(Analysis) Solidarity, Resistance & Liberation: The Afghan Women

Tanvi Sharma

While news on this issue has long left the mainstream discourse, the Taliban and their regressive policies for women are still very much in place in Afghanistan. Afghan women today continue to have their autonomy snatched from them, and are still excluded from all political, decision-making platforms. With even the World Economic Forum ranking Afghanistan last of the 146 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index 2023, how the gender dynamic plays out in examining the military rule of Taliban becomes critical, where resistance becomes the only means of hope for social justice and gender equality.

From having a Ministry of Women Affairs established in 2001, to not only it being replaced by the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in 2021 but also facing deprivation of the most basic rights, the women of Afghanistan have been the worst affected by the tumultuous ravages of Taliban Rule. The taste of liberation for Afghan Women since 2000 was perhaps the highest during the U.S occupation in Afghanistan with President Bush signing the 2001 Afghan Women and Children Relief Act. In 2002, schools opened for girls after many years of forced closure. Women’s political participation was encouraged via grants to NGOs to help women improve the condition of their rights that had been previously violated to the extreme by the Taliban. In 2002, Afghan Women celebrated International Women’s Day with optimism for the future and even the UN Headquarters featured the theme: “Afghan women today: Realities and Opportunities”. But in 2021, all the progress towards women’s rights came tumbling down with the Taliban takeover of the Afghan Government and complete withdrawal of the US Military from Afghanistan in August 2021.

But what did these series of events mean for women? The vile, stringent and oppressive ideals once again reinforced upon women by the Taliban have led the entire world into despair, propelling their position in society back to how it was pre-2001. Afghan women today cannot access education beyond class six, to a gym or a park, or even access healthcare without a male chaperone. Women’s formal political participation has been totally annihilated, as the Taliban replaced female government officials and civil servants with men.  Nevertheless, to say that the gender dynamics of such intra-state conflicts in third world countries such as Afghanistan are always at the expense of the most marginalized communities, that is women, is an understatement. Women in Afghanistan are today being subjected to what is being called- ‘death in slow motion’ by the Taliban. Hence, it becomes critical to underscore the Taliban’s military regime and its consequences vis-a-vis a feminist lens. A very crucial aspect that feminists have advocated for is that while acknowledging hardships of not only Afghan women but all women stratas in any conflict narrative, we should not turn a blind eye to their resistance and backdoor efforts towards peacebuilding and policymaking.  

 “If we hide in our houses, they win”.

-Anonymous Afghan woman while giving an interview on International Women’s Day, 2022

The Taliban’s efforts of completely erasing women from political spaces, and now advancing toward their erasure from social spaces doesn’t imply that the Afghan women have simply held back, and are just passive victims as popular narrative might make them out to be. With the United Nations Security Council’s resolution 1325 on ‘Women, Peace and Security’, the importance of the role women play in conflict prevention, transformation and peacebuilding has been globally emphasized. To recognize that women’s experiences of war and conflict are more diverse than that of men, and how they need to be considered and given space in the rebuilding process, is something that makes an impactful difference. This conversation is left incomplete without discussing the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) which was established in the capital city of Kabul in 1977. Founded by Meena, who was assassinated by the Afghan Intelligence KHAD in 1987, it is one of the first feminist socio-political organizations that advocated for social reform in the suffering political atmosphere of Afghanistan. The root cause of politico-social inequalities faced by Afghan women is the religious fundamentalism propagated by the Taliban, which RAWA has clearly acknowledged. RAWA’s struggle recognized the essentialness of gender-dynamics within conflict transformation, and actively integrated men as partners in their feminist politics. To negotiate the patriarchal structures not only with conservative men but women as well, men associated with RAWA became immensely helpful as they did have more influence to convince the Afghan people. 

