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Afghan Women – The Emerging Narrative and Why it is Wrong

ROME and AMSTERDAM, Oct 5 2021 (IPS) - The USA and its allies have repeatedly stated that promoting women’s rights was one of the key reasons they were in Afghanistan. The US military top brass, in a letter to marines stated that they were in Afghanistan “for the liberty of young Afghan girls, women, boys, and men who want the same individual freedoms we enjoy as Americans”.

Daud Khan

Post-war, women’s rights are now among the conditions for improved relations. For example, it is a one of the conditions for release by the US of US$9 billion of Afghan assets. Similarly, the EU has made also women’s rights one of the conditions of engagement with the new Afghan Government.

There is also much talk in the western press of how the new Government is trampling or women’s rights – girls are not allowed to go to school, working women are being told to stay home, and demonstrations by women are put down brutally. There is also much discussion of the fact that there are no women in the new Government. The position of the US and its allies, and the apparent intransigence of the Taliban, seems to suggest a long stalemate which will bring additional misery to ordinary Afghans.

However, there is also a second narrative on women in Afghanistan that is emerging. The starting point for this alternative narrative is that the vast majority of Afghan women live in rural areas; and have seen their suffering increase many fold during the 20 years of the war. The bombings, the killings, the arbitrary violence by warlords, some of who were allied with US forces, were what defined their daily existence. These rural women saw few, if any, benefits of the efforts by donors and aid agencies to improve living conditions. Corruption siphoned off much of the money and what little did get to the rural areas did not make any significant improvement in public services such as health, education or water supplies. For these women the return of the Taliban means, above all, a cessation of violence and a return to a rule of law – however flawed it may be.

This alternative narrative also points out that the women “who want the same individual freedoms we enjoy as Americans” are a small minority living in Kabul. Moreover, the freedoms they had under US occupation – to wear jeans, play football or cricket – are alien to Afghan society and traditional values. Hence losing such “rights” are quite irrelevant to the much of the country.

Leila Yasmine Khan

The two narratives lead to different courses of action. For those who ascribe to the first, it provides a moral justification for using all possible leverage to get the Talban to reverse their current positions on women’s rights, as well as on many other aspects of government. Moreover, it justifies suspending development projects, minimizing humanitarian aid, and even freezing Afghan assets – money which belongs to the Afghan people.

For those to who the second narrative holds more appeal, the ceasing of conflict and the departure of the foreign troops were the most important events for Afghanistan. From here onwards, the Afghan people have to decide for themselves what social mores and traditions they want to follow.

And, if they want to change, it has to be at the speed and pace of their own choosing. The international community which has a large responsibility for the misery and mayhem of the last decades should focus on repairing and improving infrastructure such as roads and irrigation; ensuring supplies of essential goods and services including food, water, fuel, health services and electricity; and creating the institutional structure and the trained manpower for the administration of public services such as administration, justice and policing.

Both narratives, as well as the actions deriving from it, are flawed.

Whatever geopolitical or economic interests drove the war, it is disingenuous for the US and allies to say that they were in Afghanistan for 20 years to help the Afghans and in particular Afghan women. The war has cost the US taxpayer US$2 trillion most of which went to the defense contracts with some crumbs to the corrupt Afghan Government officials. Given an average Afghan family size of seven, the US$ 2 trillion spent on the war is equivalent to US$350,000 per family. If even a fraction of this if had been invested properly it would have transformed lives – but this never happened. Now after 20 years of war, to impose further pain on the Afghans in the name of women’s rights seems heartless. Particularly galling is the freezing of Afghan assets in western banks at the time when the country desperately needs this money.

A laissez faire approach towards the new Government is, however, is equally callous. Women’s rights are not just about dressing as one likes, about participating in sports or wearing a veil in public. It is also about giving the right to be educated; to aspire to any job or career they wish; to live without repression; and have to freedom to move, to think and to speak without fear or hindrance.

The fact that 80% of Afghan girls don’t have schools that they can go to, jobs to which they can aspire, or the time, energy or money for sports or recreation, does not negate the rights of the 20% who do have some of these opportunities.

The countries in the region with influence in Afghanistan – countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey – must not turn a blind eye to women’s rights. On the contrary, they should use all the leverage they have with the Afghan Government to respect women’s rights be it for those who live in Kabul, be it for those who live in the most remote areas.

Daud Khan works as consultant and advisor for various Governments and international agencies. He has degrees in Economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan.

Leila Yasmine Khan is an independent writer and editor based in the Netherlands. She has Master’s degrees in Philosophy of Cognition and one in Argumentation Theory and Rhetoric – both from the University of Amsterdam – as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from the University of Rome (Roma Tre).


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  • Douglas

    It is refreshing to read some realism about Afghanistan, rather than just abusing the country as an ideological toy.

  • Carolyn Henri

    Agree with main points of article. The authors’ recommendation to international community that they should ‘focus on repairing and improving infrastructure such as roads and irrigation; ensuring supplies of essential goods and services including food, water, fuel, health services and electricity; and creating the institutional structure and the trained manpower for the administration of public services such as administration, justice and policing.’ is valid. However, if women’s voices are not heard during this process, they will not benefit in an equal way from any of these improvements either. Empowering women to have a say in determining their own future is key.

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