Afghan Women Are Doing What They’ve Always Done: Resist

'We need solidarity across the world. No peace will come without justice.'

by Rawi, Madina Wardak, Sonita Alizada

8 September 2021

Afghan women's rights defenders and civil activists protest to call on the Taliban for the preservation of their achievements and education, in front of the presidential palace in Kabul
Afghan women protest the Taliban in Kabul on 3 September 2021. (REUTERS/Stringer)

From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban held power over roughly three-quarters of Afghanistan and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic, law. During that period, they oversaw the oppression of women, banning them from public life and subjecting them to violence. But this time they claim their rule will be different. Taliban spokesmen have insisted they will respect women’s rights to education and to work, within an Islamic framework. The reality on the ground, however, is already very different. Women have been told to stay home, have been removed from their jobs, are being segregated in education, and are experiencing rising misogynist abuse. 

In response, women across the country are fighting back. This Saturday, women rallied in Kabul, demanding inclusion in the cabinet – they were met with tear gas and physical attacks by Taliban fighters. 

Three Afghan feminists – one living in Afghanistan, and two members of the diaspora in the US – spoke to Sophie K Rosa about the experiences of women in the country now and in the past. Throughout the country’s history of foreign occupation and fundamentalist rule and violence, one thing has been constant, they agree: women’s resistance. 

Rawi, Kabul.

I don’t think the situation for feminism and women’s resistance in Afghanistan has ever been as dark as it is today. Our parents and previous generations can at least remember the 1960s or 1970s, when women had basic rights. But with the passing of each decade, the situation for women has gotten worse, and more violent – especially with the formation of the fundamentalist regime in 1992.

Women have always resisted, but unfortunately, some believe that we only need a few reforms. I am a spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (Rawa) an independent political group of Afghan women fighting for human rights and social justice. Established in Kabul in 1977, Rawa was the first feminist organisation to argue that deep political change to the system is necessary for the liberation of all oppressed groups. We believe that Afghanistan’s independence, fundamentalism and terrorism cannot be understood without feminism and vice versa.

In the past, Afghanistan’s fundamentalist government had the full support of the United States in selling and dealing arms. Throughout history, Western governments have had an economic and strategic interest in supporting terrorist networks. Unfortunately for Afghanistan, these imperialist governments have been willing to work with the most reactionary, misogynistic and brutal groups in Afghanistan – they never considered the people of Afghanistan, not least the women.

Today, twenty years after the fall of their first fundamentalist regime, the Taliban –  who, lest we forget, were used as a justification for bombing Afghanistan, killing thousands of civilians and destroying villages, all in the name of “fighting terror”, “women’s rights” and “democracy” – are once again in power. This is not despite Western intervention, it is a direct result of the role the US has played in Afghanistan – making deals with the terrorists, giving them legitimacy. Today once again, Afghan women will be completely forgotten by the international community. That’s why we have to fight back ourselves. 

For the first week after the Taliban entered Kabul, there were no women on the streets. Those who have to leave the house feel more protected in burqas. The Taliban is claiming, especially to the international media, that they aren’t interfering in the activities of women, but actually, women are being told to stay at home. Many schools, businesses and NGOs are closed. One of the immediate impacts of the Taliban takeover is unemployment and poverty. You feel this everywhere in Kabul.

As women have always been the prime victims of fundamentalism in Afghanistan, we’re very strong and feel a responsibility to raise our voices. The very first day the Taliban took power, a group of female activists took to the streets and wrote anti-Taliban slogans. In recent days, there have been many women-led protests across the country against Sharia law. This resistance will continue.

We do not rely on governments, we do not rely on bodies like the United Nations which has always backed – directly or indirectly – the fundamentalist regimes, but we do absolutely rely on people decrying war. Today, once again, we need this solidarity across the world. No peace will come without justice.

Madina Wardak, Los Angeles. 

