Afghan Women Confront the Taliban

U.S.-run aid programs to help Afghanistan’s women didn’t amount to much. But now, absent U.S. occupation, Afghanistan’s women are facing down the Taliban

Afghan Women Confront the Taliban
Female protesters march through the Dashti-E-Barchi neighborhood, a day after the Taliban announced their new all-male interim government in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 / Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

On the first Saturday of September, as Taliban fighters stood guard in front of Afghanistan’s Presidential Palace, they were confronted with an unexpected challenge. Before them was a group of female employees demanding a return to their jobs at the palace.

Instead of talking to the women, Taliban fighters stopped a male passerby and used him as an intermediary to communicate with them. The Taliban told the women that they were not allowed to enter the Palace. This enraged them — as did the roundabout way of communicating. “What have we done that they cannot even talk to us?” asked Nilofar Alaam, a woman who was employed at the Presidential Palace before the Taliban seized it.

Two women who participated in the protest made a video and uploaded it to social media. Wearing long headscarves, they were careful not to give Taliban fighters a reason to ban them from work on religious grounds. “If the Taliban are the Taliban of 20 years ago,” said Alaam, “Afghan women are not the women of 20 years ago.” She encouraged other women to follow suit: “Go out, do not sit home and do not hide. It is the time to fight.”

With the Taliban solidifying control over Kabul, Afghan women have started to resist across the country. In the western city of Herat, women staged a protest to preserve their right to education, work and security. Protests have also erupted in other parts of Afghanistan, and they are mostly led by women.

The Taliban’s newly formed interim cabinet doesn’t include any women. They’ve abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and restored the abusive and misogynistic Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. They have banned unauthorized protests and attacked journalists for reporting on them.

Yet the protests have continued. The women are fierce. They are not content with simply preserving their rights, they are demanding leadership positions in any new government.

Though outside observers have credited the past 20 years with having helped Afghan women gain confidence to stand up for their rights, the history of their defiance predates the Western occupation. Women in Afghanistan were resisting oppression even under the Taliban’s earlier incarnation. And as they brace for a long fight under the new Taliban — which looks increasingly like the old Taliban, albeit with more power — they have this history to draw on.

The Taliban are replacing a U.S.-backed Afghan political system that, at best, offered political and legal protections to women and opportunities to participate in public life, though availing those opportunities was not always easy. But despite their promises to allow women to work within Sharia, the Islamic canonical law, the Taliban banned women from work (with the exception of health care workers) until further notice, saying its fighters did not know how to treat women.

Monisa Mubarez, 31, an employee of the Finance Ministry, had enough of the Taliban’s promises. Having made repeated phone calls to the Taliban-controlled Finance Ministry and failed to secure permission to return to work, Mubarez and her friends organized the protest on Sept. 3, outside the Finance Ministry and Presidential Palace.

I did not study 19 years only to see my father and brothers humiliated and shamed by the Taliban before strangers because I went to a university.

“They do not accept us as humans,” said Mubarez, who was disappointed by the Taliban’s refusal to speak to them. “These actions can cost me my life. But I did not study 19 years only to see my father and brothers humiliated and shamed by the Taliban before strangers because I went to a university.”

Her most immediate demand is for the Taliban to acknowledge women’s existence and give them the freedom to work. The Taliban, however, responded with beatings and abuse, leaving the women no choice but to look outside for help: “The international community must not recognize the Taliban government, unless women are given equal rights,” said Mubarez.

The international community, however, has a less than stellar record when it comes to championing Afghan women’s rights. For the 20 years of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, American leaders claimed the promotion of women’s rights and education was a key mission. While the U.S. did commit money to advance this goal, a substantial proportion of the funds were spent on unsustainable projects. Moreover, in the eyes of uneducated Afghans, the effort had the paradoxical effect of associating women’s rights with American values, a foreign cultural intrusion.

In the 1990s, when the Taliban first came to power, the U.S. either ignored Afghanistan or saw it as a strategic playground. With its focus on counterterrorism and economic opportunities, little attention was paid to the plight of women. Aware of the world’s indifference, women in Afghanistan created their own shadow network of schools, aimed at breaking the oppression from within.

Orzala Niamat organized a network of home-based literacy classes for women and girls in major cities of the country in 1999, during the height of the Taliban rule, when education for women was banned. She organized volunteer educators in different provinces with the teachers using their homes or the homes of their students to run secret classrooms, each restricted to 10 students.

“It was a personal initiative,” said Orzala, who, until recently, ran a think tank in Kabul, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. “These classes were not possible without the support of local communities. Men in the community, in general, were not spying on us and were collaborating with us.”

Orzala and her volunteer team photocopied prewar textbooks and distributed them to the shadow schools across Afghanistan through relatives and friends. To fund the initiative, she had to tour Italy, Spain and other countries. “I visited a school in Catalonia and told them about the situation in Afghanistan,” Orzala recalled. “A student collected pencils and pens and donated them to girls in Afghanistan.”

When Orzala sought funds from international governments and nongovernmental organizations, none helped. She was told that the organizations did not want to “break their laws of neutrality.” Instead, she was warned the Taliban would kill her. “We were not even breaking the Taliban rules,” said Orzala. “The Taliban had told us, ‘No girls in school.’ So we turned our houses into classrooms.”

After the NATO intervention and the toppling of the Taliban government in 2001, students from these home-based classes enrolled in formal schools that were established and funded by the U.S. and others. Only after the invasion did officials in Washington start highlighting the harsh conditions of women under the Taliban. The State Department even published a report on it.

