The fall of Kabul into the hands of Islamist insurgents will be long remembered as a horrifying tragedy for Afghan women. Perhaps even more terrifying is the way in which the international community has prioritised concerns about maintaining diplomatic ties with the Taliban over the safety of women and girls.Tragically, unabated brutality and violations of women’s rights may come to be accepted by the world on the pretext of respecting religious and cultural sensitivities—but this should be seen clearly for what it is: a betrayal of the human values the Western world claims to stand for.
The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is instilling fear into the hearts of the Afghan people. Mounting concern about what life will be like under Taliban rule is palpable.
However, the erosion of women’s rights in the name of the preservation of the rights of religious and cultural groups represents a stark extension of already existing prejudice and disdain towards women in Afghan society.
On 15 August, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, tweeted: “The US, the international community and the Afghan government must do everything we can to protect women and girls from inhumane treatment by the Taliban. As we strive to assist them, we must recognize that their voices are important and respect their culture.”
How any culture or religion that denies women respect, dignity and basic human rights can deserve respect in the twenty-first century is beyond comprehension. But using respect for culture as an excuse to downplay women’s rights violations is entirely another matter.
Even before the confirmation of the withdrawal of US troops, during “peace talks” between the Taliban and world leaders, ominous signs emerged concerning women’s place in Afghan society.
From cold-blooded assassinations of female judges to bombings of girls’ schools, the situation continued to deteriorate sharply during the “peace talks”—deeply concerning for Afghans but apparently unnoticed by the world leaders involved. This situation foreshadows the miseries and hardships that lie ahead for Afghan women, who are now losing almost any hope of emancipation.
When you beat women to 'discipline' them&stone them to death for defying social norms, you take away their right to live w dignity.
Women's rights are inalienable.
Defining women's rights "within the framework of Islam"is nothing but thinly disguised erosion of women's rights. https://t.co/uN2WgINCmc
— KhadijaKhan (@KhadijaKhan__) August 18, 2021
By contrast, history shows us a rather liberated image of Afghan women. In the early 1990s, women enjoyed a degree of liberty. They were able to become educated, pursue careers as well as family life, and make a contribution to society. With decades of religious radicalisation, Afghanistan has become an increasingly conservative and patriarchal society where women remain on the margins. Rather than being treated as individuals, their rights are always defined in relation to those of men.
The normalisation of this violation of women’s dignity draws its authority from religious sources and archaic cultural traditions that confer upon men the right to discipline women by beating them if they refuse to comply. According to the ultra-conservative religious views that prevail, most people believe that a girl may be married as soon as she starts menstruating, or even before that.
Little girls as young as six are treated as objects of barter in settling conflicts between two parties, becoming child brides to pay off debts of which they are usually not even aware.
Women are not allowed to leave abusive husbands until those husbands draw their last breath. Bridal clothes can be replaced by bloodstained shrouds, but any effort to strive for freedom can prove calamitous.
Those who are defiant or try to seek help are often disowned, tortured or even killed by their families; if they survive, they are then ostracised by the whole of society.
Women always pay the heaviest of prices whenever draconian religious and cultural restrictions are imposed. They have long been brutally marginalised with the elimination of their basic rights to education, employment and health, and systemically barred from partaking in public life on the pretext of rooting out “vulgarity.”
Under foreign occupation, however, Afghan women have been able to reclaim a significant place in the Afghan public sphere. The cause of gaining recognition as equal members of Afghan society has been replete with unprecedented challenges even during these years—but it has always seemed eminently worth fighting for. Courageous Afghan women activists and journalists have championed the voices of women even in their darkest hour. Unfortunately, the struggle has yet to deliver its goal.
Many have escaped the country or been internally displaced, but many vulnerable women and girls remain stranded. The belief they once placed in the international community seems to be dwindling, while they have been bequeathed nothing but a looming catastrophe without hope of redemption. The fear of being subjugated by Islamists is indeed petrifying.
International terrorist networks are reported to have joined the ranks of Afghanistan’s Taliban—from Isis extremists and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as well as Chechen and Uighur guerrillas. Their patriarchal, misogynistic disdain towards women is not to be underestimated.
In recent weeks, Taliban insurgents cut out an Afghan woman’s eyes in front of her husband and children, before slaughtering her. Elders have been instructed to supply lists of unmarried women and girls aged between twelve and forty-five, whom Taliban leaders consider maal-e-ghanimat—“spoils of war” —to be divided up among God’s warriors.
With the closure of schools and universities, any hope of returning to them, or to the workplace—or of being free from the clutches of fundamentalists—seems to be evaporating rapidly. The cold reality is that, whether because of the Taliban or because of patriarchal and religiously conservative mores more generally, the fate of Afghan women now hangs in the balance. Fears of what may soon follow are entirely legitimate, grounded as they are in the terrifying continuation of abuses against women’s rights across the country.
There is an urgent need to confront and overturn the mind-set that sees women and young girls as chattels to be sold to pay off debts and settle scores.
Foreign occupation is not the solution, and the rights won in the struggle under occupation were always fragile—especially those of women. But the sharia law that the Taliban are so determined to strengthen throughout the country provides no sanctuary for women.
The Taliban are imposing restrictions on women’s movement in the name of a religious “modesty code.” Women are not allowed to leave the house without the company of a male guardian, and are forced to cover themselves from head to toe in the traditional burqa, which is an abomination. It is heart-breaking that these women are to be left alone to fight for their most basic human rights.
The international community must take a firm stand in defending the fundamental rights of Afghan women and girls. Giving up on them would be a gross offence against human dignity.
Many might be inclined to relativise these abuses within and beyond Afghan society, consigning them to the domain of the “cultural rights” of a brutally patriarchal society. But history will not forget how Afghan women were thrown to the wolves for the sake of so-called peace in the region.