YouA young Afghan refugee from Afghanistan who was months away of becoming a doctor, met me recently in Rome. Her younger sister was studying dental school at university. Two of her older sisters excelled in school. Their rights to access high school and university as well as their right of free movement and work were all taken away by 14 million Afghan women and girls. As we spoke, she hugged her father, who’d worked for decades as an expert in rural development in Afghanistan. His family was with him when he ran away from everything. With tears streaming down her face, she told me that she wasn’t sad for herself, but for all the women of her country.
Global outrage was generated by the beating and whipping of Afghan women, long before 9/11. American and other western leaders spoke of restoring basic rights for Afghan women in the same breath as removing the Taliban as justification for NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan. The sight of Afghan women raising themselves up through their own efforts over the last twenty years—with the support of many Afghan men—was a bright light during years of continuing violence and suffering for the people of Afghanistan. Afghan women have worked for the past year as artists, doctors, teachers and police officers. They also served in positions such as judges, lawyers and politicians. Multiple suicide bomb attacks were made on Afghan schools. Rural women were in a very different picture, especially in Taliban-controlled areas, but there was an overall feeling of progress. With unimaginable speed, all of this was overthrown.
Afghanistan’s girls are exceptional for their resourcefulness, strength and resilience. I’ve met Afghan women who, as young children during the previous Taliban era, had to dress as boys in order to be able to secretly go to school. After becoming journalists and lawyers, they helped build a better country. They believed the promises of their leaders and that the international community would give them a voice within Afghan society.
These promises were not kept and it’s hard to imagine a more blatant betrayal. Women are again being beaten in the streets or taken from their homes at night and tortured, and the country’s jails are filling up with female political prisoners. Reports are coming out of Afghanistan that girls have been kidnapped and forced to marry Taliban leaders. As a woman and mother, it torments me to even imagine what it must be like for Afghan families—especially those who lived through the Taliban era of the 1990s—to feel so powerless. Yet despite the dangers, the greatest resistance to the reversal of women’s rights in Afghanistan has not come from foreign powers, but from Afghan women themselves, who have taken the streets.
It’s impossible not to think that attempts to force Afghan women back into the home will fail in the long term. It’s so obvious that Afghan women are an incredible resource for the country and its place in the world, and that the economy—and society as a whole—will not function without their full participation. An economy built upon the oppression and abuse of women will not bring peace, it is an army at war. It is the height of futility—if not cowardice—for authorities in any country to incarcerate and torture women whose only crime is to have contributed to the success and health and stability and education of their own people. And it’s absurd, in the 21st century, for there to be any debate about how much education it is ‘appropriate’ for a woman to have, or for that to reveal anything other than fear of the power of a free-thinking, independent woman. Taliban leaders must understand that Afghan women are not allowed to be free and fulfill their potential. But I’m filled with dread at the reality of what Afghan women are likely to endure, and how long these repressive systems might hold onto power.
On July 25, 2022, a girl is studying in secret school in an unidentified area in Afghanistan.
Daniel Leal—AFP/Getty Images
America, and the other countries with which we were allies, would take the most dangerous step and withdraw from Afghanistan. We are tired and embarrassed by our mistakes over the past two decades. We must remember why we are involved in Afghanistan: None of these factors have disappeared.
It was right that we were horrified by how women were treated in Afghanistan during the 1990s. This should continue today. In the last few years America walked steadily back from its promises to Afghan women, including the decision to negotiate with the Taliban without any preconditions on women’s rights or the participation of Afghan women and civil society. It is not right to make any further diplomatic concessions for the sake of women. We must instead look at ways we can support them. Many girls are locked out of school and hungry for education. They need assistance to complete their online or underground education. Many human rights activists are hiding and need to know they won’t be forgotten. Women in jail should be freed. There are Afghans in the country and in exile who need assistance to continue to keep the idea of women’s rights alive in the country, such as organizations like Rukhshana Media, which continues to report on the fate of women in Afghanistan.
Over six million Afghan refugees are living in poverty. The situation of these people is only getting worse because of war in Ukraine. International aid shortages must also be addressed. It is not a question of principle but self-interest. If proof were ever needed that there is a direct link between systems that oppress women and threats to international security, it’s that Al Qaeda leaders once again feel free to return to Afghanistan.
My Afghan friends, I trust in you. Your resilience and strength are what I believe in. It is my dream to be able to travel with my children, meet new friends and explore your wonderful country. And finally, see your freedom in deciding your own destiny. There have been different chapters in Afghanistan’s history and many dark moments. This chapter is certainly one of them. But I’m sure that this isn’t the final chapter. The dream of a pluralistic, open Afghanistan built on the equal efforts and free voices of all its people may seem to be—and be in reality—a distant hope. But I know it’s possible. It doesn’t end there.
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