There is fear in Afghanistan, but what women must be experiencing is abject terror.
To some degree every country is a tale of multiple realities: that of the majority and that of the minorities. In Afghanistan the entire female gender is a minority subject to the whims of men and to the forces of history. The latter is even more powerful than the former.
Consider the generational roller coaster of rights that women have been subject to. In the 1970’s women had the right to dress in western clothes, to study and to pursue a career. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had a number of women in cabinet; in the country’s urban cities women were going to school; and there was a female presence within the police force.
The number of women practicing a profession was impressive. But as mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet invasion grew, so did the politicization of women’s rights as the country increasingly leaned towards the more repressive influence of the pan-Islamic ideology spreading through the Middle East and the rise of theocracies in Iran and Pakistan.
Once the Russians withdrew, the Taliban’s power rose and by 1994 they took over central power in Kabul and systematically began to revoke the rights of women. Between 1996 and 2001, women’s rights were at the lowest ebb. “They banned all education for women and girls, imposed punishments including stoning, lashing, and amputation, and confined women to their homes unless they were escorted by a male family member, denying them access to most employment — or even a walk.”
Then as a result of the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan became of immediate interest to Americans and whereas in the 1990’s the warnings of some women’s rights activists had fallen on deaf ears, 9/11 provided the opportunity to politicize the “brutality” of gender oppression. It was folded into the rhetoric that justified the war that would last 20 years and bear no fruit. Yet as the Americans beat back the Taliban, women flourished. When the 15-year-old activist and future Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousufzai was publicly shot for promoting education for girls, the world’s attention became riveted on women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But the Americans, like the Russians before them, eventually gave up the struggle to hold back the repressive forces and left. The history of defeat for invaders, occupiers and would-be saviors is very long indeed in Afghanistan. How many people recall that Alexander the Great already tried and failed in 330 B.C. what the British, the Russians and the Americans (among many others) tried in the 20th and 21st centuries? Indeed, the land that he tried to conquer and pacify had already been the object of countless conquerors’ desire for 3 centuries before that.
Alexander the Great invaded what is today Afghanistan in 330 B.C. as part of a war against Persia. He grabbed power through ruthless military action, but when he was still unable to completely subdue the fractious tribes he resorted to the oldest trick in the book: a marriage alliance to consolidate the progress he had made through military might. He took Roshanak (Rhoxane /Roxana /Roxanne /Roshanak), the daughter of the warlord Oxyartes, as his bride in 327 B.C and married off his soldiers to local women in mass ceremonies. He renamed the land Bactria, after the most powerful tribe of the area, and settled it with his Ionian veterans as a way to bring stability to a region that was already notorious for its volatility and brutality.
As Alexander is reputedly to have written to his mother, Olympia: “I am involved in the land of brave people where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldiers.” Bravery is a trait proudly valued by Afghans. The welcome sign at Kabul Airport reads: “Welcome to the land of the brave.”
When Alexander died just a few years later, in 323, whatever stability he had brought to the area was erased by the resurgence of the local warlords, satraps and their motley tribes. Does any of this sound familiar to our current politicians? Could they have learned some lessons from history? The only enduring thing that survived from Alexander’s conquest was the spread of Hellenic thought and customs.
Now the dark days are here again in Afghanistan and nothing could better illustrate the ups and downs of women’s rights in Afghanistan than what Zarifa Ghafari, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, said a few days ago: “I’m sitting here waiting for them to come. There is no one to help me or my family. I’m just sitting with them and my husband. And they will come for people like me and kill me.” She rose to power, but now faces death.
As Malala Yousufzai has written in The New York Times: “Afghan girls and young women are once again where I have been — in despair over the thought that they might never be allowed to see a classroom or hold a book again.” Already, we are hearing reports of female students being turned away from their universities, workers from their offices.
We are led to believe by Taliban spokespersons like Zabihullah Mujahid that women will be afforded all their rights. Yet all these assurances come with the caveat “within the limits of Islam.”
As many have suggested, the Taliban’s rhetoric and promises about women’s rights are little more than a transparent attempt that they used to convince the global community that they have changed their rigid position in an attempt to gain credibility and leverage in their negotiations in Doha.
But how many people can be fooled by this show? As Heather Barr has written: “The Taliban tweet these days, which is new, but aside from that, they haven’t changed much.”
And here is another thought to ponder: the Taliban benefited greatly from the withdrawal of the Russians in 1988 mainly because they either appropriated armaments that had been left behind, or bought them from the US and Israel. Today the Taliban is enjoying the treasure trove of armaments that Americans have left behind. The US spent approximately 82 billion dollars to build what they had hoped would be a self-sustaining Afghan army. These tanks, guns, ammunition, helicopters and more, have now been abandoned by the Afghan army who have pretty much turned tail and run, maybe because they became disillusioned and discouraged when Donald Trump, as part of his negotiations with the Taliban, set the withdrawal deadline of May 1, 2021. Is it likely that the Taliban will not take advantage of such a windfall of fire power to become even more powerful? Not likely. And should we therefore be optimistic about their intentions for women’s rights?