For Afghan Women, Elusive Gains in Rights Are at Risk

Conservative traditions clash with a push for modernization
By Anny Oberlink

With the fall of Kabul, the radical Islamic Taliban, known for extreme views and brutal treatment of women and girls, is back in control in Afghanistan. One of the tragic consequences of the U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the country is that the lives of women and girls there could soon become a lot worse.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but once there, officials justified the American presence as a way to help liberate Afghan women. First Lady Laura Bush delivered an impassioned radio speech on Nov. 17, 2001, above, making the case that the war was justified – not only to fight terrorism, but to spare Afghan women and girls from brutal treatment under the Taliban.

“Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror,” the first lady said, “not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan but also because, in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.”

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JULY 16, 2003 Laura Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, right, met with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council at the White House. (Photo: Alamy)

For many Americans, the speech was an introduction to the harsh gender restrictions imposed by the Taliban. Women and girls were forbidden fromattending school or working, although thousands did so secretly. Girls were forced into marriages.

Mrs. Bush said the invasion had brought immediate progress: “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment.”

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BORN 1899 Queen Soraya Tarzi of Afghanistan wore Western-style clothing and often went unveiled in public.

Afghanistan has long struggled to balance the conservative traditions of the countryside and the push for modernization in the cities, but at times women and girls prospered.

After centuries of failed occupations and destructive wars, Afghanistan gained independence from British rule in 1919. The newly established monarch, King Amanullah (1919-1929) and Queen Soraya Tarzi, emerged as progressive and influential rulers. Women were granted the right to vote one year before women’s suffrage was ratified in the United States. Soraya opened the country’s first school for girls in Kabul. These reforms angered tribal leaders and traditionalists. Civil war broke out, and in 1929, King Amanullah abdicated.

An ebb and flow of liberalization continued throughout the 20th century, with the country experiencing a period of relative peace and stability from the 1930s to 1970s. Wearing veils became voluntary and a new constitution in 1964 reinstituted universal suffrage. During this time, women were elected to parliament, building political organizations that continued to advocate for women’s rights. As Western influences continued to permeate Afghan society, both the Soviet Union and the United States took notice.

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A record store in Afghanistan was a sign of increasing Western influence in the 1950s and 60s. (Photo: Alamy)

In the late 70s, a series of coups and struggles erupted among Communist-backed groups, religious insurgents and foreign actors. The Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, promoting progressive gender reforms like compulsory and secular education for girls and employment opportunities for women. Outside of cities, women continued to live under strict religious laws, and Soviet airstrikes and landmines caused widespread anger and resistance.

The mujahideen, a militant Islamic group, engaged the Soviets in bloody guerilla warfare. Two million Afghan civilians were killed during the Soviet-Afghan War, and over six million Afghans fled. Fueled by Cold War hysteria, the U.S. supported the mujahideen fighters through one of the most expensive covert operations in U.S. history. The Soviets sustained heavy losses and withdrew troops in 1989, catapulting the country into another civil war.

The Taliban, campaigning on bringing stability back to the war-ravaged country, quickly came to power in the political void left by the Soviets and the U.S. The Taliban seized control in 1996 and stripped women of virtually all rights they had earned over the previous century.

Since Laura Bush gave her speech in 2001, the U.S. has funneled $30 billion into infrastructure projects and schools, although much of that money was wasted through corruption. Even so, by 2007, reports indicate that almost seven million children were enrolled in school, 37 percent of them girls. Afghanistan’s 2005 constitution reserved 27 percent of parliament seats for women, and in 2018, a record number of women participated in elections in the face of Taliban attacks. Simultaneously while liberal progress was made, over 40,000 Afghan civilians were killed during the war, many in rural areas. The Taliban gained strength and new recruits as anti-American sentiment grew.

In 2019, the U.S. started peace talks with the Taliban in anticipation of an eventual withdrawal. Over 700 Afghan women came together to demand an active voice in negotiations. Yet over the following two years, they were left out. Dr. Habibi Sarabi, a female politician and human rights advocate, commented in a recent op-ed on the shifting role of women in Afghan society: “Afghanistan’s new leaders are no longer the traditional male power brokers and, therefore, men can no longer be the sole decision makers when it comes to the future of our rights and our security.”

Today, though the Taliban has released a statement announcing they’ll protect women’s rights, a potentially disastrous fate looms for female journalists, translators, human rights advocates, and those who helped the U.S. government.

The “war on terror” used women’s liberation as a rallying cry. Now, as American troops leave, many activists are asking what responsibility the U.S. bears toward Afghan women. “We will have time to debate what went wrong in the war in Afghanistan, but in this critical moment we must listen to the voices of Afghan women and girls,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai in a recent statement, “They are asking for protection, for education, for the freedom and the future they were promised. We cannot continue to fail them. We have no time to spare.”

ANNY OBERLINK, an intern at Retro Report, is a degree candidate in documentary filmmaking at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. For more journalism informed by history, subscribe here.