How the West Has Failed Afghan Women. Shame on Us.
On the morning of May 11, 2019 Mena Mangal, a prominent Afghan journalist and activist, was waiting for a car to take her to the lower chamber of Parliament in Kabul. She was working there as cultural adviser. Two gunmen, riding a motorcycle, approached her. Mena was gunned down in broad daylight, just weeks after she had shared her concerns about the death threats she was receiving, some of them under her social media posts. It was known that her life was in danger.
Two years earlier, in 2017, Mena attracted publicity for writing openly about her arranged marriage and the process of her divorce -which was finalized in May 2019, the month she was assassinated.
Mena was a feminist and outspoken advocate for women’s rights particularly in the space of education and work. Mena’s feminist ideas and advocacy were seen as a threat by her arranged husband and his family. A threat to their honour. The aggression and violence at home forced Mena to quit her first job. Yet her powerful voice and her fearlessness in empowering women and girls continued, and they came at a very high price. Mena was a ray of hope for women in Afghanistan. She was cruelly snuffed out with nine bullets in her head and her body. Mena was 26. The perpetrators were never found. Her killing shattered the hopes of all Afghan women.
Mena Mangal’s assassination was a blow for every woman, anywhere.
Let’s get things straight and let’s face the facts right: Afghanistan was an entirely different country fifty years ago. The chaos that we watch in our screens these days originates in the horrible mess created by the US and the UK, and policies that nurtured Islamist terror groups such as the Mujahedeen, Al-Qaeda and Taliban.
Afghanistan has had a tumultuous recent history. Over the last four decades, the country has been invaded by communist Soviet soldiers and US-led multinational forces. It has been ruled by militant organizations and the famed authoritarian Islamic Taliban in the years in between. Let’s travel back in time:
December 25, 1979 — The Soviet Union’s Red Army crosses the Oxus River into Afghanistan. Afghan Mujahedeen, or Islamic holy warriors, gather in Pakistan; they are sponsored and armed by the US for an anti-communist jihad. More than 8 million Afghans migrate to Pakistan and Iran, initiating waves of refugees over the course of several decades.
1980s — The CIA’s clandestine ‘Operation Cyclone’ channels weapons and money for the conflict through Pakistani ruler Mohammed Zia-ul Haq, who urges Muslim countries to send volunteers to fight in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden is among the hundreds of them. In 1983 President Reagan receives Mujahedeen commanders at the White House and refers to them as ‘freedom fighters’.
September 1986 — The United States arms the Mujahedeen with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, altering the trajectory of the conflict. The Soviets begin to negotiate their pull-out.
February 15, 1989 — The last Soviet soldiers leave Afghanistan, bringing the country’s ten-year occupation to an end.
1992–1996 — Power-sharing among the mujahedeen leaders falls apart and they spend four years fighting one another; much of Kabul is destroyed and nearly 50,000 people are killed.
1994 — The Taliban emerge in southern Kandahar, take over the province and set up a rule adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam.
Throughout Afghanistan’s changing political environment of the last fifty years, women have been the ones to suffer the most. Particularly in rural areas, but across the whole country women and girls are being beaten, abused, disfigured, kidnapped, killed. They are targeted in broad daylight by their partners, families, and armed groups, including the Taliban. No one in authority seems to pay notice. Therefore, for many women, the only choice is silence. If they disclose abuse or if they attempt to flee their abusers, they will most certainly be killed.
Violence against women is seen as a private family issue in the Afghan society, something shameful that should be hidden. They are raised to think that they are expected to tolerate violence because a ‘good woman’ has a duty to make her husband happy. There is a common belief that a woman who registers a complaint with the authorities has dishonoured herself.
That’s the main reason why women in most cases do not report beatings, sexual assaults, and any other violent behaviour. There is an additional reason: along with the stigma and social pressure that deter women from filing complaints, they do not really have access to justice. The influence of powerful politicians, local strongmen, criminal gangs that protect perpetrators is also a factor. In rape cases, police are often pressured not to make an arrest, while at the same time the girl or woman faces charges of ‘zina’: that she engaged in sex outside marriage.
Who is going to support or stand by her side? By their side? Women often lack understanding of their rights; they do not know that they are entitled to a lawyer. Furthermore, lack of evidence and witnesses is another reason that women cannot prove their case. They will risk being accused of filing false complaints.
We in the liberal, modernised West look at the pictures of Afghan women in burkas with resentment, abhorrence. But before we do that again, let’s be abhorred by the short-sighted western policies, the policies of leaders that our societies elected, and contributed massively to the chaos that Afghanistan is today.
Afghan women are falling into an abyss of abuse.
When we think of women in Afghanistan we think of full-body burqas. It was not the case a few decades ago. The father of modern Afghanistan is Abdur Rahman Khan. He ruled the country between 1880–1901. His stern and strict leadership style earned him the title ‘Iron Amir’. To his credit he introduced reforms elevating the status of women: he abolished the custom that was forcing a woman to marry her deceased husband’s next of kin, he increased the age of marriage, he gave women the right to divorce under specific circumstances. In accordance with Islamic tenets, women were also given rights to their father’s and husband’s property. ‘Iron Amir’s’ liberal wife Babo Jan is said to have influenced him towards these reforms. She was also the first Afghan queen to appear in public unveiled and in European dress.
