Women’s rights have an uncertain future in Afghanistan
Afghanistan, after the Taliban takeover, is a waiting game. And for Afghan women, the waiting game is agonizing.
The last time the Taliban held power, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, repression was a feature of their rule. This was especially true for women. Girls could not attend school; women could not hold jobs or leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them. Those who defied the Taliban’s directives and their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were punished, often brutally, with floggings or beatings.
The US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks put the Taliban’s worldview under scrutiny. The war became about more than terrorism; things like the expansion of women’s rights became embedded within the US mission there. In November 2001, first lady Laura Bush said the Taliban’s retreat meant “the people of Afghanistan, especially women, are rejoicing.” In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a group of female Afghan ministers: “We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always.”
Twenty years later, the United States is departing, and as it executed those plans, those earlier justifications fell away. President Joe Biden has said, in the military drawdown, that the US objective in Afghanistan was to defeat terrorism there. He said last week, “the idea that we’re able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational.”
That sentiment comes 20 years late, after the mess of two decades of conflict and the still-unfolding fallout of the US’s military intervention. All of it leaves Afghan women facing a precarious future, once again, under Taliban rule — and a question of what role, if any, the US has in that future.
The US used women’s rights to help justify the invasion of Afghanistan
The uncertainty facing Afghan women comes after 20 years of US intervention — which itself followed decades of foreign intervention by the Soviet Union and others — where women’s rights were packaged as another justification for the war in Afghanistan. The gains were real, if uneven and often tenuous, undermined by the insecurity that the decades-long conflict brought.
The struggle for gender equality didn’t start with the US arrival in 2001: Women in Afghanistan fought for their rights long before the Taliban arrived in the 1990s, and some Afghan women’s activists opposed the US intervention.
But women’s rights got inserted into the rallying cry for war regardless of whether Afghan women wanted them, and at times, they became a cause célèbre. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” Laura Bush said in November 2001, a few weeks after the US invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.
“The central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women — and not only the women of Afghanistan,” President George W. Bush said in December 2001, around the signing of legislation for Afghan women and children. “The terrorists who help rule Afghanistan are found in dozens and dozens of countries around the world. And that is the reason this great nation, with our friends and allies, will not rest until we bring them all to justice.”
Saving Afghan women from the Taliban also helped make the case for continued US war, said Saadia Toor, a sociology professor at the CUNY College of Staten Island. Even among lawmakers who generally support the withdrawal, hints of that rhetoric continue today.
The US intervention brought attention and it brought development money, much of it well-meaning but not always suited to success. Afghan women did enter public life in a way that was impossible during the Taliban’s rule. “The most drastic shift with respect to women’s rights came formally, legally, constitutionally, and how they manifest within the formal sectors,” said Maliha Chishti, former director of the United Nations’ Hague Appeal for Peace and professor at the University of Chicago. Women’s rights were enshrined in Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution; women held a certain percentage of seats in Parliament and entered sectors like law, government, and media.
International aid — severely limited during the Taliban’s rule — improved some social, economic, and health outcomes for women. Girls and women had access to education, though the instability and Taliban resurgence in recent years has threatened that. In 2020, of 9.5 million students, just shy of 40 percent were girls, according to USAID.
Still, when it came to women’s rights, they were most tangible in cities like Kabul, which, Chishti pointed out, were also the centers of international funding and foreign militaries that could protect those efforts. Meanwhile, grassroots efforts led by Afghan women sometimes conflicted with what Toor called “NGO-ized feminism” — think conferences on women’s empowerment and other kinds of Western-values activism that wasn’t sustainable and didn’t necessarily fit with Afghanistan.
Mariam Wardak, an advocate and former senior Afghan government official, pointed out that for traditional, religious, and cultural reasons, in many parts of Afghanistan “there is a resistance for women to speak out, for women to hold a certain structure in our society.”
