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Afghanistan: Where history repeats itself at the expense of women

Mar 22, 2024
10 min read

1994 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, Afghanistan

Writing about the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover of Afghanistan, twenty years after their removal from power feels surreal and heartbreaking. The Taliban currently ruling Afghanistan is the same extremist entity that revoked the basic human rights of Afghan women, girls, and minorities during their previous reign in the 1990s, reinstating gender apartheid. I never imagined witnessing history repeating itself in my country twice within my life.

I have witnessed numerous rulers in Afghanistan, each with differing abilities and commitment to good governance, development, and promotion and protection of human rights. Despite Afghanistan’s persistent poverty and its predominantly Muslim population living within a patriarchal system, we have never experienced gender apartheid and extreme religious interpretation imposed by the Taliban from 1996-2001 and again today.

How did Afghanistan change from a country where I attended co-educational schools, walked freely, and was not required to wear a headscarf or burka, even in the conservative province of Helmand where I grew up, to becoming the only country in the world where girls are banned from education beyond sixth grade?

Firsthand Experience: Witnessing Afghanistan's Fortunes Reverse

As Minister of Women’s Affairs for the first six months of the Afghanistan post-Taliban Interim Administration and Chairperson of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission for 17 years, I witnessed firsthand the factors that led to the recent reversal of Afghanistan’s fortunes.

The diversion of attention with the US invasion of Iraq, US deals with the Taliban, and NATO forces' withdrawal all contributed to Afghanistan's collapse, as did systemic internal failures and a fragmented approach to nation-building Afghanistan was a collective failure of its people, government, the international community, and UN agencies. This fall serves as a stark reminder of the complexities of state –building in a deep-seated political, social, and historical challenges and the consequences when women’s rights and human rights are sacrificed for political expediency.

Laying blame is a complicated business. The 45-year war that has afflicted Afghanistan traces its origins to the USSR's invasion in support of its puppet regime, which seized power through a coup d'état in 1978. Afghans began resisting the oppressive regime and the Soviet invasion to safeguard their freedoms and rights, without any help from outside.

In the 1980s the US, UK, and Arab countries entered a proxy war to counter the USSR and communism, using Islam as weapon of war and backing the most conservative factions. They funded madrassas where Afghan boys were indoctrinated with an aggressive and distorted interpretation of Islam, isolating them from their mothers. The Taliban emerged from these madrassas.

Seizing power in 1996 amid the civil war following the USSR's 1989 withdrawal and collapse, and the international community's abandonment of Afghanistan, the Taliban vowed to disarm mujahedeen factions and establish peace and the rule of law. Instead, they turned the country into a prison for women, prohibiting education, employment outside home, and movement without a male relative. Women were forced to wear burqas, and music and television were forbidden. The sports stadium became an execution ground without due process. Afghanistan became world's leading opium producer and a haven for terrorists' training camps.

When 9/11 happened, global attention returned to Afghanistan. In response to the attack, the US militarily intervened to remove the Taliban from power, followed by the Bonn conference establishing a new roadmap for a democratic Afghanistan.

For me, this new chapter in Afghanistan’s history began while in Canada receiving the John Humphrey Award on December 5, 2001. An early morning call from my son relayed the news from BBC and CNN: I was now a member of President Hamid Karzai's cabinet, serving as Vice President and Minister of Women’s Affairs. My dream was to see a democratic country's blueprint that embraced all its citizens, and I was part of it.

Over two decades post-Taliban, NATO forces enabled significant progress in human rights and freedom. Women gained access to education, work, and basic human rights. The 2004 constitution guaranteed women’s equal rights and political representation. Domestic violence was criminalized with the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. Women’s participation expanded in sectors including education, media, healthcare, sports, academia, public service and law enforcement grew. Afghanistan held its first presidential elections to allow citizens, including women as voters and candidates, to participate in the political process.

Many quickly label the two decades the international community spent in Afghanistan as a failure. But consider this: during those years, life expectancy surged from 47 to 63 years, while maternal mortality plummeted by 50%. Children, both girls and boys, returned to schools, initiating nation-building. This isn't failure.

However, a cohesive, long-term strategy from the international community and the Afghan government was lacking, with many programs and policies being quick fixes. Political will for building a fully democratic and peaceful society was absent, and Afghanistan’s diverse culture and history were often misunderstood Corruption and nepotism further undermined the government’s effectiveness and legitimacy.

