One year ago today — on August 15, 2021 — Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Again.
We all know the story of how Afghanistan, after two decades of aid and military support, unfathomable amounts of money, numerous elections, and many feeble attempts at peace, returned in 2021 to where it had been in 2001 — under the suffocating rule of a regime known as the Taliban.
I will, however, tell the story from the perspective of women, the ones who have been — and continue to be — most affected by this story. Here, we will begin with a so-called peace deal that betrayed women, bargaining their rights away. A deal made between men, all with blood on their hands. It is a story that, for Afghan women, came full circle.
Last year, as Afghanistan was falling, I reached out to my friend Aziza, women’s rights leader and partner from my time in Afghanistan. I asked how she was, and how the women’s movement would fare. The full conversation was published in my 2022 book, Freedom on the Frontlines.
On 11 June 2021, Aziza wrote:
Things are not going to get any better. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle and fear from this precarious situation. Aid has ended and NGOs have long been closed. We will not have achieved what we had hoped. What we set out to do. What we started to do. And now we have to adapt to whatever that may come in order to survive.
On 16 June, I published a piece on CNN arguing that the US rhetoric of liberation that animated their invasion nearly 20 years ago had fallen short of its goal. This built on an argument I made in my 2008 doctoral thesis and later in my 2009 book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan. There, and again here, I argued that the status of Afghan women was used as the barometer to assess social change, and that the promise of freedom had fallen short.
The $780 million the US spent to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan was about to go to waste, I explained, as the hasty withdrawal of US troops would likely lead to greater human rights violations, more school closures and increased violence against women. The voices I heard from Afghanistan were fearful. Women’s rights were hanging in the balance. Again.
Two decades of investment in women undoubtedly did achieve many goals: schools reopened for girls, giving them access to education, including university. Women had access to employment. They worked, flew planes, joined the military, became government ministers, and more.
But gains were patchy. Progress was perpetually met by major backlashes, a resurgence of a fundamentalist order, and more violence against women. Rural women still lived in Taliban-controlled areas, under severe restrictions. They did not benefit from these improvements. Opportunities for work, health care, or education never reached them.
On 22 June, Aziza told me this:
We could have predicted this. Patriarchy is so embedded in the culture and roots. There is need for gender awareness, education, and prolonged efforts to change what generations of men in power have created. The work that was done during the last two decades was not enough to change the fundamentals. It provided a short-term relief to what women had suffered during Taliban, but it could get worse when there is no more intervention.
On 24 June, I was invited to speak on CNN, building from my article. I was asked how serious things were for Afghan women. Very serious, I explained. At that point we had already heard of greater human rights violations, more school closures, increased violence against women. It was just getting started — things would get worse.
At that time, despite gains made, two-thirds of girls remained out of school, 70 percent of Afghan women and girls still could not read or write, and more than 80 percent of Afghan women and girls experienced abuse. Most of this took place in the home. Women’s security in the home is a reflection of the security in the country. If women cannot be safe at home, they’re not safe at all. And if women are not safe, then no one is safe. This, I have long argued, should be the barometer by which the entire intervention is judged.
Afghan women are incredibly strong. They have always demonstrated that strength, along with incredible courage and resilience. They always had strong voices and the ability to use them. But, are we listening? They have powerful voices, but they have no microphone. Did we do all we could to amplify their voices as they articulated their own needs? Did we even meet those needs?
On 10 August, US intelligence warned that it would take 30–90 days for the Taliban to topple the government and occupy Kabul. The city fell five days later.
Aziza wrote to me, explaining that progress made through international intervention was patchy — and only for the urban elite. Rural women’s lives hardly changed. If anything, Aziza explained, “financial aid may have fed their families, but the patriarchy remained.” And, she added, “today they are under the same abuse — or even worse.”
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban reached Kabul.
Read the full article here.