Over the last two decades, the U.S. spent as much as $787 million on the promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan. But for many, it became a business opportunity. Instead of building sustainable schools and universities, accessible to the public, especially in rural areas, the U.S. and allies poured millions into short-term projects aimed at teaching Afghans about women’s rights. People were paid to participate in workshops at luxury hotels in Kabul.

“Nobody was sincere about empowering Afghan women,” said Pashtana Zalmai Khan Durrani, the executive director of LEARN, an initiative focused on educating Afghan women. “They just wanted to sell that idea of empowering the victim — the blue burqa women. It was more about using the idea of women’s empowerment as a business opportunity.

“The U.S. failed to see that they were empowering the wrong instruments in order to empower the women,” said Pashtana. She pointed to the female ministers and gender equality units of the former government. “All these people come with foreign passports. They do not know the context; they do not know how to develop sustainable projects.”

The development programs were primarily designed to buy local support for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and persuade hesitant Afghans on the merits of the U.S. mission. By 2015, the U.S. had spent nearly a billion dollars on education alone and officials measured success in terms of the numbers of schools built and students enrolled. But a Buzzfeed investigation found those claims to be “massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper.” Internal U.S. assessments have corroborated this mismanagement. As Craig Whitlock notes in “The Afghanistan Papers”.

“Troops and aid workers constructed schools, hospitals, roads, soccer fields—anything that might win loyalty from the populace, with little concern for expense…. Much of the money ended up in the pockets of overpriced contractors or corrupt Afghan officials, while U.S.-financed schools, clinics and roads fell into disrepair due to poor construction or maintenance—if they were built at all.”

In June 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had claimed that Afghan schools had enrolled 7.1 million students—a seven-fold increase since the fall of the Taliban. But as Whitlock notes, according to U.S. government auditors, such claims had been based on “inaccurate or unverified data.”

According to UNICEF, as many as 60% of the 3.7 million children out of school are girls, and this is mainly due to the lack of female teachers. As many as 60% of schools across the country don’t have a toilet. Both factors discourage girls from seeking an education. This triggers a vicious cycle because today’s generation will not develop the skills needed to teach future generations of Afghan women.

The invasion of Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces hurt the efforts of Afghan women to protect their rights, which they approached in an organic, bottom-up way. Indeed, given the priority of security over values, rhetoric about protecting human rights rang hollow for Afghans. Meanwhile, deep-rooted hostility toward the foreign invader further undermined cooperation in this sphere.

Wazhma Tokhi was born in Afghanistan’s Zabul province in 1994, before the rise of the Taliban. By the time she reached primary school, the Taliban were overthrown and she, like thousands of girls, had a chance to attend school. In a successful campaign, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Food Programme had helped students by distributing food items at school. “Many families sent their daughters to school because of the food aid in the first years of 2000s,” said Wazhma of her classmates. “The food items encouraged the poor families.”

For Wazhma, going to school, attending university and getting a job had been a daily battle. Despite having a supportive father, Wazhma faced layers of social barriers. When she opened a Facebook account, some threatened to kill her. Still, she ran multiple voluntary and home-based classes for girls and women.

Since 2016, Wazhma has been promoting women’s rights in Zabul, Uruzgan, Kandahar and Helmand provinces. When she talked to local people about women’s rights, she felt like it was the first time they were hearing about it, even though the U.S. had been pouring money into the provinces in the name of equal rights for two decades.

One of the biggest challenges women like Wazhma has faced is dispelling the notion that women’s rights is an alien concept, or a foreign imposition. “Women rights is not something that foreigners imposed on us,” said Wazhma, who has a degree in law and has purchased Islamic books to educate herself about Islam and women’s rights. “It is important how you speak to people about women’s rights,” she said. “I explain to people that women’s rights do not contradict Islam. When I give them Islamic examples of women’s rights and tell them Islam says education is mandatory for both women and men, they are persuaded,” Wazhma said.

Yet the dangers remained. Last year, during a sermon in the local mosque in Zabul, a mullah alleged that “Wazhma Tokhi is preaching Christianity.” Despite the allegation, the mullah’s wife and daughters continued to visit Wazhma whenever she was home in Zabul.

Over the past years, amid a wave of assassinations of civil society activists across Afghanistan, Wazhma also received threats. One day Wazhma woke up to a letter hanging on the door: “The Islamic Emirate of Taliban is aware of your infidel work. This is the final notice.” Wazhma was undeterred. The only support she received from USAID, however, was for her modest travel expenses during her organizing trips to different parts of Afghanistan .

Before the Taliban takeover, Wazhma was still optimistic. “The situation for women has improved over the years,” she said. “People now understand women have the rights for inheritance, education and work. These fights really do make a difference in women’s lives.”

Now with the Taliban in control, women are preparing to challenge leaders and religious figures of the ruling group. “Women have got it,” said Wazhma. “The Taliban must understand there is no law in Islam that bans women from education and work.” Wazhma continued, “I believe Afghan women are strong, will never give up and will fight.”

Sabira Taheri, 31, a women’s rights activist in Herat, and her friends have already started fighting. She and her team organized a protest and faced Taliban fighters in Herat earlier in September, marching toward the governor’s office. They carried placards demanding rights to education, work and security.

There are educated women who are ready to fight for their rights until their last breath.

“They can kill us, but we are not one or two,” said Taheri. “There are educated women who are ready to fight for their rights until their last breath.” After the protest, she said: “We got back our morale and confidence.”

Taheri hopes the protest in Herat encourages women across the country to launch similar protests. She has already built a network with other women across the country, and they are preparing for a long battle for their rights.

“It was an ice-breaking protest,” said Taheri. “It was just the beginning.”

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