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South Asia

The Afghan Catastrophe Is a Moment of Reckoning for the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ Agenda

Uncertainty hangs over whether the clock will turn back to the dark, misogynist past or if the assurance of a less cruel, more diverse politics prevail.

The Afghanistan catastrophe is a moment of reckoning for many global agendas — Empire and ‘war on terror’; top down modernisation and globalising “liberal” values; the western “saviour” trope of liberating and reclaiming brown women’s rights and the UN Security Council’s “women, peace and security” (WPS) obligations. 

Uncertainty hangs over whether the clock will turn back to the dark, misogynist past or if the assurance of a less cruel, more diverse politics prevail. Will geopolitical deal-making, which enabled the Taliban’s “soft landing”, deliver the inward-looking politics of a coalition government or precipitate the contagion of extremist ideologies and violent politics across borders? Will the reconfigured alignments of power in the region produce stability or get sucked into proxy struggles in a conflict-scape of state collapse with floods of refugees? 

In the fog of these collective anxieties is young Waziha Tokhi, the feisty university student from Zabul, Kandahar province, who I met at the Afghan National Women’s Peace Assembly in Kabul in 2017.  

Even then, as the Taliban’s power grew in rural areas and in the vicinity of cities and local commanders monitored buses leaving rural Zabul for Kandahar, Waziha remained undaunted. Resourceful, she used a subterfuge. Three times a week she travelled two hours by bus, often the sole woman, to study law and politics at Kandahar University. She wore a burqa one day, a hijab the next and a tightly wrapped chaddar on the third day. 

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would mean a flattening of differences between urban and rural areas. It was in the cities that significant advances were made in women’s rights to education, health, mobility, livelihood and public office. But in Zabul, as elsewhere in the conflict-scarred south and east, more than 60% of girls were out of school because of insecurity, displacement and poverty. 

Waziha was one of the 23% of women enrolled at a university in Afghanistan. Even as an adolescent, she had run a school in her home for scores of girls unable to go to school. Today, was she among the melee of thousands at Kabul airport desperate to flee or was Waziha still determined to live her dream in an Afghanistan where Zarifa Ghafari (26) had become mayor in Maidan Shahr in central Wardak Province. 

Already, reports have been thick of women in the neighbouring Herat showing up at the university and being turned away, women working in banks in Kandahar told to go home and journalists with the public broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan stopped from working at the station’s offices till further notice. 

Waziha had been a vocal member of former President Ashraf Ghani’s Youth Parliament and like many gender equality activists, she had not questioned the cronyism and corruption of the Ghani regime. Like many urban Afghan “feminists” who focused on liberal values of freedom and not on the 2017 loosening of regulations on air strikes which killed civilians and wasted land, Waziha supported the foreign forces

Would her name be on the black lists that were said to be circulating of those the Taliban deemed ‘transgressors’ and targeted in house-to-house searches? 

Also read: UNSC Urges Taliban Not to Allow Terror Groups and to Ensure Safe Passage for Afghans

A general “amnesty”, declared the urbane Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid at the armed group’s first press conference, which was addressed as much to the international community as to Afghans. On women’s rights, Mujahid was emphatic; they would be contingent and conditional upon Islamic rights and worrisomely, women’s participation would be limited to the essential fields of education, ‘prosecution’ and health. 

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021. Reuters/Stringer/File Photo

Equivocation on the question of women’s right to work in the media heightened uneasiness about freedom of the press amidst reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists of threats and killings of journalists since the Taliban surge. 

The newly emergent Women’s Collective of Muslims was not reassured. In a statement, they warned, “Given the Taliban’s well-documented track record of gender-based oppression, this arbitrary interpretation of what work will be available to women ‘within the framework of Islam’ is a worrisome indicator of what may unfold in the coming months and years. We cannot forget that their previous interpretation of religious texts has chosen to privilege misogynistic legal regimes masquerading as ‘shariah law’.”  

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a radical Afghan women’s group, was most sceptical of any change in the Taliban’s mentality. RAWA had opposed both Soviet and US occupation as well as Taliban rule. In an interview to the Afghan Women’s Mission, RAWA said, “…the Taliban spokesperson declared that there is no difference between their ideology of 1996 and today. What they say about women’s rights [are] the exact phrases used during their previous dark rule: implementing Sharia law…. The Taliban will still be Islamic fundamentalists: misogynist, inhuman, barbaric, reactionary, anti-democracy and anti-progressive”.

The leading women’s organisation in Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), struck a conciliatory note, presenting themselves as potential partners working with the Taliban to end the war. AWN board member Mehbouba Seraj was not going to quibble about what Afghanistan’s governing system would be – an Islamic Emirate. What was important was that the Taliban must talk to the women of Afghanistan. “Taliban cannot ignore 18 million women of Afghanistan,” she declared. 