And as the war ground on, the US commitment to women’s rights sometimes visibly waned. Amie Ferris-Rotman, who reported for Reuters from Afghanistan for two years and founded an organization to mentor and train Afghan women journalists, noted for Vanity Fair that “there have long been signs of betrayal” of America’s stated commitment to women’s rights:
There was the time a senior American official described issues of gender as “pet rocks in our rucksack taking us down.” Then there was the method deployed by the CIA of exchanging Viagra pills for intel on Taliban whereabouts, so that, in the words of an Afghan journalist friend, “old men can rape their wives with America’s blessing.” Let’s not forget the polemic two years ago by academic Cheryl Benard, wife of the Afghan-born American Taliban negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, chastising Afghan women for not fighting for their rights, which they are not owed “by someone else’s army or taxpayer dollars.” And when Joe Biden was asked last year by CBS if he bears “some responsibility” should Afghan women lose their rights under a Taliban takeover, the U.S. president responded to the reporter, Margaret Brennan, with “No, I don’t!”
Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges to women’s rights in Afghanistan was years of war. It’s hard to get girls to go to school when they’re displaced by airstrikes or their schools are getting blown up. The Taliban’s advance across the country in the past years meant women in positions of authority were often under threat of kidnapping and violence.
Yet the full return of the Taliban deepens that threat, and threatens to stall or unravel the progress Afghan women have made. Zubaida Akbar, a 31-year-old Afghan activist who’s been in the United States for three years, said the lives of Afghan women have improved, even if that improvement has been slow.
Zahra Nader, a journalist and PhD student from Afghanistan who’s based in Canada, said the US talked about “saving Afghan women from misogynist forces, this gender apartheid.”
“That did not happen,” she said. “That did not happen at all.”
Yes, she said, she went to school, she went to university in Kabul — an opportunity she recognizes that many other Afghan women did not have. But she and other Afghans were working to determine what came next for their country.
“We were hoping that we’re going to build a society, we’re going to build a better future for Afghanistan, and we will be the ones that decide the future of the country,” she said. But she argued that US intervention, whatever the justifications, was always about US interests, and those are what prevailed: “What was going on in Afghanistan wasn’t really our choice.”
And now the women in Afghanistan are left to deal with the consequences of that, collateral in a war outside their control. “The international community has failed us,” Akbar said, “and they have made it clear that our lives don’t matter.”
What the waiting game is like with the Taliban’s return
The Taliban have sought to rebrand themselves as a bit more moderate, especially with the world watching. The Taliban spokesperson has assured the public that women would be allowed to go to work and school, “according to Islamic law.” Part of the waiting game is seeing in practice what “according to Islamic law” really means.
This week, the Taliban spokesperson has made assurances that “there will be no violence against women.” Few believe him.
“We see them as how we know them,” Akbar said. “The Taliban are who they are.”
There are already signs the Taliban are who they always were. One TV news anchor in Afghanistan said she was turned away from work. “You are not allowed, go home,” she said she was told.
As they began retaking territory, the Taliban reportedly sent home female students and professors in Herat. A female university student in Kabul told the Guardian that she would have “to burn everything I achieved in 24 years of my life. Having any ID card or awards from the American University is risky now.” There are reports of the Taliban going door to door looking for any unmarried woman between the ages of 14 and 45 to marry off to Taliban soldiers. A few women I reached out to in Afghanistan declined to speak because they said, almost uniformly, that they are afraid.
“Women are not even leaving their homes because they don’t feel safe,” Lida Azim, an organizer with Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, said. “They might be allowed to go to work or school, but it’s a huge intimidation tactic.”
Akbar’s volunteer organization works with children who have lost their parents, often from conflict, and with mothers, including some who’ve escaped domestic violence. Her group connects people with support services like counseling, medical checkups, and food. The goal, Akbar said, was to create social reform through volunteerism. As the Taliban rushed through Afghanistan, the work stopped. “Because of the type of work that we were doing, our volunteers do not feel safe continuing to work in Afghanistan, unfortunately, and their lives are at risk,” she said.
Others who work with nonprofit organizations or networks in Afghanistan also do not know what will happen to their female staff and volunteers. They fear that if the humanitarian situation worsens in Afghanistan — banks are closed, services are scarce, thousands of people were displaced by the Taliban offensive, the threat of hunger looms — those services will be desperately needed. Some said they are still unsure whether or how their ability to deliver aid might be affected and what that means for the families who rely on it.
