South Asia

Time to Tune Out the Saviour Narrative, Bring Afghan Women’s Resistance Centre Stage

The West sees Taliban’s return as a threat to freedoms it secured for Afghan women. True, the situation may regress, but the West’s Afghan agenda had little impact on the ground even as it ignored Afghan women’s diverse reality and resilience. That must change.

Listen to this article:

As I frantically searched for news from Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban takeover, a radio interview on BBC World Service (We are living inside a volcano, August 17) caught my attention. I heard a familiar female voice – the voice of a brave Afghan activist – saying, “I will stay here and negotiate with anyone. I am happy to negotiate with the Taliban.” I wondered how many experts were listening to such voices while discussing Afghanistan and the Taliban.

While the world cheered the resistance arising from the Panjshir Valley, the real resistance to the Taliban came from Afghan women who courageously filled up the streets, adamant about not surrendering their rights to the regime. The protests broke out in Herat around August 17 against the Taliban’s diktat denying women the right to attend university.

The protests established something unprecedented vis-a-vis the Taliban’s stance on women’s education. The regime relented. Soon protests by women broke out in other parts of the country, including Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. We often forget that it was the women of Herat who were the first to rebel against the Taliban in 1996.  They were beaten and arrested but continued their resistance – just as they are doing today.

University students in Herat, in western Afghanistan, out on the streets in the first week of September to assert that it is their fundamental right to study, work and be part of the government. Photo: Reuters

In the three-and-a-half years that I lived in Afghanistan (2012-2015), working for an international organisation on the issue of women’s rights, I had an opportunity to interact with Afghan women from all walks of life, not just activists. A close look revealed that they were all negotiating their way through a complex ground reality brought upon by years of trauma caused not only by patriarchal oppression but also by the oppression of protracted war and conflict, resulting in one of the lowest human indices in the world.

The latest chapter in Afghanistan’s history has added yet another layer of complexity to the existing situation. Every day I come across all-too familiar articles focused on Afghan women just to realise how all ‘objective’ accounts are shrouded by a sense of estrangement, a disingenuous lack of familiarity with the topic at hand. The recent focus on a rural-urban binary, too, is a simplification of a layered situation.

For that matter, Afghan women have dominated the international news on Afghanistan for close to two decades now, but the singular narrative woven around them has been marked by a pronounced orientalist gaze that sees the values emerging from western modernity as superior and universal.

I was a student in New York in 2001 when the US declared war against Afghanistan post-9/11. I attended countless events and discussions centred around Afghan women and saw how a forceful narrative about rescuing Afghan women from the clutches of the barbaric Taliban was being created. The paternal benevolence of the West soon transformed the war on terror into a civilising mission and the first feminist war as lawyer and human rights activist Rafia Zakaria put it. Afghanistan was to be liberated and transformed into a democracy measuring up to western yardsticks.

Rafia Zakaria
Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption
WW Norton (August 2021)

The civilising mission of the colonial project in India that continues to define its outlook towards modernity and women’s emancipation, played out for 200 years before ending in one of the bloodiest transfers of power in 1947. Similarly, in Afghanistan, foreign powers tried to impose their version of modernity and women’s liberation in post-Taliban Afghanistan between 2004 and August 2021.

To write an objective account of this process is a tall order, for the present narrative cannot be understood in a vacuum. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its 10-year war with the Mujahideen; the 1993 conflict between Afghans Rabbani and Hikmetyar; the 1994 destruction of Kabul and the emergence of the Taliban in 1996, are part of Afghanistan’s story of conflict and self-serving interests on the part of all parties and nation-states involved.

In fact, there is a need to go further back to the “Great Game” that the West has played in the region since the 19th century – a fact conveniently ignored by the ‘civilising mission’ that now has a new version of the Great Game involving the construction of gas pipelines across central Asia.

Then there are the prevailing misconceptions about the region, its ethnic and religious diversity and its history. The more I talk to people, the more aware I become of our lack of understanding of the place.

In such circumstances, penning a ‘subjective’ account of what I observed in the course of my work in Afghanistan, with its focus on Afghan women, is the only honest option for me.  It is important because the Taliban’s return to power is being seen in international circles as a break from the immediate past in which the western powers had secured a more liberal climate with freedoms for Afghan women.

An Afghan woman squarely faces the gun trained on her by a Taliban member in Kabul. Photo: Reuters

I spent the first few months of my assignment in Herat and thereafter was based in Kabul. My work required travelling throughout the country. In 2012, when I accepted the assignment, the advisory notice I received requested all the staff, including men, to keep their arms and legs fully covered.  The female staff were advised to wear long shirts covering their hips and cover their head in public spaces.

As the daughter of a mother who was religious but refused to wear a burqa to college, believing that any dress code was a misinterpretation of Islam, I did not cover my head when I landed at Kabul airport. My plan was to leave immediately for Herat. Everything seemed fine as I crossed a number of checkpoints. Moreover, as Afghans followed the same Hanafi school, I was confident that my knowledge was adequate to defend my practice.

At that time, the story of Timur’s daughter-in-law, Queen Gawhar Shad, had crossed my mind. She had moved the Timurid capital from Samarqand to Herat and established a number of schools there.  Herat had boasted a liberal Islamic tradition and was known for its Islamic art and craft, music and dance. I also remembered how rooted the Naqshbandi and Qadiriyya Sufi silsilas had been in Afghanistan, like the Chistis at home in India, and how before the Taliban, no Afghan ruler had insisted on a dress code. Now that the Taliban were gone, I thought Afghanistan was safe from extremists.

Gowhar Shad mosque in Herat. Photo: Unknown photographer/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

I was making the mistake that non-Muslims are prone to making – of collapsing all our cultural, regional and historical differences under the blanket term of Islam. I was soon disabused of that notion.

