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Friday October 22, 2021

The Afghan woman

September 18, 2021

Afghan women are back in global conversation – ironically so when it comes to the West, which forgets its own role in pushing back human rights in a country it had occupied for twenty years. There have been many reports in the international press about the last 20 years being a ‘golden era’ for Afghan women, as they won back rights to education and involvement in government, which had been denied to them until the US invasion of 2001. But Afghan women’s struggle dates back into the 19th century and has involved many reformers – from within. There is also the no-small-matter of the disconnect between urban and rural women in Afghanistan, an aspect expertly described by progressive writers, and how the US occupation affected rural women and their struggles.

One thing that does come across though – and which would be difficult to deny – is that women in Afghanistan are feeling insecure with the Taliban takeover of their country. This feeling is understandable when one remembers the last Taliban regime which was brutal on women. From women journalists leaving the country to the Afghan women youth football team making their way through Pakistan to Europe, there is uncertainty regarding what exactly women’s status will be in the new Afghan dispensation. The Taliban have for the moment said that women will be given their rights under Shariah. Precisely how they interpret this is something we do not know, at least for now. Various Islamic countries with vastly varying cultures handle the matter quite differently. At present, top leaders of the Taliban seem to be suggesting that they will adopt a more progressive approach. But will their word hold true? Or will the worrying signs we are already seeing become a new normal? And then there is the question of what work they can do and what office slots in government they can hold – at present, there are no women in the interim setup. The Taliban have suggested that work will be allocated according to what is ‘appropriate’ for gender. The interpretations of this can be very vast.

There have been protests in some Afghan cities by women’s rights activists, with some reports suggesting these protests were forcefully broken up. When it comes to any intervention from the West, there is even more hypocrisy at display. For far too long have women’s bodies been used by the West to wage wars in the Global South – Afghanistan being a prime example of that. However, this must not in any way invalidate any indigenous movement or struggle for rights that the Afghan women initiate. The vague terms set by the interim setup in place in Afghanistan as regards women’s rights need to be spelt out more articulately so that there is more clarity on the right to education, the right to work, freedom of movement, the right to an occupation of a woman’s choice. There are already signs that the younger generation will not easily cede space, having grown up in a somewhat much more connected and mediated world. And any attempt for women’s rights must indeed be waged by Afghan women themselves. It would help though if their struggles were not dismissed or brushed aside. As Malala Yousufzai has said in an interview with Geo TV, the Taliban are saying they are waiting to implement women’s rights until it is safe for them to go out on the streets and attend educational institutions or places of work. She asks precisely the right question: will it ever be safe? Will the Taliban decide when this safety is sufficient? These are questions the Afghan woman is confronted with today. A non-interventionist moral pressure by regional countries may help their cause and ensure safety, education and freedom for women in Afghanistan.