Afghan Women: Flag bearers of hope and change

    • Dr Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, Founding Professor – Kautilya School of Public Policy

“Afghan women should not be allowed to work alongside men”. “They are not allowed to come to our offices and work in our ministries.” “Women could study at university, but must be segregated from men.”

In the days following the conquest of Kabul, sampling of such statements, issued by the spokespersons and even the country’s new education minister, have made clear the views of the Taliban. Ever since the February 2020 deal between the United States and the Taliban, the international community hopelessly hung on to the promises by odd Taliban spokespersons outlining their reformed agenda on women and minorities. This new set of statements now prove that it is simply not a case of broken promises by the insurgency-turned-governing entity but a reaffirmation of its orthodox views.

Having travelled and worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade, for me, one of the beacons of hope for the conflict-ravaged country was to see an increase in the number of women workforce participation and enrolment of girl child in schools. As flag bearers of change, these women took significant risks to reak the structural stereotypes and faced threats to their lives in provinces like Kandahar, Herat, Badakshan, Balkh and Nangarhar. In Kandahar, young women, provincial councillors and security personnel I met were always optimistic about their future and took great risks to fulfil their duties. Today, those dreams have been shattered and promises broken.

When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, women were barred from employment and education. During the last two decades, considerable progress was made, although improved women’s rights were more noticeable in urban centres than remote rural areas. Even as girls marched fearlessly into educational institutions, several women became members of the Afghan parliament (MPs) and provincial councils, joined the bureaucracy, security forces, sports, media and even the fashion industry. Conservatism bared its fangs occasionally but not so much.

According to the World Bank, the female labour participation rate in 2020 stood at 23 per cent. Although by no means a satisfying state of affairs, the last twenty years was in a way marked by hope— hope for improvement and change. The Taliban wants to reverse these achievements by returning to the earlier obscurantist ways. The initial euphoria of the possibility of engaging or recognising a reformed and moderate Taliban is gradually waning away as hard-line elements consolidate their positions in Kabul.

On September 7, the Taliban announced their male-only cabinet. Taliban fighters have broken up odd protests led by women demanding equal rights with men. The Taliban spokespersons have said that their fighters have not been trained to respect women, who must stay at home for their safety. However, a former police officer in the Ghor province has been killed at her home and her face mutilated by Taliban fighters. She was pregnant at the time. Most women MPs, community, and thought leaders have either fled the country or are in hiding. There have been widespread reports of women being sent back home from their workplaces.

In 2012, I interviewed Maulvi Qalamuddin, former deputy minister for the General Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice (Amr-e-Bil M’arouf Wa Nahi Anil Munkar) in the Taliban regime ( 1996-2001), at the High Peace Council in Kabul. Qalamuddin was responsible for imposing strict laws and physically punishing women who violated those laws. Initially, he seemed to be a reformist advocating favouring women working in offices and attending universities. It is now evident that this shift was a mere tactical one to make the group amenable to the international community. Not surprisingly, the attempts by the Taliban to rebrand itself in the initial days of the takeover, which captured much of the international media attention, has started disappearing.

Idealism has hardly been a factor in global politics. The 9/11 attacks on the American homeland and not the violation of women’s rights were behind the US intervention in Afghanistan. However, the United States did cite an increased female workforce as one of the major successes of its 20-year operation. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban’s regressive approach to women rights, which is now nearly formalised, would matter to the international community as it prepares for a massive aid package to an impoverished Afghanistan. Poverty levels in the country, according to the UNDP, could rise from 72 to 97 per cent. A small but effective step would be to link future international aid to Afghanistan to the Taliban’s inclusivity, women and minority rights. More importantly, a more extensive global campaign to protect women and human rights in Afghanistan is required to prevent the backsliding of the gains made in the last two decades.

Dr Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is a Founding Professor, Kautilya School of Public Policy, Hyderabad. She has worked for more than a decade in various provinces of Afghanistan in the governmental and non-governmental sectors. @shanmariet

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.