Over the decades, Afghanistan has been ravaged with imperial forces, civil wars and today, the Taliban again (earlier Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001)- which has severely impacted Afghanistan’s economy. With Afghanistan’s economy shrinking by 25% since the Taliban takeover in 2021, their further restrictive policies on women’s education, political and economic activities, and other fields, will ensure that Afghanistan’s economic recovery path will not be easy. This economic crisis has also led to a broken health care system, with women being affected the worst. The requirement for women to travel with men means that if no men were available due to circumstances, an Afghan woman can not even access medical facilities. The Taliban forcibly closing school doors for girls beyond sixth grade and not allowing females to access higher education, presses the daunting question of what will become of the next generation of doctors, nurses and midwives. Being a deeply conservative and patriarchal country, the absence of female doctors means that many families would not allow male doctors to tend to their family members. To combat the education crisis, RAWA bravely continues to operate underground, running ‘home-based schools’ and literary courses, with education as one of their prime agendas- however this is no match for university level professional education, and one must mourn at the state of affairs for women in Afghanistan. Another pioneering activist who has been working consistently towards providing education to Afghan girls is Pashtana Durrani. Durrani is the founder of ‘Learn Afghanistan’, a grassroots organization propagating digital literacy campaigns. With formally banning women from even joining NGOs, the religiously fundamentalist Taliban have made the process of completely erasing women from public spaces quite convenient for themselves, as with no women in political and decision-making spaces, the misogynistic Taliban leaders will quite obviously not combat any opposing women-led views either. 

The Taliban have justified their misogynistic policies while hiding behind the shield of Sharia Law, however it became quite ironic when the General Secretary of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation himself condemned the Taliban Government for banning women from universities and not allowing them to work in NGOs in 2022. It is no surprise that after all prehistoric Taliban policies targeting the women, their cornerstone victory would be complete invisibilization of the Afghan woman. Confining women forcibly not only behind their burqa, but also to the walls of their home, the Taliban attempts to make the Afghan women prisoners in their own country. Therefore, walking without a male member becomes an act of defiance, something which sounds so ordinary to most of us. Setting up feminist political organizations and  civil society groups act as much needed acts of resistance. A popular resistance movement established by the Afghan women from the grassroots is widely known as the ‘Bread, Work, Freedom’, where women fearlessly defend their agency and autonomy. Moreover, women have also utilized virtual spaces to the fullest, with the ‘Together Stronger’ whatsapp group chat being a gleaming example. This group chat is a space for activism, mobilization, gathering solidarity and support towards the Afghan women- and a place to organize their demands. With the Taliban providing no space for formal policy making and peacebuilding to women, resistance and backdoor campaigning became the only way to organize solidarity and plan for the future of women. 

The role women play in peace talks is invaluable, with them bringing in their experiences of war and conflict and holding important roles in sustaining peace. Moreover, since women are the worst affected by conflict, they become essential stakeholders in conflict transformation. Countries with extreme gender-gaps in leadership positions have a much higher possibility of being ravaged by intra-state conflict- to which Afghanistan stands testimony. This is not to simplistically claim that all women are calm and peaceful, whereas all men tend to be violent- as this would be reductive. However, war and the military has been deeply gendered throughout history, and even the process of soldiering brings with it appeals to masculinity with slangs such as ‘be a man’, calling out to one’s aggression. Nevertheless, while the debate towards ending the hyper-masculinity of war is different from our focus, one should target towards equalizing the gender structures of peacebuilding and conflict-transformation, to liberate the citizens of Afghanistan. There is no complete reconstruction of Afghan society nor is there credibility of the Taliban government without the emancipation of women. Afghan feminist agencies and individuals today continue resisting the Taliban- fighting for their rights, chanting ‘to not politicize education‘, and fearlessly demanding for reversal of the Afghan women’s invisibilization and elimination from all spaces- be it public or private.

Suggested Readings:

  1. In Afghanistan, Resistance Means Women | Human Rights Watch. 12 Oct. 2022, www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/12/afghanistan-resistance-means-women#:~:text=Since%20the%20Taliban%20took%20power. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.
  2. Limaye, Yogita. “Five Key Moments in the Crushing of Afghan Women’s Rights.” BBC News, 14 Aug. 2023, www.bbc.com/news/world-66461711.
  3. Kranz, Michal. “Afghan Women, Undeterred by Taliban, Secretly Network for Change.” Www.aljazeera.com, 28 Nov. 2022, www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/11/28/how-women-are-secretly-building-support-networks-for-each-other.

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(Analysis) Solidarity, Re…

by Tanvi Sharma time to read: 6 min