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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Women in post-US Afghanistan

Their security, rights are imperilled with the prospect of Taliban rule


Updated: June 8, 2021 8:08:51 pm
Schoolgirls attend psychotherapy class after a massive bomb exploded outside their school, that killed at least 80 students in Kabul, Afghanistan. (File Photo: Reuters)

Written by Vivek Mishra, Tarushikha Sarvesh

A miasma of despair shrouds Afghanistan’s future as the US is rushing to pull out its residual troops, leaving the country at a dangerous crossroads. The grave uncertainty around the future security of the Afghan people in general and doubts over the elected government’s ability to withhold a Taliban onslaught post the US withdrawal have eclipsed concerns about the status of Afghan women under a potential Taliban rule.

Voicing serious concerns about the future of women in Afghanistan under a possible Taliban rule, a US National Intelligence Council Report has said that the militant group is likely to “roll back” the progress women have made in the last two decades. A 2019 UN study corroborates such fears by their finding that only 15 per cent of Afghan men think that women should work outside the home after marriage. Close to 40 per cent of those enrolled in schools are females in Afghanistan and 80 per cent of Afghan women above 15 are illiterate. These figures will only get worse if the Taliban comes to power, or even in the case of a civil war.

Furthermore, more than 60 per cent of men in the country think that women have too many rights. In some Pashtun areas, tribal codes exist with or without the Taliban. These and other medieval laws threaten to be practised more often if the Taliban come to power or even enter a power-sharing deal with the elected government in Kabul. If the horrors of the Taliban rule between 1996-2001 are repeated, more severe tribal codes imposing restrictions on women such as mandatory veiled clothing, prohibition to go out without a male escort, laughing too loudly, charges of adultery and stoning to death could return.

Amidst these possibly perilous circumstances, it is only fitting that four Afghan women are part of the Afghan government-appointed team negotiating peace talks with the Taliban – even though the men in the team far outnumber the women. The presence of women at the same table may have been a bitter pill to swallow for the deeply patriarchal Taliban but it has inserted into them a sense of the government’s resolve, particularly in not letting the gains made in the last 20 years be in vain. No wonder, then, that despite their uncompromising attitude to the Doha Peace Process, the Taliban has hinted at a modicum of accommodation vis-à-vis women’s rights, claiming that their political views have matured and their views on women have evolved.

However, it would be foolhardy to take such promises at face value — the Taliban has reneged on promises in treaties before the US withdrawal has been completed. The Taliban has increased both the intensity and frequency of attacks, as it waits on the outskirts of many strategic urban districts. In the last month or so alone, several key districts have fallen to the Taliban including Burka in northern Baghlan, Jalriz district in eastern Wardak province and Dawlat Shah district in Laghman province. Besides, coordinated attacks in several districts in the northern and eastern parts of the country by the Taliban are on the rise to choke important highways connecting to Kabul.

As the US-led military coalition is making its last-ditch efforts to get out of Afghanistan without any more casualties, the focus of the international community is largely on the security void that the troop pull-out will leave in that country, perhaps not so much the consequences it will have for the country’s women and children. The imposing nature of high politics surrounding state-security issues invariably shrouds the circumstances concerning women and children in conflict zones. For the same reason, in conflict zones, in particular, issues of security almost always precede issues of rights. Today, women in Afghanistan face this de-prioritisation first-hand. Their condition is doubly concerning both from the perspectives of security and rights. While security is a real and present danger, a looming Taliban rule makes their question of rights even more pressing.

Today, the tension between punitively threatening premodern anticipations of incoming Taliban rule and the deserved ideals of modern liberal democracy is palpably real for Afghanistan. Especially because Kabul has swayed from being one of the most liberal democracies in South Asia in the last century to being a purgatory for women under the Taliban. While in the popular imagination, the picture of three girls walking the streets of Kabul in the early 1970s along with fashion shows that used to be held in the county have set the parameters of idealistic reminiscence of a culturally liberal Afghanistan, history shows that these constructs are only tropes of a relative past. In actuality, cultural accommodation and religious acceptability were very much a part of Afghan society. Until the conflict of the late 1970s, Afghanistan had seen a steady progression of women’s rights. Afghan women earned their right to vote in 1919, a year before the women in the US did. The 1960s saw the removal of the purdah system in the country, ending gender segregation, followed by a new constitution that enshrined political and other rights.

As the US leaves Afghanistan in haste, perhaps gaining nothing in the last two decades, a last-ditch effort to ensure that the Taliban honour their commitments regarding women’s education and safety and well-being in Afghanistan post-withdrawal, may earn the Biden administration a requiem after all.
The US has hinted at a continued peripheral involvement in the security of Afghanistan. The Biden administration through its pressures can ensure that an ecosystem of diplomacy sustains in the country even after it leaves. Such assurances could make security, the education and overall well-being of Afghan women conditions-based in the future. International history is bereft of even one example where sanctions have been singularly imposed for the violation of women’s rights. The US under Biden has a chance to start this practice.

Internally, various stakeholders engaged in the peace process should “strategically essentialise” a guiding framework for diplomatic negotiations between the government and the Taliban to prioritize agendas of women for a common cause – uplifting of human rights for all in Afghanistan.

Mishra is Research Fellow, ICWA, New Delhi and Sarvesh is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Advanced Centre for Women, Aligarh Muslim University

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