After the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, the international community lost everything that it had invested in the last two decades in Afghanistan. Certainly, the U.S. and the international community were not prepared for such a disastrous outcome from its “unwanted state-building mission” post 9/11.
Sadly, the real victims of this tragedy are the Afghan women who have, once again, lost their freedom after two decades. They have become targets of violence and torture even when they demonstrate peacefully for their rights with raised voices on the streets of Kabul. Girls are banned currently from education at the secondary level and segregated at universities. They are harassed for their outfits. They are banned from working or traveling without a male family member as a companion. The presence of women and girls in the public sphere is rapidly shrinking and justice for gender-based violence is widely absent.
With this dark picture of structural violence, it is not surprising why many Afghan women see their life under the Taliban as “death in slow motion.” The Taliban rule over Afghanistan without major resistance, but Afghan women continue to fight bravely for their rights. This has made the Taliban take ever tougher measures against women to silence them. For instance, the Taliban recently announced that they will launch a special department of female religious personnel within the Vice and Virtue Ministry to crack down further on Afghan women.
Civil Society in Afghanistan
The emergence of civil society in Afghanistan is linked with attempts to build a modern state. Tribal councils and shuras (assemblies) have a long history in Afghan society. The reformist King Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) established Anjuman-e Hemayat Naswan (The Association for Women’s Support), one of the first women’s associations in Afghanistan; it was led by the king’s sister. In a deeply conservative society, his modernization reforms sparked a backlash from the clergies that cost him his throne.
This negative experience made his successors avoid radical moves in reforming the traditional Afghan society in the following years. After the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan women became active in humanitarian assistance through NGOs mostly established in Pakistan. In line with the Western notion of a democratic society in which civil society counterbalances the state and scrutinizes its actions, the rise of NGOs, independent media, associations, unions and cooperatives have been mostly the product of foreign intervention after 2001.
The activities of Afghan civil society were mostly urban-centric, dependent on foreign aid and supported by international donors. However, they were able to criticize and comment relatively openly on the Afghan government and ask for reform and changes which were never experienced under previous regimes. With the establishment of the new government in 2001, supported by the international community, Afghan civil society organizations increased from only a few hundreds to 5,947 NGOs and associations as of December 2020).
In only a few months after the return of the Taliban to power, 257 media outlets stopped their activities due to restrictions placed by the Taliban and many other civil society organizations and actors left the country. Although the space for civil society has considerably shrunk inside Afghanistan, such organizations still play an important role in humanitarian relief or advocacy through already established or newly emerging Afghan diaspora organizations.
The Forms of Resistance
There is a sharp contrast in women’s resistance under the first and second Taliban regimes. When the Taliban took power for the first time in 1996 and banned women from the public sphere, there was a strong military resistance against them in the country and they did not succeed in occupying all of Afghanistan. Women in several northern provinces could go to school and work as medical personnel or teachers. Iran and the Central Asian countries opposed the Taliban’s rule and provided support openly to the anti-Taliban commanders and warlords. The military resistance on the ground, supported by neighboring countries, and the international community’s stance against the Taliban’s strict rules gave Afghan women hope for resistance. Some underground classes for women and limited NGO activities continued in Kabul and other larger cities. However, there were limited communication possibilities for Afghan women to be connected to the outside world, which significantly differs from the current circumstances.
This time, the international community has left Afghanistan or in the eyes of many Afghans, Afghanistan was handed over to the Taliban with the Doha Agreement. China, Iran, Pakistan and most of the Central Asian countries have embraced the return of the Taliban and anti-Taliban forces are urged to withdraw from armed resistance, negotiate and join the Taliban, which obviously affects women’s morale and long-term prospects for the future. What significantly differs this time is that women are connected with the world through the internet, social platforms and international media. They film their civil resistance on the streets, reveal the Taliban’s abuse of women, and conduct interviews with national and international media from unknown places. From online education to online debate in various forums, Afghan women are actively advocating and defending their rights in Afghanistan. In addition to self-organized and sometimes spontaneous protests, in fact, a new form of virtual resistance has emerged that challenges the Taliban’s power and simplistic understanding of women’s role in society.
Some Survival Strategies
To support Afghan women who still fight for their rights, the international community ought to alter its current passive approach and take more active measures. Afghanistan is going through one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and the Taliban are well aware of their dire economic challenges, as well as the importance of foreign aid and international recognition. The international community can involve Afghan women in humanitarian relief projects and support women-led organizations in Kabul and the provinces by providing them with funds for humanitarian assistance. This does not mean the sidelining of U.N. organizations. They would, in fact, help as partners in the distribution of humanitarian support, implementation of the projects and outreach to the local communities across Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Afghan National Bank’s assets, frozen by the U.S., can be used for this purpose or other women-driven activities to strengthen their role and presence under the Taliban, too. This requires the U.S. to develop a new strategy to support Afghan women in line with the new realities on the ground.
While the current conditional stance of the international community asking the Taliban to respect fundamental human rights and provide more civic space for Afghan women must be maintained, U.N.-related organizations should also recruit more women into key positions in Afghanistan. On the one hand, this challenges the Taliban’s image of women as inferior and on other hand, it would be inspirational for Afghan women. Furthermore, online services and education for girls as a temporary alternative inside the country should be supported and their enrolment in Western universities facilitated. In persuading the Taliban to respect women’s rights, the international community should not take the role of Islamic countries for granted. Eventually, as Afghanistan is unique for being a country with one of the largest diaspora groups in the world, Western states should benefit from their expertise on Afghanistan and provide more platforms for Afghan women on the international stage to remind the world constantly of their civic struggle and survival in Afghanistan.