I am a child of Afghan refugees, based in Los Angeles. I became a mental health social worker and work with diaspora Afghan communities because, growing up, I saw the effects of the war on people who survived it. Even if you’re not living in Afghanistan, war will find a way to destroy your life.

Until 11 September 2001 – so until I was 11 – I didn’t feel different. But 9/11 impacted the way people from the region viewed themselves. There have been times in my life when I hated being Afghan; I’ve had to unlearn that western-ingrained self-hatred – that we’re backwards and uncivilised. I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2018 and fell deeper in love with the country. 

There have been times when I’ve felt feminism doesn’t have a place in Afghanistan. But the more I learn, the more I realise that to be an Afghan woman is to be a feminist. We oversimplify Afghan women as being these vulnerable creatures that suffer at the hands of brown men, but that’s false. Afghan women back home are the ones carrying feminist resistance. There have always been feminist movements and pivotal women – including politician Malalai Joya, and activists Pashtana Durrani and Meena Keshwar Kamal. 

The international community using women’s rights as a justification for war is a means to an end. The world just wants the resources under the ground. The world is not responsible for ‘saving’ Afghan people. The world is responsible for being accountable for what they did to put them in this position in the first place. The Afghanistan that my mother grew up in, pre-Soviet occupation, was great. 

The struggle of Afghan women – like women in any country – is not uniform. Yes, over the past 20 years, women made significant strides: not living under the Taliban, no longer being forced to wear the burqa, entering the workforce and going to school. But domestic violence, child marriage and sexual assault rates didn’t significantly change. Without invalidating the strides many Afghan women have made since US intervention, I don’t know how much really changed. Did the changes create an environment where some women were able to thrive? Sure. But were some women droned in their sleep? Yes. 

The Taliban haven’t ‘regained’ power; the US lied to the world when they claimed to have eradicated them – they made peace deals with them. Now they have taken over the entire country, my reaction is grief and pain. But women are continuing to resist; continuing to show up and be loud and lead rallies. I fear that the overanalysis of what is happening to women right now in Afghanistan falls into the idea that they need someone to save them. At the same time, some of them have been put into a situation where they are now dependent upon US intervention. 

I don’t know what it’s like to live in Afghanistan; what I do know is Afghan women are powerhouses and revolutionaries and will continue to fight for true liberation – from foreign occupation and the patriarchy.

Sonita Alizada.

I was born in Herat, Afghanistan in 1996, and grew up an undocumented refugee in Iran. I was educated by an NGO. I was able to discover myself, unlike my sisters who were taught to only think about being good wives.

My family tried to sell me into marriage at ten, and again at 16 – I escaped, and soon after wrote my first rap song, ‘daughters for sale’. I use music as a tool to speak about important issues – like child marriage, immigration and child labour. As a result of the success of my first music video, I got a scholarship to go to school in the US.

The little that I remember from living in Afghanistan under the Taliban is blood and killing. For example, I remember my sister being beaten with the back of a gun because she used public shower facilities as a woman. My mother would say we shouldn’t go outside in case we were raped or kidnapped. My childhood was killed by the Taliban. 

It is sad and disgusting to see how politicians use women’s rights as a bridge for political interests. Governments are so focused on winning the next election that they ruin the lives of people in other countries. For example, in the peace deal the US made with the Taliban, there is nothing mentioned about Afghan women’s freedom and safety.

I’m terrified now because I don’t want history to repeat itself. It is already repeating in some parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban recently burned a woman because she couldn’t cook as well as they expected. The Taliban are still the same Taliban. Right now they’re saying that girls can go to school – but the schools are going to be mosques. The Taliban is scared of women; if they have access to education and have voices, no one can control their lives. It is very sad that the world is not taking serious action.

When I visited Afghanistan in 2016, I saw huge changes and it gave me hope: I saw women running shops, working side-by-side with men, attending mixed classes, going to college. The future for Afghanistan now – especially Afghan women – is unknown. But one thing that can fight oppression is our voices. My dream for Afghan women is to see them united, to see them set aside their fears. I personally will do whatever it takes, for freedom. 

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.

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