Women in Afghanistan – what hope for the future?

TW: Violence, death, domestic abuse, psychological threat

At FeForte, we seek to share personal stories of women around the world.  Our Co-Founders are acutely aware of our privilege as white, Western women and understand that our backgrounds will affect our perceptions of the situation unfolding in Afghanistan.  For that reason, and because we are aware there are many global disasters unfolding around the world, we have sought to summarise some of our reading, quoting women whose voices should be heard to inform us all, rather than commenting on our views and offering suggestions as we normally would.  We are conscious that sharing opinions without knowledge is harmful.  We must seek to understand and listen.  This situation is outside of our normal remit, and the fear these women face is enormous.  With this in mind, we have made suggestions for Aid agencies and other bodies involved in this to go to for further information and to get involved. 

‘Please spare a thought for people, women and girls of Afghanistan.  A tragedy unfolds in front of our eyes’

Phumzila Mlambo – Executive Director, UN Women

As troops struggle to save thousands of civilians who worked with the military in Kabul, women are hiding in their homes, too scared to venture out onto the streets. Even if they wanted to, they must have a male chaperone if they want to leave their homes. Over the past 20 years, steady progress has been made in opening up opportunities for women, including work and sport, perhaps limited by global standards, and mainly in urban areas when 70% of women live in rural. Yet, with the withdrawal, even this progress is under threat with little or no evidence that the Taliban is in any way different to pre-US intervention.  Female rights were a strong reason given by US and UK governments for our continued presence. Action Aid (2011 survey and report) found that 9 out of 10 women feared a return to Taliban-style government, and a third were specifically concerned about the departure of the International community. But it is unhelpful for people from the West to suggest that the original US invasion ‘saved’ womenEven before the withdrawal, governments were still paying lip service with only 2 projects funded by the UK Development Committee’s £178m budget devoted to supporting women.  

Schools attended by girls are being closed, pupils have been beaten and poisoned, headteachers assassinated.  Girls are enrolled in schools but many don’t go and 9 out of 10 are still illiterate when they leave.  Classrooms have been bombed, women are no longer allowed to work in banks (presumably because women are not supposed to handle money) and professional women are sought out threatened, beaten and in some cases murdered.  There are 5.8 million people without access to healthcare, 4.4m of them are women.  Journalists, female police officers, members of the judiciary and leading cultural figures are in hiding, unable to escape.

USA Today (‘No possible life’ under Taliban rule: Afghan women fear murder, oppression after US withdrawal by Fatema Hosseini and Kim Hjelmgaard updated 16th August 2021) reported that today 3.5m of the 9 million Afghans enrolled in schools are female and that fewer than 10% of girls were enrolled in school in 2003 vs 33% by 2017. They also report that women had obtained 21% of civil service jobs by 2020, that women’s life expectancy had grown and that death in childbirth had declined.  Sadly, in one recently reported case, a midwife was shot when she refused to leave a woman in final stages of labour, along with the mother and child. They also quoted a military security officer about threats on social media and death threats to her place of work as saying : ‘If the Taliban returns to power, I along with other women who work in the government’s military and security forces will either be stoned to death or executed in a public space in front of a crowd’. 

The Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (2009) has been viewed as ‘un-Islamic’ which wasn’t helped by President Karzai upholding the right of a husband to beat his wife.  Currently 87% women have reported domestic abuse (Action Aid Report). 50% of women in prisons are there for ‘moral crimes’ like running away from abusive husbands, fathers, in-laws.  Many civil crimes are settled, often by bartering girls, and it is not unusual for men who kill their wives to only get a fine. This was made worse when the US gave £9.3m to support the ‘informal justice’ system, which just entrenched already outmoded activities. 

‘We don’t want our burqas back: women in Afghanistan on the Taliban’s return’ by Tracy McVeigh, quoted a number of different types of women back in 2013:

The doctor, Dr Qumar Frahmand, who runs a clinic in Balkh Province and sees 35+ women a day.  She saw the help of NGOs with family planning and vaccination as pivotal and fears what will happen if they have to close.

The Businesswoman, Zarghona Walizada, who runs a freight business and has been threatened repeatedly and knows it will escalate.

The family, Maryam, Mahaba and Shahla Farid, a former judge who teaches at Kabul University, who said ‘I am afraid for my daughters who might be kidnapped or punished for the advocacy work I have done’ yet more recently she has been reported in USA Today as a college professor and women’s rights activist and insisted they publish her name.  Such bravery is rare. Even prior to the withdrawal her medical student daughter has had her future specialism chosen by her father (gynaecology so she only works with women) yet he is regarded as a liberal in allowing his daughters to study at all. Mahaba says she is exhausted, with 50% of her time spent dealing with harassment from boys who believe she should be at home.

The Engineer, Raihana Karimi, who retrained as a paralegal and now runs a safe house for women, directly funded by US Embassy in Mazar-i-Sharif which she feared would close on withdrawal. ‘I burned my burqa when the Taliban left, I don’t want a new one…. We are very vulnerable, we are very afraid.’

The Teacher, Shekiba Azizi,‘Most of the other teachers now wear a burqa but I hate it.  I cannot see out and its very claustrophobic’ she has been repeatedly harassed. 

The government advisor, Dr Monisa Sherzada, who escaped the Taliban in 1994, fleeing over the mountains on a donkey with her young son.  Her children are now studying medicine in Germany.  She returned in 2001 and sits on a government committee set up by NATO to look at peace and reconciliation.  There are 9 women out of 70 members and they have no voting rights.  She talks about the young women being broken and depressed as they see no future. ‘When the conservatives come back they will shoot all these women who have been fighting for justice.  Any fundamentalist knows the addresses of those who speak out for women’s rights.  The International community should support and protect these women but they just think about their own departure’.

Against such a backdrop it feels hard to see how women living in safety in the West can help these women, outside of signing petitions and giving money to aid charities.  Perhaps the most important thing to do is to listen to women themselves living and working in Afghanistan, to try to understand even a little of their lived experience.  One thing we should not do is to conflate all of Islam with extremists, to assume that all women feel oppressed by wearing Burqas. We need to support on a global scale but not judge women who want to practice their faith.

‘Supporting Afghan women in what will undoubtedly be a very difficult time requires seeing them’.

Shireen Ahmed, August 2021

If you can afford to donate, please do, there are many charities working to help women escape, and also, to make their lives better if they stay. We have included some links below.  If you can’t donate but can give some time then reach out and offer that. Lobby government bodies to support refugees. Every small action creates a ‘ripple on the pond’ effect and together we hope to create change.

Ariana Magazine have started a campaign for emergency foodpacks. Donate on Paypal.

Women for women (they have already raised and matched $500,000)

Action Aid

Muslim hands

UNICEF are working on the ground across Afghanistan to help people, women and children. 

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