After debarring Afghan women from parks and gyms, the Taliban has now imposed a ban on them attending universities and arrested women protesting against this ban. In March this year, the Taliban had already barred girls from going to secondary schools.
This means that now, if you are a woman in Afghanistan, you cannot work in sectors other than health and education, cannot attend schools/colleges/universities and cannot venture 70 kms outside your home unless accompanied by a male relative. This is without precedent in any other part of the world. Even Iran — where the common people are up in arms against their government after the death in September 2022 of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was taken into custody by the ‘morality police’ — does not have such strict rules with regard to movement and other rights of women.
It seems like yesterday when US and allied forces had upped and left Afghanistan but it has been over 17 months now since their ignominious withdrawal (in August 2021). Chaotic scenes of people running on Kabul airport tarmac behind and hanging on to the wings of large passenger aircraft as they took off are still fresh in this writer’s mind.
Given that the situation with regard to women and their rights under the Taliban in Afghanistan is fast deteriorating, it makes me wonder if the world community, led by the West, could have done more to secure the future of women in that country before dropping the exit bomb and leaving in an undignified, rushed manner — the geopolitical equivalent of dropping Afghanistan like a hot potato?
Afghanistan was not always this tangled web of restrictions, hyper-religiosity and a place where women are treated as second class citizens. Before the first Taliban regime (1996-2001), women were relatively emancipated, with fewer restrictions on attire, movement and employment. Photographs from this period show Afghan women dressed in so-called ‘Western’ attire, moving around freely and being gainfully employed outside their homes.
All this changed when the Taliban came to power and suspended women’s civil liberties in the 90s. Public executions, floggings and other forms of violence against women became more commonplace and even widely-expected. Following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, when the Taliban were removed from power, women’s rights improved gradually under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Under the 2004 Constitution, women were de jure equal to men.
But last year, the oscillating nature of women’s rights in Afghanistan became a reality again and now it is in its most eroded form, expected to downgrade further.
This brings us back to the question of Western responsibility — assumed and expected — for leaving this beleaguered nation in a worse state than they found it in. From bolting overnight, without informing their Afghan counterparts of their plan, to leaving in the lurch women and other vulnerable sections of society, to letting stockpiles of weapons, equipment and vehicles be (mis)used by once nefarious terrorist elements — the Western forces have left behind a sorry mess and have much to answer for.
Before bolting from Afghanistan without once turning back to look at the state of women, girls, liberals and minorities they were leaving behind, the West could not have invited any more ignominy upon themselves. During their ‘talks’ with the Taliban in neutral nations, the West should have assured that there was a mechanism in place to redress grievances of women, liberals and minorities.
The establishment of a robust apparatus to acknowledge, address and remedy the injustices faced by the above-mentioned sections of society should have been high on their list of priorities.
The simple freedom and fundamental rights that women and minorities (in the nearly 20-year period in which the Taliban were out of power) had come to expect as ‘natural’ and ‘guaranteed’ should have been brought under a non-negotiable charter of rights. It is pertinent to note that young Afghans born after 2001 have not known any other reality or state of being. They were born in a time period when the Taliban were hardly more than a footnote in the tomes of their lives. Imagine their shock and agony on realising that they have been left to fend for themselves (with little more than apologies and bland platitudes) against a mightily-powerful, better-equipped and highly-motivated adversary.
It almost seems like the West jettisoned the cause of Afghan women and minorities and did not even pause to consider the short- and long-term fallout of that decision.
This makes others wary of allying with the West and taking its word seriously. It finds an echo in the situation in Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian first lady being feted in the United States and other allied nations, while still not being offered a safe spot in their alliance of convenience.
Geopolitically, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth and makes one wonder about the motivation and diktats that compel the West to leave behind foreign policy disasters and blunders (recall Vietnam) with clockwork regularity. It seems the sole geopolitical inducement for the ‘first world’ seems to be obscene profits and a glorified ‘saviour’ narrative. If it had been anything more than this, the state of Afghanistan and the state of women in Afghanistan would have been radically-different.