension to the sufferings of the Afghan women. A Human Rights Watch report suggest that around 87 percent of Afghani girls and women endure domestic violence in their lifetime. So, it is not only outside the house, but also within the confines of the home, that women are supressed and tortured in Afghanistan. And it is the overall social mind-set that encourages and aids this.
While the situation is not expected to be better for the women and girls of Afghanistan once the US presence ends there, the international community cannot just silently watch them go back to the state of subjugation they had been under during the Taliban rule.
In a rare show of defiance, in the north and central regions of Afghanistan, hundreds of brave women recently took to the streets with assault rifles, to protest against the growing influence of the Taliban. The social media were flooded with photos of women flaunting their rifles, during the demonstration. But without support for how long can the Afghan women continue to hold on to their zeal for freedom, for their rights, especially in the face of surmounting challenges?
The US, and the other world powers have a responsibility to insist on ensuring a free and equitable society for the women and girls of Afghanistan, while there is still time. According to Ned Price, spokesperson for the US Department of State, the US has already "made clear that any country that seeks international legitimacy, that wishes not to be a pariah, needs to respect women and girls, and that includes any future government in Afghanistan."
However, words alone would not be sufficient to change the lot of the subjugated women of Afghanistan. These girls and women need actual support—moral, emotional, economic and political—to overcome the decades old patriarchal mind-set that aims to pin them down to the ground. The Afghan government needs to demonstrate a strong political will to protect and promote the rights of their women. The US along with the rest of the international community should proactively support the Afghan government in this.
The mess that Afghanistan has become today has been the result of the various invasions over the years, including by the Soviets and the US. While they can wash their hands off the country, they cannot wash their hands off this responsibility. It is their moral duty and obligation to make things right rather than leaving the country and its people exposed to subjugation and fear.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @tasneem_tayeb