Reading on Twitter and FB about the fall of Afghanistan back into the hands of the Taliban, I had to pull down my copy of the Canadian women’s magazine, Homemakers, whose editors sent me to Afghanistan in 2005.
What I found as I read the stories I wrote 16 years ago was the pride and joy of young women who became skilled and financially independent, even supporting entire families, after being locked in doors for years. And I read about the feeling of strength women felt when they attended classes and learned that according to the 2004 Afghan constitution they had the right to say, ‘No’: No to sex, no to an arranged marriage, no to handing their husbands the money they earned and no to the men taking their children after a divorce. I don’t know to what extent those rights were implemented over the years. The Afghan constitution decreed that every Afghan had a right to a lawyer, but when I reported there in 2005, there were only 50 trained in the country because for decades most judicial decisions were made by religious men and tribal elders.
In the 20+ years since the start of the Soviet-Aghan war in 1979, Afghanistan was ruled the those men and during the last five of those years, it was the Taliban. Then came the Americans. For the next 20 years, women and girls began to come out of their shells (or blue burqas, in this case). It wasn’t all good. won’t get into the bombing of civilians by US forces or the corruption of Afghan’s allied with the US.
And it’s not like misogyny disappeared. In Herat, I interviewed young married girls who could barely speak through the gauze wrapping their head and covering areas where parts of their faces were missing after being set on fire by angry mother-in-laws or by themselves in protest of their treatment. But for many women and girls, the preceding 20 years started to fade to some degree.
Twenty years of the sight and knowledge of Afghan girls and women fulfilling their unequivocal rights must have erased some degree of the misogyny and patriarchy of Afghan culture among the men and boys. Indeed, there is a growing acceptance in many parts of the country that girls should study and, last year, Afghan communities in Taliban-controlled territory pushed back against restrictions and compelled Taliban authorities to take a more flexible approach. (Human Rights Watch reported on it in 2020). Afghanistan of 2021 is not the Afghanistan of 2001.
And the Taliban of 2021 is not the Taliban of 2001. Facebook and Twitter have given it an online face and social media users will hold it accountable. It is negotiating in Qatar with other Afghan groups and wants to be accepted in the world as a reasonable legitimate political actor. The repression of Afghan women will not be systematically violent. Will women be allowed to continue to work? I think so. Will girls continue to be allowed to go to school? I don’t see the Taliban closing down girls’ elementary schools in parts of the country where girls do attend. Kabul. The Taliban officially states that it no longer oppose girls’ education. Universities will probably be gender separated. But will a woman be allowed to say ‘no’ to sex with her husband and will there be a civil court to protect her rights if she does? I wouldn’t bet on it. I foresee a Saudi-style rule, which will be palatable but criticized by Western governments.