What Afghan Women Need From Us Right Now
By Susanne Zwingel | August 26, 2021
“Homeless and hopeless . . . my land . . . I love you always and I will wait for the day when you are free and prosperous so that we can all come back and appreciate having you more than ever before . . .” – Afghan female graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani, August 24, 2021 (via Facebook)
The Taliban have retaken control of Afghanistan, and Afghan women—especially those who have stepped out of strictly confined domestic roles—are facing a daunting future under these radically new circumstances.
A Western perspective often equates the Taliban regime in power between 1996 and 2001 with complete and utter oppression of women, and the two decades after with a time of overturning this extreme misogyny. The 2001 invasion itself was justified by connecting military intervention with a fight for women’s rights. Then-First Lady Laura Bush’s 2001 radio address to the nation is credited for articulating this point, but it was not only the Bush administration that used the argument to manipulate popular support for the invasion; US-based women’s organizations such as the Feminist Majority and Ms. Magazine took a similar stance.
The narrative of victimized Afghan women in turn creates the need for Western interference to rescue them.
The narrative of victimized Afghan women in turn creates the need for Western interference to rescue them. As Lila Abu-Lughod famously called out, this misconception finds its visual embodiment in the burka and the urge to “save women” from it. Let’s leave this dangerous rhetoric behind. It is time to recognize that Afghan women have their own perspectives, not only about a particular hyper-symbolic garment, but in terms of their visions and hopes for their country going forward.
A Costly Mistake and an Uncertain Future
A decade ago, a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) put it this way: “There are three enemies in this country: the Taliban, the [former mujahideen commanders] and the Karzai government, and foreign troops. All three of them commit crimes against our people. When the foreign troops go, we will only have two left to deal with.”
Twenty years of occupation by the United States and allied forces was, for the actual purpose of eliminating terrorist threats to the US homeland, a costly mistake; for Afghanistan and its people, it was more than a mistake, and it certainly was not an experience of liberation. Without a political strategy, foreign military presence destabilized the country, imported unfitting models of governance and development, and created corruption and resistance, as diplomat Matthew Hoh’s resignation letter of 2009 eloquently details.
The terrible images of the last days notwithstanding, ending the occupation was the right decision. But now that the foreign troops are going, it is unclear how lasting or fragile the changes in women’s rights over the past two decades will turn out to be.
No Single Experience Defines Afghan Women
It can be difficult for Western observers to reconcile the facts that Afghan women could expand their opportunities during the occupation, but that these gains were more moderate than the standard narrative of liberation would suggest. Needless to say, this process has not been linear but erratic and subject to contestation.
The expansion of education, for girls as well as for boys, is arguably the most important and impactful achievement of the last 20 years. But while many more girls have been going to school, their numbers are difficult to verify, have allegedly never risen over 50%, and are especially low in rural areas. The number of women in the workforce is still very low but has increased from 15% in 2001 to 21% in 2019, which is on par with or higher than other states in the region such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Syria. Having become a public issue, violence against women and girls has been criminalized since 2009. While this is a huge step, the implementation of the pathbreaking Elimination of Violence against Women law nonetheless leaves much to be desired. Women have entered the political realm and with the help of electoral quotas, 27% of Parliamentarians are women as of 2021. While this number is not reflective of the actual political standing of women, especially in a country where political power is not concentrated in an elected body, this percentage is equal to that in the United States.
Like men, women act from within their cultural contexts and not many of them would go so far as to radically question everything they are used to.
Like men, women act from within their cultural contexts and not many of them would go so far as to radically question everything they are used to. In an insightful 2011 article, Naila Kabeer, Ayesha Khan and Naisan Adlparvar interviewed several Afghan women on their changing lives, describing how they navigate cultural norms while fighting for more recognition and agency in order to mitigate their families’ economic hardships. The interviewees were typically not interested in women’s rights in the sense of individual self-determination. Having grown up in a patriarchal, family-focused culture, most of them appreciated an expansion of their agency within, but not beyond these traditions. They also thought that more rights for women, such as leaving the house to work, would improve the patriarchal family model and prevent it from turning into unchecked male tyranny.
Afghan women are the protagonists in their struggles for a better society. They are not a monolithic bloc but differ widely in terms of beliefs, goals, skills and the constraints they find themselves in. They are educated upper class women in urban centers. They are women who were socialized into less hierarchical gender roles in exile, often in Iran. They are rural illiterate women who were forced into marriage as girls and have to raise many children in poverty and without health care infrastructure. They are women who endure severe violence that is condoned rather than condemned by their families and communities. They are women who have defied cultural constraints and decided to become professionals and activists. They are artists. And they are all part of Afghanistan in their own, specific ways.
Recognition, Not Rescue
Is there a way to support Afghan women in defending their right to take up greater political and socio-economic space, without reducing them to a stereotype?
Clearly, the idea of female subordination to male leader- and guardianship is a foundational value of the Taliban, and it is shared by many societal forces in Afghanistan. These forces will be emboldened by the new regime, and they will try everything possible to discredit women’s gains by tying them to the illegitimate occupation. From the outside, two strategies might help to push the Taliban towards a less extremely misogynist stance.
First, the international recognition of the regime has to be made contingent on its respect for women’s rights and equality as established by the 2004 Afghan constitution. The Taliban government needs recognition, and we can all remind our governments as well as the United Nations to insist on this demand.
To strengthen Afghan women, both in public leadership roles and in smaller, everyday decision making in their communities, we can continue supporting organizations set up and led by Afghan women.
Second, to strengthen Afghan women, both in public leadership roles and in smaller, everyday decision making in their communities, we can continue supporting organizations set up and led by Afghan women. Here are just a few examples of such organizations: Women for Afghan Women, a grassroots organization based in Afghanistan and the United States providing life changing services, education, and vocational training for women and girls; Learn:Afghan, which focuses on quality education for every child, especially girls; Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, which offers shelter and counseling for women fleeing violence, as well as legal aid, mobile health consultations, and crisis support; and Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which fights for a secular and democratic Afghanistan in which women can live free from oppression and violence.
The key is to listen to these brave women and follow their lead—wherever it may go. They will need our attention and solidarity for a long time.