Were the 20 years in Afghanistan a waste of time? Not to the women of Afghanistan. Between 2001 until the coalition left, young girls and women enjoyed women’s rights equitable to other western countries. Prior to 2001, young girls were not allowed an education and women were shunned from any public appearances. Being a female in Taliban Afghanistan was being invisible. Unseen, uneducated, irrelevant, and dispensable. The withdrawal caught in political quagmire and visceral rhetoric dismissed the importance the US, NATO, and foreign NGO’s had on the female population of this tumultuous country. But western women activists remain conspicuously quiet. No #MeToo protests. No rabid Madonna speeches, and no Hollywood participation. A deafening silence of abandonment.
In August 2021, CNN reported Afghan women’s worst fears as the US and NATO withdrew in haste, leaving women and girls the most exposed and vulnerable at the mercy of the Taliban. International journalists tell of Taliban intimidation and destruction as they moved rapidly from village to village and province to province. In July 2021, the Taliban moved through the province of Faryab. During one of their raids, they knocked on the door of a mother with three sons and a daughter. They demanded she cook for the 15 Taliban fighters outside her door. She refused because she barely had enough food to feed her family. According to the daughter and eyewitnesses, the men proceeded to beat her up with the butts of their AK-47’s until she died, then for an encore threw a grenade and set fire to her house. These are the people the US made a deal with. Thugs armed with guns preying on defenseless women.
The rapid taking over by the Taliban had women scrambling for burqas to cover themselves in protection from anticipated whippings and beatings. After 20 years of normalcy, most of the women did not own a burqa, and had to scramble to buy one. Stores soon ran out, and some women resorted to covering themselves with sheets. The urgency was real especially among Afghan women who remembered the 90’s public beatings for not being completely covered.
Women and girls were suddenly thrown into a world they did not anticipate. They found themselves loosing rights overnight. Rights they had enjoyed and which we in the west take fore granted. The right to work, study, move freely and live in peace. In 2009, Afghanistan had even passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women law which prohibited rape, assault, and forced marriages. It also prohibited anyone barring girls and women from going to school, university, or employment.
The new Taliban government has informed female workers to stay home unless they are the bread winners. High school girls have also been told to remain at home. University female students have been segregated and forced to wear strict dress code and complete covering in contrast to the past 20 years, when the university was coed and students were free to wear whatever they wanted. The Women’s Affairs Ministry has been shut down and replaced with the ministry for “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice”. These are the morality thugs who go around neighborhoods beating women for inadvertently showing skin under their coverings.
For 20 years, the women of Afghanistan tasted freedom and equality and now are not as timid as they were in 1996, and not easily persuaded to give up their rights either. Last weekend, several women protested in front of the former Women’s Affairs Ministry demanding equal rights and respect. A few weeks ago the BBC interviewed a young Afghan teen (name remained anonymous for security reasons) who together with other teenage girl friends confronted the Taliban as they tried to remove the Afghan flag and replace it with the Taliban flag. The Taliban fighters were taken by surprise. The young women continued their protest until the men drew guns on them. But as the young teen said, “we gave them something to think about”.
Kabul had approximately 3,000 women working in public and private sectors. The new mayor announced that several were allowed to go to work in areas where they could not be replaced by men, like in “design, engineering, and women’s public toilets”. Obviously Taliban men can’t create, build, or take care of sh-t.
The country’s situation is compounded by the growing poverty in the country. The Associated Press (September 20, 2021, Stars and Stripes) reports that small markets are opening up with people selling belongings at an attempt to either raise money to leave or to simply eat. Attacks by ISIS are still prevalent in the east. Recently, a huge explosion in Jalalabad killed five people among them a child. Women are normally hit the worst by a poor economy especially if they are deprived of employment.
In 2013, a book by a young teenager Malala Yousafzai, brought the devastating reality of life under the Taliban to the world. This young Pakistani teen insisted she attend school in defiance of Taliban rules and in an attack on her school bus, was shot in the head at point blank. This is what being a girl under Taliban rule is like. The world responded to this young girl’s story with awe and in 2014 Malala was nominated and received the Nobel Peace Prize. Previously in 2013, Malala was invited to address the UN assembly on girls’ rights. Malala was passionate about girls’ rights to education and the world listened. There is no “Malala” in Afghanistan. No published best sellers, no UN speeches, and no Nobel prizes. There is only fear and pending destruction of hope.
As quickly as the US and its allies raised the quality of life of a quasi medieval country to western ideals they just as quickly dashed it. To those who still beat the “we should have left a long time ago” drum: we should have left with dignity and relatively secure in the knowledge that those we encouraged and helped to be free have the means to remain so. It would have been the noble thing to do.
Unfortunately, the vulnerable are always on the losing end. They offer nothing. They are easily discarded and conveniently forgotten in political justification and campaign votes. We close the door on a country we changed for the better and turn it over to the same thugs we had previously removed. We conveniently forget that we were the protagonists of Afghanistan’s rebuilding and now its ultimate destruction. Afghanistan is yesterday’s news and Afghan women are a story that we will read about when nothing else of significance makes print.
Historically, women in third world countries are dispensable. For years young girls have been abducted, molested, married off, beaten, and compelled to a life of servitude with only the slightest platitudes from human rights groups or the UN. The latter often elects countries that condone women’s persecution to serve on human rights world committees. A repulsive insult to the thousands of girls without freedom or a life. Add forced marriages and genital mutilation to the mix, and we commit generations of girls and women to horrors that would make Epstein look like Santa Claus. Yet the silence is deafening. Why? Because there is no economic gain from taking on women’s rights especially in countries who provide no economic or political resources. Women’s rights don’t sell unless one is from New York or California.
The news has already gone to other “stories”. Afghanistan is being touted as a success story regardless of those who are still left behind trying to leave, those who died trying to protect, and the women bracing themselves for the inevitable. Female politicians across the globe have remained relatively quiet. Patronizing reprimands from the UN are as insidious as the organization itself, currently debating whether to allow the Taliban to address the UN assembly. An insult to the thousands that died at the hands of these men, and the women still in danger of being disposed of like yesterday’s bad lunch. The west shrugs their shoulders in resignation and self-righteous narrative that we did the best we could. How magnanimous of us!
A single young Afghan woman places men’s shoes outside her front door pretending to be married. She earned her PhD and was until recently, a university professor. She has lost her job and is frightened that being single, is in danger of retaliation and subject to stoning or beatings. Being single is not condoned. The world might have forgotten about the Afghan women, but they remain resilient. As one of the protest organizers told CBS: “We take this risk and protest to show the Taliban that we are not women of 1990, to be scared of whipping and forcing us to wear hijabs or forced marriage…” They might stand alone, but Afghan women have courage and tenacity on their side. Nothing says it better than the signs women protestors carry: “No government can deny the presence of women.” “I will sing freedom over and over.” Amen.
Talib00000an tell female workers to stay home. Associated Press. September 20, 2021. Stars and Stripes.