Plaintively, she pinned her hopes on the logic that “the world is watching“ and the Taliban’s need to ward off isolation. Seraj lashed out at the US, the international community and Ghani’s government for failing to work out an interim power-sharing arrangement months ago and for vaulting the people into a void-like situation, rife for the many criminal elements to take advantage of. 

“Why? Because the West did not consider the Afghan people as equal. [US special envoy] Zalmay Khalilzad decided. Pakistan decided. The World decided. We, the Afghan people, didn’t decide. If we had been involved we would have worked out our own solution,” she said. 

Also read: UNSC Drops Language on Opposing Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, Singling Out Taliban on Terrorism

In an interview with Munizae Jahangir on Aaj TV, Seraj expressed outrage at US President Joe Biden’s deprecating comment that the Afghan national forces lacked “the will to fight”.  

“Their will to fight was killed the day when they discovered deals were being made, [to hand over power to Taliban]” she said, exasperated.  She would have wholly concurred with the bitter observation made on a Women’s Regional Network (WRN) podcast by Fionnuala Ni Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism that “our friends are not our friends”.   

In the geopolitical playbook of Afghanistan, players like Hamid Karzai – the US’s choice for piloting Afghanistan after the 2001 foreign intervention – figured in the 1994 deal that brought the Taliban back to Afghanistan after their incubation in Pakistan’s qawmi madrasas under the tutelage of Pakistan’s ISI and US agencies. This revelation was made by adoptive Kandahari and former consultant with US forces, Sarah Chayes. 

Karzai is back, coordinating the talks for an interim coalition governing structure. At the table is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an anti-Soviet warlord notorious for his human rights record. Hekmatyar was bought back by Ghani in 2017 in a controversial amnesty agreement to broker an understanding with militia groups and the Taliban, with the backing of the US. 

As the fog of war clears, confusion over the Taliban’s lightning sweep of the country gives way to evidence that the takeover was years in the making. A former colleague, Malalai Wardak, in Kabul, 2017 had warned of the deep disconnect between the government’s western directed modernisation project in the cities and the majority of people in the countryside under the thrall of regressive warlords. 

Between the collateral damage of the drone bombings and night raids for insurgents and the sackfuls of mismanaged American money that fed corrupt elites, even a female beneficiary of a USAID programme, quoted in a SIGAR military audit report admitted, “I believe if the US leaves Afghanistan, it will be better for people as a whole, as the only reason for war is the presence of the US in Afghanistan.” 

Involved in overseeing this metamorphosis in Afghanistan were the regionally proximate actors, Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia. Strategic analyst Alastair Cooke claimed that a “consensus with the Pashtun Taliban on the future was reached” and that these external powers “have brought their Afghan allies [i.e. other Afghan minorities, who are almost as numerous] to the negotiating table alongside the Taliban.” 

Whatever the strength of this argument, the Taliban has seemingly reinvented itself as a multi-ethnic, sophisticated coalition. 

None of these actors, including India, a latecomer in opening a back channel with the Taliban, is interested in defending women’s rights. The moral agenda of “liberating Afghan women”, used to justify a war for revenge against a criminal attack by a non-state actor, died when it was dropped from the US-Talib exit talks at Doha as an “inconvenient liability”. 

In Afghanistan, the UN Security Council’s “women, peace and security” agenda was militarised and women’s rights instrumentalised in pursuit of goals of “countering violent extremism”.  

Dismayed at the tragedy of states’ betrayal of the obligation to protect and promote human/women’s rights, Ni Aolain retorted, “We’ve had 20 years plus of the WPS agenda. And if that agenda doesn’t mean something now, it’s worthless.” 

 The UN mandate-holder for balancing fundamental freedoms with countering terrorism was determined that states cannot be allowed to be expedient and relative on human/ woman’s rights. “What women and women activists have to do is cease to show up to meetings on WPS. If the Security Council will not act on that agenda in the moment where it matters, we [will] withdraw from talking to you about WPS.” 

Ni Aoláin, in the WRN podcast, spoke of the Afghanistan catastrophe as a moment of reckoning, not only for governments, but also for women and the networks of women activists across the world who have rallied around, promoted and, in a way, seen themselves as defined by WPS agenda. 

Afghan women will work out their own equation with the Taliban but they need the moral pressure of the world to be watching. The alternative dystopia is too dark to reimagine. 

Rita Manchanda is a scholar and activist and the author of Difficult Encounters with WPS Agenda in South Asia, Bristol 2020.