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Afghan women need support as agents, not victims

Susanne Zwingel | 25 August

Truth has sunk in. The Taliban have swiftly taken control over the entire country of Afghanistan and many thousands of Afghans are desperately trying to leave the country. The images of chaos, family separations, health emergencies and even violent deaths at Kabul airport, as well as news of overwhelmed foreign governments trying to evacuate at least a fraction of those fearing for their lives keep making daily headlines. Despite conciliatory statements of the new rulers, many people may become targets of Taliban retaliation. Afghan women, especially those who have step out of their strictly confined domestic roles, are facing a daunting future under these radically new circumstances.

A Western perspective on Afghanistan often equates the Taliban regime of the late 1990s with the complete and utmost oppression of women, and the two decades after with a time of overturning this extreme misogyny. This assumption found its visual embodiment in the burka, and especially in women “being saved” from wearing it. Immediately after the US/ allied invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, scholar Lila Abu-Lughod famously called out this misconception. We still have to do a better job in recognizing that Afghan women are people with agency and heterogeneous viewpoints. Afghan women are not what Westerners think when they see them wearing (or taking off) burkas.

20 years of occupation by the United States and allied forces was, for the actual purpose of eliminating terrorist threats to the US homeland, a costly mistake; for Afghanistan and its people, it was more than a mistake, and it certainly was not “liberation”. Without a political strategy, military presence could not stabilize the country. Imported models of governance and development created mostly two things: corruption and resistance (see Matthew Hoh’s resignation letter of 2009 that elaborates on this eloquently). As a result, the Afghan government was a façade rather than an entity connected to and working for the Afghan people. Florian Kühn compares it to the Potemkin villages that were said to be erected in the 18th century solely to please Russian Empress Catherine the Great and dismantled after she had moved on.

The terrible images of the last days notwithstanding, ending the occupation was the right decision. It would have been wise for US and NATO troops to leave long ago or, even better, to work for containing terrorist threats without invading other countries. A decade ago, a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) put it this way: "There are three enemies in this country: the Taliban, the [former mujahideen commanders] and the Karzai government, and foreign troops. All three of them commit crimes against our people. When the foreign troops go, we will only have two left to deal with."

Despite these fundamental problems, women could expand their opportunities during the twenty years of occupation, even if perhaps in more moderate terms than external observers believe. Many more girls have attended school, even if their numbers are difficult to verify and have allegedly never risen over 50%, with especially low, and decreasing, rates in rural areas. The expansion of education, for girls as well as for boys, is perhaps the most important and impactful achievement of the last twenty years and there is reason to hope that this tidal change cannot be undone. The number of women (15 years and older) in the workforce has increased, according to ILO estimates, from 15% (2001) to 21% (2019) which is, in global comparison, still very low. Violence against women and girls has become a public issue and is criminalized since 2009, even if the implementation of the pathbreaking Elimination of Violence against Women Law leaves much to be desired. Women have entered the political stage and with the help of electoral quotas, 27% of Parliamentarians are women as of 2021.

These numbers show that women have had more space to be full humans, but such a process is never linear but contested and erratic. As men, women act from within their cultural context and the majority will not be eager (or think it is possible) to confront it. In an insightful 2011 article Naila Kabeer, Ayesha Khan and Naisan Adlparvar interviewed several Afghan women on their changing lives and describe how they navigate cultural norms while fighting for more recognition and agency in order to mitigate their families’ economic hardships. The interviewees were typically not interested in women’s rights in the sense of individual self-determination. Having grown up in a patriarchal, family-focused culture, most of them appreciated an expansion of their agency within, but not beyond these cultural traditions. They also thought that more rights for women, such as leaving the house to work, would improve the patriarchal family model and prevent it from turning into unchecked male tyranny.

Afghan women are the protagonists in their struggles for a better society. They are not a monolithic bloc but differ widely in terms of beliefs, goals, skills and the constraints they find themselves in. Are there ways to support them in defending their hard fought-for rights? Clearly, the idea of female subordination to male leader- and guardianship is a foundational value of the Taliban, and it is embraced by many societal forces in Afghanistan. These forces will be emboldened by the new regime, and they will try everything possible to discredit women’s gains by tagging them to the illegitimate occupation. From the outside, two strategies might help to push the Taliban towards a less extremely misogynist stance: First, the international recognition of the regime has to be made contingent on its respect for women’s rights and equality as established by the Afghan constitution. The Taliban government needs recognition, and we can all remind our governments as well as the United Nations to insist on this demand. Second, to concretely strengthen Afghan women, both in public leadership roles and in smaller, everyday decision making in their communities, there are many organizations set up and led by Afghan women that will appreciate monetary and ideational support for their work. Here are just a few examples of such organizations:

The point is to listen, show solidarity, and follow these brave women’s lead.


Susanne Zwingel is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. Her research interests are women’s human rights and their translation, women’s movements and public gender policies around the world, global governance and gender, and feminist and post-colonial IR theories. She is author of Translating International Women’s Rights: The CEDAW Convention in Context (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and co-editor of Feminist Strategies in International Governance with Elisabeth Prügl and Gülay Caglar (Routledge, 2013). Her work has appeared in a number of edited volumes as well as a wide range of journals including International Feminist Journal of Politics, International Studies Quarterly, Politics and Gender, International Studies Review, and Third World Thematics. She currently works on transnational gender norm translation in South Florida and the Caribbean.


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