One day at a market in Herat I was accosted by an old woman who screamed at me in Dari. I understood that she was accusing me of being immoral as I had not covered my head. My staff had rescued me by explaining to her that I was a foreigner in those parts.

That day I understood that my defiance would not work in Afghanistan as it did back home. For the first time in my life, I took to covering my head, not because someone had shouted at me, but because I realised that I needed to take a different approach while working for women’s issues there.

My brief entailed engaging with the policy-making process as well. That experience was akin to moving one step forward and ten steps backwards when it came to women’s rights issues. I realised that the roots of patriarchy ran deep and that the so-called liberation of Afghan women by NATO forces had not made the slightest dent in it. On numerous occasions, I had to bargain with government officials and local leaders to have women in training programmes or meetings or for them to speak on those occasions.

My list of personal interactions with women victims of violence is long without even mentioning cases like Farkhunda and Sitara that caught media attention. These interactions proved to me that notwithstanding the initial euphoria about the EVAW (Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women) displayed by certain groups, including a number of international groups, women’s rights never really became an integral part of the West’s Afghan agenda, for little had changed on the ground.

During one trip to Ghor, in central Afghanistan, I visited the judge of the local court. I asked Qazi sahib whether he knew about the EVAW which had been signed as a decree in 2009 by the then president, Hamid Karzai. He replied that he was vaguely familiar with the constitution – he had not read it — but was clear that Sharia was the law of the land.

Foreign aid donors and international organisations discussed with horror the cases of violence against women and took it upon themselves to advocate individual cases, which added to the resentment that Afghans have felt due to the continuous unpopular foreign interventions since 1978.

It was not the case that donor agencies or policymakers were unaware of these contradictions. In fact, funding by international donors was conditional on the submission of a status report on the implementation of the EVAW Law by the government of Afghanistan. The reports produced thus satisfied the donors; they had become an end in themselves.

The diplomats in Kabul, too, were not unaware of this, but the reports were aimed more at assuaging feminist concerns in their national capitals than anything else.  Money continued to flow in, trainings took place, and disinterested Afghan government officials were flown to the US and Europe for various trainings and capacity building programmes on a range of issues including security, law and gender.

September 2021: Afghan women take to the streets to stand up for their rights and for the rights of future generations. Photo: Reuters

Meanwhile, the smallest of concessions to women’s rights were subjected to lengthy discussions between the international community and the Afghan government.

For example, intensive international advocacy made President Karzai issue an order which forbade charging women with the crime of “running away” without exploring the cause of running away. Regardless, I came across so many young girls who had been incarcerated for “running away from home.”

This could mean that they had left home due to violence or disagreements with their family members and were found without a male guardian. They were charged with a crime that did not exist in the law books at the time!

One of the youngsters I met was Zehra(name changed), a  12-year-old who had been charged with adultery. She had been found in a park, with a boy sitting on the same bench as her, and no amount of explanation could convince the law officials of her innocence. The more conditions the donors put in, the more the Afghan government resented.

The point here is not that violence against women was and is rampant in Afghanistan — that is the case across South Asia — but that there was no redressal mechanism for it.

Institutions charged with helping women survivors of violence were often complicit in making their lives more difficult as they were all run by people with a patriarchal mindset who saw women’s issues as the ‘foreigners’ agenda.’ No serious efforts were made by the occupation forces, local government or human rights agencies and the result is continuing human rights violations, as has been the case for decades now.

Yes, with the Taliban back in the saddle, life will undergo a change for most Afghans. What that change will be remains to be seen. However, as my experience showed me, be it urban or rural areas, the situation was far from rosy even in the years 2004-2021.

Afghan women activists protesting outside the women’s ministry in Kabul against the Taliban’s move to do away with the ministry and replace it with a ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. Photo: Reuters

In fact, when the Taliban first seized power in the mid-1990s and justified their policies, saying that they flowed from the Quran, some aid agencies went to the extent of claiming that the Taliban way was the Afghan cultural tradition and had to be respected. What foreign experts have time and again ignored is that Afghanistan was and is an extremely diverse country with no universal standards defining women’s role in society.

Being amnesiac about the history of foreign intervention and conflict in Afghanistan makes it easier to develop the idea of global jihad in a vacuum. To remain in that amnesiac state means escaping responsibility for the chain of blunders set in motion by hegemonic powers that ended with such an easy and unexpected takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in August 2021.

Anand Gopal
No Good Men Among the Living
Pan Macmillan India (February 2015)

In No Good Men Among the Living, Anand Gopal highlights how faulty American intelligence, their misreading of local culture, practices within the fold of Islam and their fixation on terrorist camps led them to prosecute a war that had no real enemy. Needless to say, that amnesiac state makes it possible to enhance the righteousness of the civilising mission as well.

As far as Afghan women are concerned, we need to acknowledge that the situation may get more regressive than before, not that Afghan women have had it easy in the last 17 years.  More importantly, the world needs to realise the extent to which the Afghan people are suffering from fear and total exhaustion.

Taliban or no Taliban, Afghan women will continue to resist their oppressive circumstances. They alone have the power to make Afghanistan a better place for the women of today and future generations. To understand the real state of affairs and the resistance being put up by Afghan women in particular, the need of the hour is to tune out the dominant narratives of paternal benevolence and ‘saviourism’ that mask self-aggrandising acts and bring the voices of Afghan women centre stage.

Huma Khan currently works as the Senior Human Rights Advisor to UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh. This article is written in her personal capacity. She acknowledges the significant inputs provided by Sarah Khan, an independent researcher who has done her MPhil in Social and Economic History at the University of Cambridge.