Afghanistan is entering another uncertain phase of transition, with an uncertain fate for half of its population, women. Twenty years ago, the US-led international community intervened militarily in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and chase out their Al-Qaeda protégées. In a hegemonic power discourse, it justified its intervention, in part, on the grounds to improve human rights and women’s rights. Twenty years later, keen to end its longest war, after being adamantly opposed to the very idea of “talking to terrorists”, the US is now making deals with the same Taliban. President Biden just confirmed Donald Trump's withdrawal decision, only postponing the American exit for a few months to 11 September 2021. Afghan women are not only being sidelined from participation in the so-called peace process, but they have also become a systematic target in a campaign of terror over the last months. This is a serious issue of concern because it raises questions about the intention of the US and its international allies over the last two decades where rhetoric to “liberate” and “empower” Afghan women dominated and conditioned much of international “aid”. The issue of women’s rights, therefore, does not only concern the Afghan population; it must also concern people in those countries whose troops and taxpayers’ money were channelled to protect and promote women’s rights.
Important progress has been made in the lives of Afghan women over the last two decades, at least de jure and in major urban centres. While under the Taliban rule (1996-2001) girls were deprived of education and women lost the opportunity to work and move freely, Afghanistan’s Constitution of 2004 in Article 22 guarantees gender equality for men and women, and the country is a signatory to major international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Importantly, Afghanistan endorsed the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in 2009, and the goal of gender equality was restated in many national policy documents and roadmaps. Since 2002, women have been present in every important sector of society – politics, media, sports, art and cinema. Nevertheless, many limitations have also prevailed in women’s lives, especially where the Taliban reasserted their control. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, despite the leap in girls' school attendance after 2002, due to ongoing conflicts and insurgent attacks, the number of girls going to schools dropped significantly since 2014.
Why should it be either “women’s rights at the cost of peace or peace at the cost of women’s rights”? This reminds us of another false trade-off that was imposed on the people of Afghanistan in the first decade of the new regime after 2001: justice vs stability.
No one genuinely interested in democratic values, not least the women of Afghanistan, wants these hard conquests to be lost. At the same time, no one is as weary of this 42-year-long war and as craving for peace as the people and women of Afghanistan. The question, however, many are asking at this critical juncture is what kind of peace at what cost? Forfeiting rights gained by paying not only in hard work, in turning limitations into opportunities, in fighting entrenched misogynistic customs and traditions, but also by paying in blood in terrorist attacks and targeted assassinations? Since the beginning of the intensified negotiations between the US and the Taliban, many Afghan women have taken a strong stand by rejecting a peace that will come at the expense of all their gains and achievements, no matter how partial and unfulfilled these gains still are. Why should it be either “women’s rights at the cost of peace or peace at the cost of women’s rights”? This reminds us of another false trade-off that was imposed on the people of Afghanistan in the first decade of the new regime after 2001: justice vs stability. In spite of the overwhelming call for justice raising from Afghan society, the punditry chorus stretching from Washington to Brussels to Kabul lectured us that yes, the strongmen and their acolytes now lording over the country were unsavoury, but if we go after their past crimes, we would jeopardize the fragile reconstruction process. In fact, the corrupt, predatory character of many governors effectively scuttled whatever slim chance of reconciliation existed and the country plunged again into war. Eventually, we had neither justice nor stability. Let's not repeat the same mistake. Women's rights are integral and necessary for a peace process worth the name. A UN Women Research on peace processes published in 2015 has shown that when women participate in the peace processes, not only the chances to reach an agreement are higher, but it also positively affects the implementation.
Yet, over the last months, women’s rights in Afghanistan have been deteriorating. A wave of assassinations targeting women working for civil society, government, media outlets (particularly those working for televisions and radios), and health workers have taken the lives of dozens of women over the last months. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, 14 women journalists were threatened or violently attacked in 2020. This has forced an increasing number of Afghan women working for media to leave the profession, and some even the country, because of threats and deteriorating security. Other measures included a statement from the director of education in Kabul banning girls older than 12 from singing in public. This decree faced a strong backlash on social media where many Afghan women shared clips of their singing using the hashtag #IAmMySong. In line with such restrictions, recently a concert by a famous Afghan couple was cancelled by officials in the city of Herat. Moreover, in recent weeks the Afghan government has been taking steps to narrow down women’s roles in high-level positions, particularly in the key ministries of Defence and Interior.
The US-led international community is chiefly concerned about pulling out its troops, for which the US has already “conceded too much to the Taliban” in a deal signed in February 2020 between the US government and the Taliban (that excluded the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan). Protection of women’s rights once used to be a red line by the Afghan government in peace negotiations and a major issue for discussion. This does not seem to be the case anymore. In its latest peace plan, women’s rights have been downgraded to some duller color. These are worrying signs of the “Talibanisation from inside the republic,” and a shrinking civic and professional space for women. Since there is no major change in the “Taliban’s position on the social and political role of women,” it seems that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is already bowing down to the Taliban’s demands.
Afghan women are demanding an act of solidarity from women and people around the world as peers. They refuse to literally fulfil the victim stereotype imposed on them and become the sacrificial goat in a backroom deal disguised as the travesty of peace.
Afghan women have shown great strength in the face of formidable challenges over the last decades. Under the Taliban rule, while the world was portraying them as silent, burqa-shrouded victims, the women of Afghanistan were organizing home-based secret schools for a generation of girls. For five years, a renowned female surgeon and general who passed away recently, organized medical classes for female medical students. Women were organizing circles of poetry and literature reading disguised as tailoring and sewing workshops, which were among the few activities the Taliban allowed for women. They did so for five years; not a short time if we consider the current restrictions (though not nearly comparable in nature with those of the Taliban) imposed in many countries due to Covid-19 and the level of fatigue and frustration they have generated among people. While Afghan women have disproportionally suffered in wars waged by men for power and geopolitical gains, they have raised and educated generations of men and women who form Afghanistan’s largest portion of the population (64% is under the age of 25). Women of Afghanistan have never been and are not charity beggars; they are fighters for change. And the list of realities crying for change in the life of most Afghan women is long and painful: from too little bread on their tables, to too much violence everywhere. Yes, this is not a rear-guard battle to prop up a decaying edifice. If, after twenty years and hundreds of billions of dollars we are – again – at this critical predicament, it is not only because of the cunning of the Republic’s enemy. The systematic corruption and waste so thoroughly documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) have marred the republican institutions and the international intervention in Afghanistan from the outset. Attempts at piecemeal reform so far have spectacularly failed to dent it.
Afghan women are demanding an act of solidarity from women and people around the world as peers. They refuse to literally fulfil the victim stereotype imposed on them and become the sacrificial goat in a backroom deal disguised as the travesty of peace. It is a litmus test for an international community dominated by mechanisms to protect human rights and women’s rights to show whether and how they can join hands to stop this from happening.
Cover photo (C) by Rahmat Gul / AP. Blood stains on the pavement in Kabul after gunmen killed two women judges who worked for Afghanistan's high court and wounded their driver on 17 January 2021.