Abdur Rahman’s son Amir Habibullah Khan continued his father’s progressive agenda by capping extravagant marriage expenses, a practice that impoverished many families. His wives were seen publicly unveiled and in western clothes. Habibullah’s perhaps most important contribution to Afghanistan was the return of Afghan exiles, and specifically that of Mahmud Beg Tarzi who arrived in the country from Syria to launch a modernist-nationalist newspaper, the Siraj-ul-Akhbar-i Afghan (‘The Lamp of the News of Afghanistan’). Tarzi was an ardent advocate of modern education. His political views were critical of western imperialism and even the monarchy. Having lived in Syria and Turkey he was influenced by modern interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence and the liberties that women enjoyed in these countries. Convinced of women’s abilities to engage in public professions, he supported women’s full citizenship, he believed that educated women were an asset to future generations, arguing that Islam did not deny them equal rights. In his newspaper, Tarzi devoted a special section on women’s issues titled ‘Celebrating Women of the World’ and edited by his wife Asma Tarzi. Credit to Tarzi’s liberal influence, Habibullah, opened a school for girls with English curriculum, which tribal leaders and mullahs saw as going against the grain of tradition. Education for women, and state’s interference in marriage institutions, challenged the power of tribal leaders and their patrilineal and patrilocal kinship systems.
Another ‘threat’ for them had been the fact that Afghan women were first eligible to vote in 1919 — only a year after women in the UK were given voting rights, and a year before the women in the United States were allowed to vote. It was not a surprise perhaps that in 1919 Habibullah was assassinated. Yet the legacy he left behind meant that in 1928, the first group of Afghan women would leave the country to attend school in Turkey. The 1940s and 1950s saw women becoming nurses, doctors and teachers.
In the 1950s gendered separation (purdah) was abolished. Between 1959–1965, women enrolled in university and entered the workforce and civil service in vast numbers.Women started graduating from medical schools and law faculty at Kabul University by 1963, while they were entering sports in large numbers. In the 1960s a new constitution brought equality to many areas of life, including political participation.
In the 1960s’ women in burkas would rarely be seen in big cities. In fact it was not unusual to see women in miniskirts, socialising and going to the cinema. Up until the conflict of the 1970s, and Afghanistan’s entrapment in the Cold War, the 20th Century had seen a steady progression for women’s rights in the country very much at a similar pace with the West.
But during coups and Soviet occupation in the 1970s, through civil conflict between Mujahedeen groups and government forces in the ’80s and ’90s, and then under Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan had their rights increasingly taken away.
Rural Afghanistan is the root of tribal powers that have been hampering any Kabul-driven modernization efforts. Social traditionalism and economic underdevelopment of rural Afghanistan have repeatedly contested the center. There is not a single recipe for empowering women in Afghanistan. The tribal areas and cultures that have a grip over women’s lives and gender roles are determined by patriarchal kinship arrangements. These are derived from interpretations of the Quran and tribal traditions where men exercise unmitigated power over women. Only a hybridic compromise between Islamic and secular ideals of gender relations, along with economic reconstruction of rural Afghanistan would shine a ray of light in elevating women’s status.
Four years ago, in December 2017, Noorjahan Akbar Founder of Free Women Writers in Afghanistan received the Global Thinkers Forum Award for Excellence in Women’s Empowerment. The message she sent to an international audience of 200 influencers and activists, was about the courage, compassion, and determination of Afghan women who have decided to say no to silence and take action against isolation and violence.
Noorjahan and the Free Women Writers members have committed themselves to fighting for equal rights and opportunities for Afghan women hoping to slowly sow the seeds of future transformation that would create a bright future for Afghanistan, a future where women will no longer have to deal with sexualised, physical, and other forms of violence. They knew that the process of building a ‘new’ Afghanistan would be a difficult and painful one and would need everyone’s support:
“Patriarchy is a global problem that harms women, men, children, families, communities, nations, everyone, and to fight this problem, we have to form a unified voice and network of solidarity. Today, by giving this award to free woman writers, you have taken a giant step in this direction. Let’s ensure that our solidarity will grow from here on”, was Noorjahan’s message.
This article in LE MONDE Diplomatique dating 2012, is rich in insights. The social crisis has been ongoing. At the time, according to statistics: Eighty seven per cent of Afghan women were illiterate, and only 30% had access to education. One in every three Afghan women experienced physical, psychological or sexual violence, and between 70 and 80% would face forced marriages. The average life expectancy rate for Afghan women is 44. For several reasons, I feel that us in the West have failed Afghan women -even those of us who actively and consistently fight for women’s rights. Why?
- Due to lack of focus on social development.
- Due to the continued disenfranchisement and repression of women.
- Due to the absence of a more holistic approach to address poverty and open economic prospects for the country.
As I watch the scenes of desperate people trying to flee Kabul, I think of our Afghani sisters and Negin’s poem comes to mind. I wonder how I will ever be able to tend a hand of support to her, the hand that we were not able to tend to Mena Mangal and the thousands of Afghan women whose suffering and doomed realities stigmatise our ‘progressive’ 21st century societies.
“Do not idolize me on high pedestals. And do not chain my luscious hair.
Do not imprison me in cages and make my life bitter
And do not place sweets at the corner of the cage.
Not more, not less, we want equality”