Hanging in the balance – Afghanistan’s women in fear as the country enters a new political era

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Wandering the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan in the 1960’s, one could have passed by women wearing miniskirts, walking alongside their male friends on their way to their university classes. Much has happened since then. The country has been in a state of conflict for nearly 40 years, and after the notorious oppression of women during Taliban rule in the 1990’s, hard-won progress in women’s rights has been made in the last two decades. Now, the US has decided to withdraw its forces by September 11th, 2021, thereby ending the longest war in US history, leaving behind a publicly triumphant Taliban. As women’s rights are at risk of being compromised in peace talks, and as the Taliban are expected to regain power, Afghan women are now in fear of what the future will bring. 

The Taliban’s oppression of women 

Before the conflict of the 1970’s, Afghanistan had experienced relatively steady progression towards gender equality. Afghan women were given the right to vote in 1919 – only a year after women in the UK were enfranchised. In the 1950’s, gendered separation, purdah, was abolished, and women’s rights became integrated into the constitution in the 1960’s. However, women’s rights were increasingly rolled back following Soviet occupation in the 1970’s, civil conflict between Mujahideen groups and government forces in the 80’s and 90’s, and finally as the Taliban seized power in 1996. 

Under Taliban rule, a repressive interpretation of Sharia law was implemented in the pursuit of establishing an Islamic state. Women were not allowed to vote, work, pursue an education, access healthcare delivered by men, show their skin in public, or even leave the house without a male chaperone. This resulted in women becoming prisoners in their own homes. If they disobeyed the law, punishments included flogging, stoning and abuse. Meanwhile, rape and violence against women was extensive. The Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001 during the US invasion following the September 11th attacks by Al Qaeda, whose leader Osama Bin Laden had taken refuge in Afghanistan. 

In the following years after the US invasion, many schools reopened and women went back to work. Over the past two decades, the US spent over $780 million to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan. Even though progress has been uneven, girls and women now constitute approximately 40% of students, and women are politically, economically, and socially engaged. Despite ongoing conflict, Afghan women have become lawyers, judges, doctors, teachers, engineers, politicians, journalists, business owners, police officers and members of the military. 

Yet, despite US efforts, Afghanistan is still considered one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman. According to a Human Rights Watch report, around 87% of Afghan women and girls experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and violence and disrimination against women is rife, especially in Taliban-controlled areas. Here women’s education is extremely restricted, and subjects like social science are replaced with Islamic studies. Education centres are moreover frequently targets of attacks, with more than 1000 schools having closed in recent years. Now, as US and NATO forces withdraw, women fear what the future will entail. Concerns are that the Taliban’s harshly restrictive religious governing structure will ensure that the oppression of women is integrated into whatever irritation of governance they may bring. 

Taliban insurgents (Photo: Aslan Media, Flickr)

Two decades of progress at stake 

Whether war or peace lies ahead, there are widespread concerns that the past 20 years of progress on women’s rights will be reversed. Departing US forces will leave behind a publicly triumphant Taliban, who many fear will seize more territory and reinstitute similar oppressive rules to those enforced during their rule in the 1990’s. The Taliban’s influence is expected to grow no matter whether they gain back power by force or through a political agreement with the Afghan government. Across the country, schools, human rights groups, NGOs and businesses are left trying to figure out contingency plans for female students and employees should the Taliban return to power. 

President Biden has stated that the US will continue to prioritise women’s rights through humanitarian and diplomatic assistance. However, without the umbrella of American protection, many fear that the country will be unable to preserve the hard-won gains in women’s rights. The withdrawal will end many years of occupation, but it will also trigger the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people. 

As peace talks are taking place between the Afghan government and the Taliban, many fear that women’s rights are being compromised. Amnesty International has warned that Afghan women are facing a real risk of seeing their progress in women’s rights traded off in negotiations. Indeed, since last year’s peace talks in Doha, Qatar, little progress has been made, especially concerning the discussion of women’s rights – which neither side has made a priority. 

The latest peace conference took place in Moscow in March this year. It included the Afghan government, political power brokers and the Taliban. Yet, only one woman, Habiba Sarabi, was on the 12-member delegation of the Afghan government. Among the 21-member team in Doha, only four were women. Patricia Grossman, the associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, argues that this small number of  female representatives exposes the lack of support for genuine equality when it comes to who will decide the country’s future. The question remains what a peace process without female participation would entail for the future of Afghanistan and the lives of Afghan women. 

Habiba Sarabi (Photo: ResoluteSupportMedia, Flickr)

The role of women in shaping Afghanistan’s future 

“This peace process is about women’s rights”, are the words of Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan negotiating team, pushing for more female representation in the peace negotiations. As women seemingly are being sidelined in the negotiations, the Human Rights Watch has urged the UN to ensure women have full participation, demanding they make clear that they should not be relegated to side discussions. Crucially, women need a central role in determining Afghanistan’s future. Habiba Sarabi has further emphasized how female participation in the peace process is vital in achieving lasting and sustainable peace in Afghanistan. 

However, the upcoming peace talk, the Istanbul conference, which is seen as an important opportunity to set the conditions for a political settlement that includes female participation, has recently been postponed. Initially scheduled for April 24th, 2021, to fast-track an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the meeting has now been put off as the Taliban has refused to attend, according to Afghan government officials. The talks have allegedly been postponed until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends around mid-May, but any future dates for the conference remain unknown. 

In the meantime, the people of Afghanistan remain concerned about what is to come. Amnesty International has called on the international community to remain committed to protecting women’s rights in the country, and Afghan women continue to advocate for enhanced representation in the peace process. The history of Afghanistan has been one of foreign invasion and withdrawal, with the British in the 19th century during the Anglo-Afghan Wars and the Soviets in the 1980’s. After each invasion, the country has undergone a period of infighting and civil war. Now, the fear is whether Afghanistan once again will be pushed into a civil war, and whether the progress in women’s rights during the past two decades will evaporate and be forgotten. Only time will tell. 

Ellen Löfgren 

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