The Dilemma of Women in Afghanistan

Author Name: Arsim Tariq      24 Sep 2021    

As the Taliban are gaining ground and fighting in Afghanistan is intensifying, with complete withdrawal of US forces by September 2021, the prospects of expanding Taliban control and a probable civil war within Afghanistan looms large. Afghanistan is descending into what Antonio Gramsci called a state in which ‘the old is dying and the new is yet to be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ And with the Taliban emerging (again) as symptoms of a failed system, the future of women in Afghanistan is at a critical juncture.

There is no doubt that Afghan women had to deal with the worst of the violence in a conflictual, patriarchal, and unstable state as they were subjected to gender discrimination, violent misogynist practices and gender biases at the hands of radical groups and men in power. It is, indeed, a complex situation in Afghanistan for women because there are many factors such as religious radicalism, customs, traditions, and social norms that victimize them. Many Afghan women are struggling to reverse this perception as they try to assert themselves as ‘survivors’ rather than victims. Whilev some strides may have been made during the US-NATO occupation, by and large, majority of Afghan women, especially in the rural areas have no agency, and a patriarchal rigid system is set in place that tries its very best to ensure that they do not get any sort of agency either.

And now with the US withdrawal and the Taliban uprising, the situation of women’s rights may become worse because the US was viewed as an outsider by the Taliban, and they negatively saw its policies as an agenda to ‘modernize’ or ‘westernize’ Afghanistan by targeting its cultural traditions and nationalism. This is the prime reason policies or programs benefiting women’s issues have mostly been struggling or were met with resistance.

However, Taliban political leaders, during their direct talks about withdrawal with the US and involvement in the intra-Afghan peace talks, have proclaimed serious pragmatic rethinking in their approach towards violence and governance, especially concerning women. They claimed to have adopted a moderate Islamic thought process contrary to what they had in the 1990s when their Islamist rule encompassed violence and restrictions on women education and their outside presence without a male companion. For example, in his op-ed in the New York Times, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, explicitly stated that they will have a system where the rights of women would be guarded, including their right to education.

However, evidence on the ground suggests otherwise. Interviews by different media outlets such as The Guardian and VoA with the local residents under Taliban-controlled territories have claimed that these are the same ‘old’ Taliban and they are every bit as brutal as they were in the 1990s. The Human Rights Watch published a 32-page document that indicated that with the rise of the Taliban, women would be more vulnerable to violence and prone to sexual abuse and oppression. The report focuses on the difficulties Afghan women have to face in pursuing justice against those responsible for perpetrating violence. Subsequently, many residents of Balkh, a district in northern Balkh province, confirmed that the Taliban have been distributing leaflets with the same restrictions or orders for women that were imposed in the 1990s: cover themselves from head to toe and do not leave the house without a male counterpart. This is an indication that the Taliban may not allow women to work outside their homes which will force around 30% of female civil servants in Afghanistan out of work.

Furthermore, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported in its ‘Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’ update that in the first half of 2021, 1,659 civilians were killed and 3,254 were wounded showing a 47% increase as compared to the same period last year. UNAMA stated that the May-June period witnessed more casualties compared with the first four months of the year, and women and children made up nearly half of these (46%). It is clear that the rise of the Taliban in the May-June period came with unprecedented violence against women and children and it is highly likely to be continued during the whole year if the situation is not handled properly. While fighting may have erupted due to the offensive Taliban advances, they were responsible for 39% of the casualties; other responsible elements were different non-state actors and pro-government security forces.

It appears that the future of women in Afghanistan is bleak. But, this is not a new scenario. Every year, outrageous cases of violence against women occur. Women and female children are forced to marry, forced to be submissive, forced to kill themselves or be subjected to many other inhumane practices. The issue is that these are not seen as crimes. Even when such cases become popular, in most cases family privacy or family honor is protected instead of women’s rights. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimates that 80% of suicide attempts in Afghanistan are by women. Here it must be pointed out that many cases go unreported because violence has become so mainstream that it has become almost ‘normalized.’

For there to be a transformative improvement in women’s rights in Afghanistan, their voices must be heard from the grassroots level to the very top, with a more direct focus on gender relations. To target women’s subordination and vulnerability in Afghanistan, factors such as orthodox/radical social, cultural, and religious norms must be dissected and targeted. Only when ideologies that become a hurdle for women and their liberation are countered with effective policies, awareness and educational initiatives can Afghan girls and women truly enjoy independence, better opportunities, and access to resources.

 

The author was part of CASS’ 2021 Internship Program in August during which interns were asked to write an article on Afghanistan. The best articles were selected and edited to be posted on the CASS website.

 

 

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