The women of Afghanistan will mark International Women’s Day today with a public holiday that will give them time to reflect on what could be their fate if the extreme misogynists of the Taliban are successful in their quest to return to power in their country.
A so-called peace process prompted by US President Donald Trump, aimed at ending the long war in Afghanistan and, more importantly, withdrawing American troops ahead of his possible bid for re-election in 2020, has given the Taliban a long sought-after global platform as a legitimate political force.
At the same time, it has marginalised and delegitimised the Afghan government and the people it represents, by indulging the Taliban in their insistence that they talk directly to Washington rather than to the “puppets” it claims the US has installed in Kabul.
Taliban figures who appear to have breached international travel bans to attend these get-togethers have been provided with largely uncritical air time to proclaim they will honour women’s rights according to unspecified “Islamic values” and “Afghan culture.”
Afghans fear they will be forced to pay if they are pressured into accepting peace on terms dictated by the political agenda of a president who is rushing for the exit without regard for the huge strides made for all Afghans, and especially for women, since 2001.
Critically, the Taliban, from their redoubts in Pakistan, refuse to acknowledge Afghanistan’s constitution, which guarantees a range of rights that we in the West take for granted, including rule of law; freedoms of speech, media and association; and, for women, equality and protection from violence.
It is just 18 years since the Taliban were forced from power in Afghanistan after harbouring Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network throughout the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks on the US.
The treatment of women under their five-year regime featured prominently in the justification for the allied invasion that came just weeks after those attacks. The Taliban infamously forced women to remain inside their homes, and to appear in public only in the company of male relatives – and then only if they were wearing all-covering garments called burqas which make seeing and walking difficult.
Taliban enforcers roamed the streets to enforce an “Islamic” women’s dress code, and publicly whipped any women they saw transgressing, however minutely, unwritten rules on how they should be clothed.
Girls were banned from school, and women from jobs. Not just their identity but their very existence was denied to them. Horrific photographs from that era show anonymous figures shrouded in blue rayon burqas quivering on their knees in public arenas, waiting to be executed for their apparent crimes, in front of crowds bussed in to observe the spectacle.
This brutality towards women – as well as bans on music, dancing, the national pastime of kite-flying; anything, really, that brought joy – was justified with recourse to their own interpretation of their religion.
Recent Taliban statements hint at just how they regard the gains made since 2001, denouncing “so-called women’s rights activists” and the “alien-culture clothes worn by women,” while claiming commitment “to all rights of women that have been given to them by the sacred religion of Islam”.
The war in Afghanistan since 2001 has been costly, with 454 British and more than 2,400 American soldiers killed, and many more killed and wounded from allied nations. It has become fashionable in some quarters to say that it was all for nought, that the Taliban’s territorial gains are indicative of Western failure, that the time to leave is well overdue.
This thinking ignores the phenomenal progress that the country has made, with the help of its Western allies, to transform itself in less than 20 years into an emerging parliamentary democracy and trading link between East and West.
No one could claim that Afghanistan has become a perfect model of democratic statehood since 2001; this is a multi-generational project that has only just begun. Millions of Afghan people who have braved Taliban threats and attacks to vote in multiple elections have shown they have faith in this project.
Millions of girls go to school and university; women run their own businesses and sit in parliament. They have access to health care and justice; thriving civil society and media champion their rights every day. All this exists where nothing did under the Taliban.
The men who spout vacuous platitudes in their vainglorious attempt to hoodwink Trump’s emissaries into believing they are honourable, have spent their time cornering the global market in heroin while sending children in suicide vests to murder fellow Afghans.
Few Afghan women see the Taliban as anything other than the baby killers and widow makers that they are. Let’s listen, on this of all days, when they remind us of what they have gained, and, more vitally, tell us what they could lose if the Taliban are permitted any say in the future of Afghanistan.
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