Afghan Women Fear the Worst, Whether War or Peace Lies Ahead

KABUL, Afghanistan – Farzana Ahmadi watched a neighbor in her village in northern Afghanistan be flogged by Taliban fighters last month. The crime: her face was exposed.

“Every woman should cover her eyes,” recalled Ms. Ahmadi of a Taliban member. The people watched in silence as the beating went on.

Afghans are now gripped by fear – even more so than in previous years – as US and NATO forces are about to leave the country in the coming months. They will leave behind a publicly triumphant Taliban who many expect to conquer more territory and reintroduce many of the same rules of oppression that they enforced under their regime in the 1990s.

The New York Times spoke to many Afghan women – members of civil society, politicians, journalists, and others – about what’s next in their country, and they all said the same thing: whatever happens won’t do them any good.

Whether the Taliban recapture power by force or through a political agreement with the Afghan government, their influence will almost inevitably increase. In a country where the end of almost 40 years of conflict is nowhere in sight, many Afghans are speaking of an impending civil war.

“Women are victims of male wars all the time,” said Raihana Azad, a member of the Afghan parliament. “But they will also be the victims of their peace.”

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they banned women and girls from taking up most jobs or going to school, and practically made them prisoners in their own homes.

Following the US invasion to overthrow the Taliban and defeat Al-Qaeda following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the call of the Western rally to bring women’s rights to the already war-torn country seemed a noble endeavor to many. It helped sell the war to Americans who winced at the sight of a B-52 carpet bombing insurgent positions.

Some schools have reopened, giving young women and girls an education and career opportunity that many before them did not have. However, even before American troops hit Afghan soil, some women had already risked their lives by clandestinely training and self-teaching.

In two decades, the United States spent more than $ 780 million promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan. The result is a generation that came of age in a time of hope for equality for women.

Although progress has been inconsistent, girls and women now make up about 40 percent of students. They joined the military and the police, held political office, became internationally recognized singers, took part in the Olympic Games and in robot teams, climbed mountains and much more – all things that were almost impossible at the turn of the century.

As the conflict dragged on for over 20 years and the setbacks on the battlefield increased, American officials and lawmakers often cited the accomplishments of Afghan women and girls as evidence of the success of the nation-building drive – a measure of progress around which Justify loss to both American and Afghan people and billions of dollars spent on the war effort.

Even in the twilight weeks before President Biden made his final decision to withdraw all U.S. forces by September, some lawmakers and military officials argued that respect for women’s rights was a reason to keep American forces there.

“I remember when the Americans came and said that they will not leave us alone and that Afghanistan will be free from oppression and war and women’s rights will be protected,” said Shahida Husain, an activist in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province. in which the Taliban first rose and now control large areas. “Now it looks like it’s just slogans.”

Schools across the country are now being forced to consider staying open.

Firoz Uzbek Karimi, the chancellor of Faryab University in the north, oversees 6,000 students – half of them women.

“Students living in Taliban areas have been threatened several times, but their families secretly send them,” said Karimi. “If foreign forces leave early, the situation will get worse.”

Human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, schools and companies continue to try to develop contingency plans for female employees and students in the event the Taliban return to power by force or through an agreement with the Afghan government.

In his announcement on Wednesday, Mr Biden said the United States would continue to prioritize women’s rights through humanitarian and diplomatic assistance.

But even now, the gains for women in some places over the past 20 years have been volatile and unevenly distributed, despite the millions invested in women’s rights programs.

In areas controlled by the Taliban, women’s education is extremely limited, if not nonexistent. In the north, tribal elders have negotiated to reopen some schools for girls, although subjects like social sciences are being replaced by Islamic sciences. Education centers are routinely targeted and more than 1,000 schools have closed in recent years.

“It was my dream to work in a government office,” said Ms. Ahmadi, 27, who graduated from Kunduz University two years ago before moving to a Taliban-controlled village with her husband. “But I will put my dream in the grave.”

If there is one thing that decades of war have taught Afghans, it is that conflict has never been a good way to achieve human rights or women’s rights. Since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the war has fueled more and more war and ultimately undermined all humanitarian gains.

Under the US occupation, educational opportunities, cultural changes, employment, and health care have benefited some and little affected others, especially in rural areas. It was in these places that some of the most brutal chapters of the war took place, in which many civilians died and livelihoods were destroyed.

Often times, women’s opinions are unclear in these parts, where around three-quarters of the 34 million people in Afghanistan live, and are often inaccessible due to geographical, technological and cultural restrictions.

“Despite real improvements, Afghanistan remains one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman,” said a US government surveillance report released in February. “US efforts to support women, girls and gender equality in Afghanistan have produced mixed results.”

Still, The Taliban’s strictly restrictive religious governance structure practically ensures that the oppression of women is incorporated into every iteration of governance they introduce.

The Taliban’s idea of ​​justice for women was cemented for Ms. Ahmadi when she saw the insurgents beat the exposed woman in Kunduz province.

For many other Afghan women, the government’s judicial system was a different kind of punishment.

Farzana Alizada believes her sister Maryam was murdered by her abusive husband. But it took months to open a police investigation of any kind, foiled by absent prosecutors and corruption, she said. Ms. Alizada’s brother-in-law even pressured her to drop the charges by accusing her of stealing. The police asked her why she was pursuing the case when her sister was dead.

Domestic violence remains an ongoing problem in Afghanistan. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, around 87 percent of Afghan women and girls experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

“I have lost all hope I have in this government. In some cases, the Taliban may be better than this system. “Ms. Alizada said. “Nobody is on my side.”

Ms. Alizada’s feelings were portrayed similarly in Doha, Qatar, during the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Despite months of negotiations, little progress has been made, particularly in the discussion of women’s rights, which have not been prioritized by either side.

At a separate peace conference in Moscow in March between the Afghan government, political brokers and the Taliban, only one woman, Habiba Sarabi, was a member of the Afghan government’s 12-member delegation. And only four are part of the 21-person team in Doha.

“Moscow – and also Doha, with its small number of female representatives – have exposed the thin veneer of support for real equality and the so-called post-2001 gains when it comes to who will decide the future of the country,” said Patricia Gossman, the Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch.

One of the undeniable achievements, however, has been Afghanistan’s access to the Internet and the news media. Cellular coverage spans much of the country, which means Afghan women and girls have more space to learn and socialize outside of their family bubbles and villages. The Afghan news media has also flourished after large investments by foreign governments and investors, and many women have become nationally known journalists and celebrities.

But their future is also uncertain.

Lina Shirzad is the acting managing director of a small radio station in Badakhshan in the troubled north of Afghanistan. She employs 15 women and, in the face of growing insecurity, fears that they will lose their jobs. Even some of the larger national branches are trying to relocate employees or move operations abroad.

“With the withdrawal of foreign forces in the next few months, these women, who are the breadwinners of their families, will be unemployed,” said Ms. Shirzad. “Will their values ​​and achievements be preserved or not?”

Fahim Abed reported from Kabul and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.