Fears of a return to the dark days stalk Afghan women amid Taliban's advance

The forty years of protracted war has impacted Afghan society, especially women, in a way that has few parallels in human history, writes Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar for South Asia Monitor

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Aug 10, 2021
Afghan women

“Look at my face, don’t you see the tragedy of our lives and our country marked all over it?” Bibi Zohra, a widow in Kabul, and mother of seven, who used to run a small bakery, said in 1996, just weeks before the Pakistan-backed Taliban bulldozed into the city, bringing in their trail their perverted brand of religious fundamentalism, misogyny and violence.

“Day by day situation is worsening. We have become beggars, dependant on the UN to survive. It is not the Afghan way,” she continued. “Women are depressed and devastated. We are just waiting for peace, praying for peace every minute of the day.”

Unfortunately, Zohra's words quoted by veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid in his remarkable book  ‘Taliban’,  still resonate with Afghan women today.

Almost 25 years on, when Afghanistan again stands at the crossroads, the story of Afghan women has been all about hope, opportunities, and little, though remarkable, progress --all of which are now at stake in 2021, when the Taliban looks on the verge of coming back to power.

In the last two decades, the progress made by Afghan women may not be good enough by western standards. But, that little progress was something unthinkable twenty years back when they were locked up in their own houses, banned from any kind of outdoor work, jobs, and education during the Taliban’s Emirate era (1995-2001).

Post-Taliban women’s progress

After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, women got opportunities to attend schools, universities, opened their own businesses, including salons -- something unthinkable during the Taliban’s time. Some of the women, whose identities were once covered behind the dark veils, later became the most recognizable faces of the Afghan societies, in media, politics, and business circles. Thousands of women became school teachers.

Once banned from public life, today many of them are representing their country as envoys in embassies abroad.

However, the journey has never been smooth. As the Taliban insurgency took ground, these women, most prominently Afghan women journalists, were threatened, attacked, and many of them were killed ultimately.

After the signing of the Doha accord in 2020, there was cautious optimism about peace and hope that the Taliban might have changed. The string of targeted assassinations -- which followed the historic accord -- including of Afghan women journalists, removed any doubt left about the Taliban.

Women journalists flee

After the spree of targeted killings of journalists, many of these women fled the country, seeking refuge in western nations. Those who couldn’t afford to leave chose to lie low. Many of them left the profession out of security concerns. Others who wanted to continue faced pressure from their families to quit.

As the Taliban captured more and more territory, women's faces slowly vanished from Afghan media. Many women field journalists turned to nameless voice artists, according to media reports.

“I haven’t been able to go to work, because they won’t let my employer continue to hire me,” Maryam, a 28-year-old-girl from Takhar, a northern province recently captured by the Taliban, was quoted as saying by The National News.

“I haven’t been out of the home this whole time, because I don’t have a mahram (male companion). My father is very old and unwell and I support the family,” she added.

The Taliban has changed indeed: it has become more ruthless, in its pursuit of pushing a whole generation, raised in the post-Taliban era, back into the 90s Emirate.

Uncertainty, fear

Until three months ago, the narrative of the peace process was centered around protecting the gains of the last twenty years in a potential negotiated settlement. Today, it is no longer about the gains. The survival of the Afghan government, which has sought to protect these gains in talks, is increasingly questioned.

Deborah Lyons, the UN general secretary’s special representative to Afghanistan, during her briefing in a recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting, said an Afghan woman confided to her that she sometimes regrets having educated her daughter, who is now in a more vulnerable position.

“We are no longer talking about preserving the progress and the rights we have gained, we are talking about mere survival,” she quoted another woman as saying. For thousands of people, living in the Taliban's newly captured territories, these gains have already become a part of history.

However, not all are yet ready to surrender in the face of the Taliban gaining in power. Afghan society, today, is as much connected to the global world as any of its western counterparts. Outrage, anger, and the sense of abandonment, no longer take days or weeks to reach beyond the geographical boundary of Afghanistan. People, including women, are increasingly, and forcefully, confronting the Taliban’s narrative about their country. Recently, many women in different parts of the country, have taken up arms as a last resort. How successful their resistance will be only time can tell.  

The forty years of protracted war has impacted Afghan society, especially women, in a way that has few parallels in recent human history. For the Taliban’s professed Emirate, which has sought to erase the public face of Afghan women, it won’t be easy either to rule a country full of orphans, war widows, and old parents with no one to look after them. Forcing women behind the four walls of their home may not be an option for a country as ravaged as Afghanistan.  

(The writer is a Research Associate, South Asia Monitor. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at snbhatnagar296@gmail.com)