Development efforts often failed to align with Afghan needs , prioritizing short-term goals over sustainability. Most projects catered to men, with contracts favoring companies from donor countries. Rather than empowering young Afghans and promoting community ownership, profits enriched a select few and local warlords. Involvement of regional players with conflicting interests only complicated matters.

Taliban Resurgence and Current Challenges

Afghanistan’s dependence on foreign economic and military aid left it susceptible to change in international policies The Trump Administration’s so-called “peace deal” with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, coupled with ineffective management by President Ghani’s administration, emboldened the Taliban and hastened the collapse. What’s more, the Taliban persisted within Afghanistan continuing to fight against the people, the newly formed centralized government, and specially modernity and democracy, symbolized by women's involvement in society.

The rapid US and NATO forces withdrawal in 2021 created a security vacuum, signaling a loss of international commitment . Despite extensive investment, the security forces, which were plagued by poor leadership and low morale, were ill-prepared to counter the Taliban insurgency. President Ghani's abandonment of the country on August 15, 2021, erased decades of progress, particularly in women’s rights and democratic institutions. . The Taliban's takeover saw the Ministry of Women’s Affairs transformed into the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, enforcing edicts that targeted women, girls, and Hazara and Tajik ethnic minority groups. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and all other mechanisms for the protection of women’s rights were abolished.

The current Taliban regime prioritizes maintaining power at any cost, disregarding the suffering of the people. Despite widespread human rights abuses and the re-establishment of gender apartheid, the international community has only lightly condemned these actions. I am deeply concerned about the emerging trend of normalization of the regime, as countries like China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and India allow Taliban representatives in their embassies and consulates.

Challenges to Human Rights and Sustainable Peace

Some members of the international community and Taliban lobbyists have claimed that the regime has restored peace and security, reduced opium production, decreased corruption, and stabilized the economy, arguing that the Taliban are the reality of Afghanistan and accepted by the people. However, the international community must not be lulled into complacency.

The fear of Taliban violence does not equate to public acceptance. The scenes at Kabul airport during the evacuation, where people risked their lives to flee the Taliban, contradict any claims of widespread acceptance. Those asserting that the Taliban have brought security forget that the Taliban were the instigators of insecurity, perpetrating killings, torture, suicide attacks, bombings, and targeting schools and gatherings. Now in power, they have ceased directing violence at their own government but remain a threat to Afghan society.

Instead of fostering economic security, the Taliban has prohibited women from employment and forbidden NGOs from hiring women to distribute aid, effectively denying female-headed households access to food and other assistance. Those advocating for the Taliban to continue ruling should empathize with mothers who are compelled to consider selling their young daughters to feed their families, or imagine forbidding their daughters from attending school and being forced into marriage at the age of 12.

Targeted killing, humiliation, and suicide attacks against Hazaras persist unchecked, reminiscent of the atrocities committed under the first Taliban regime, marked by mass graves. When a woman fear leaving her home due to the threat of violence, harassment, abduction, or arrest, it cannot be deemed security. Is it peace when a daughter is confined indoors, vulnerable to abduction by the Taliban morality police even while studying in classrooms? While corruption existed in the previous government, passports are now sold on the black market for exorbitant prices. Allegations of widespread corruption in mining contracts and governmental services abound. The populace is weary of the entrenched nepotism within the Taliban government, as well as the extortion and bribery enforced through intimidation. Lack of transparency, inclusivity, and media censorship serve as tactics to evade scrutiny.

Insights from Afghanistan: Building a Sustainable Path Forward

Everyone has quickly forgotten that it was Taliban who were pushing the people to cultivate opium and taxing both opium producers and smugglers to fund their fight against the government and destabilize the country. To appease the international community, they now denounce opium production as un-Islamic, leading to higher prices and a surge in trafficking of other illegal drugs like amphetamines, as reported by the UN. While I understand that there are other priorities and conflicts around the world and that each conflict requires it is own attentions, ignoring Afghanistan's issues won't solve other conflicts globally. Forgetting Afghanistan's plight risks history repeating itself. The key lesson is clear: peace, security, and development hinge on respecting human rights, especially women's participation. Sustainable peace requires ending impunity and ensuring accountability for international crimes, particularly sexual and gender-based violence.

The return of the Taliban is not the only historical repetition. Once again, Afghanistan is falling from the international agenda, akin to after the Soviet withdrawal and collapse in 1992. If we as Afghans and the international community learn nothing from our past, the cycle of violence and devastation will spread not only in Afghanistan, but also beyond our borders.