But defiance accompanies this fear and uncertainty. Afghans, despite the threat of violence, have protested the Taliban takeover. Women are among them, leading them.
Even women who are intimidated are trying to go to work. Wardak, who also founded HerAfghanistan, a network of women in Afghanistan, mentioned one girl in her network who went to her job last week in Kabul. “She went — terrified. But she went,” Wardak said.
Nader said that even if women couldn’t go to their jobs, they are leaving their homes, just to go outside. They go with a sense of fear, not knowing what is going to happen or what the reaction of one particular Taliban soldier might be, she said. “But they do go out.”
“Just to tell [them] that we are here, we are not gone,” Nader said.
Some Afghan activists told me they see this as an opportunity for women to push back, especially as the world is watching. “Right now, because Taliban wants international recognition, we have to push boundaries to see how far we can go,” Wardak said.
The Taliban will need foreign money if they want to stay afloat. This could be a place of leverage, as international legitimacy will depend on whether the Taliban meets its commitments on human and women’s rights. At the same time, activists worry that sanctions or other policies to put pressure on the government will trickle down and increase the suffering of the Afghan people.
Activists said they still want the Taliban held accountable, but the US and coalition allies have ceded some of their leverage as they depart. Military intervention did not bring lasting peace or democracy or rights. But that does not mean the United States or the rest of the world can wash its hands of it all.
Getting those under Taliban threat out should be an international priority
Akbar spent last week fielding calls, filling out visa forms, writing letters. After one day of this, when she looked at the spreadsheet she uses to record her efforts, she counted more than 100 people, all desperate to leave Afghanistan.
Many of the people she is trying to help are women, though not all. The return of the Taliban has put many lives at risk, including those who worked with the US military or coalition forces or international organizations or the Afghan government. Ethnic and religious minorities also face real threats. Women, of course, cut across all those categories or are associated with those who do. There are also the women who became leaders in the past two decades — activists, advocates, and political leaders, who fear they may become direct Taliban targets. They can’t, activists say, stay in Afghanistan and be safe.
Which is why many activists say that what many women need most in Afghanistan is a way to exit, as soon as possible. “The lives of these women are at risk,” Akbar said. “They will get killed if they stay in Afghanistan.”
Since August 14, the US says it has evacuated more than 37,000 people; the pace has increased in recent days, with about 11,000 or so leaving each day, reports the New York Times. Still, in the past week, the chaotic scenes outside the Kabul airport, and report after report of the difficulty of getting through, have revealed how desperate people are. The United States is now deploying troops to get Americans and their allies who are unable to make it to the airport.
Many Afghans who helped the US military or government may be eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), but as the New York Times reports, many of those jobs, like interpreters, were filled by men.
Which is why many activists fear that women may be left out of some of these programs, especially the activists, journalists, and political leaders who are directly at risk now that the US is leaving. Advocacy groups are calling on the Biden administration to prioritize and expedite the evacuation of women’s rights activists, journalists, lawmakers, and other public figures, as have some members of Congress.
“As a global community, not just United States, we need to talk about how do we let them in, how do we open our doors?” Homayra Yusufi, with the Afghan-American Council and the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, said.
As many pointed out, the US and its coalition allies have a moral obligation. There is an emergency right now, and whatever happens in the future can’t be completely separated from the decades of conflict and intervention. As Azim, of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, said, for the US and Western allies, the responsibility is “on their hands.”
Of course, not everyone can — or wants to — flee Afghanistan. Activists say there’s still a role for the international community in helping people who remain in the country: international aid, specifically, to help the coming humanitarian crisis and try to shore up grassroots groups that do provide health and other support services.
International support may depend on what the Taliban might do around women’s rights in Afghanistan. But right now, there is an immediate emergency — to evacuate women who are being targeted by the Taliban or fear they might be very soon. Those in Afghanistan, desperate to leave, likely believe they have no other choice.
“I am getting calls back to back,” Yusufi said, “as are all of the organizations that work on refugee issues — or just getting bombarded from calls from family members, calls coming in from Afghanistan, being like, ‘I need help, I need to get out right now.’”