What About Afghan Women?

*This article of mine is published on Medium.*

Explosions abound in Afghanistan this week as the Trump administration tries to wrap up negotiations and hand over power to the Taliban, the very same terrorist group the U.S. government vowed to wipe out at the start of America’s longest war back in 2001.

Hashed out over months of talks between the Trump administration and the Taliban, the still-unofficial agreement, is supposed to pave the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and lead to negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The talks were handled behind closed doors and with no women present in the room.

The fact that the United States has been, and is still trying to, hammer out a deal with the Taliban should have us all collectively freaking out. Instead, it is exposing our collective amnesia over anything related to this war, especially when it comes to what we promised Afghan women, who we vowed to rescue from the clutches of the Taliban.

I was recently reminded of just how much we have forgotten about our promises to Afghan women when I appeared on an all woman political analysis TV show. During the taping of a discussion on the recent loosenings of the Saudi male guardianship laws, the host of the show asked her guests whether respecting and upholding women’s rights should be prerequisites to U.S. foreign policy negotiations. I balked at the question, immediately bringing up the example of how we have all but abandoned Afghan women despite exploiting their plight to advance our own political agenda.

As soon as the words left my mouth, my fellow panelists, and even the host of the show, voiced their outrage. Not only did everyone think that what I said was untrue and false, but they appeared to be offended that I would even associate Afghan women’s rights with the U.S. war in Afghanistan. As the only Muslim woman on the panel, I was horrified with the gaslighting by the other panelists, who were all in agreement that the U.S. never promised Afghan women anything and they had nothing to do with the U.S. invading or staying in Afghanistan for the last seventeen years.

A part of me understands that the United States, along with the rest of the world, has fatigue from a war that seems to have no end in sight. It has dragged on and on. But it is also undeniable, as an article in Foreign Policy recently stated that women’s empowerment was a cause “touted by the U.S. government as a reason to invade, occupy, and remain in Afghanistan.”

While the United States may have invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 as retaliation for the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, it was the plight of Afghan women that the U.S. government exploited to win the public relations and optics battle for the war. Remember all the rhetoric about lifting the veil and freeing Afghan women from their blue burqa prisons, such as this TIME magazine cover from 2001, or this Mother Jones “behind the veils” photo essay?

“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” then First Lady Laura Bush said after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Bush stated that, thanks to U.S. intervention, [Afghan] women were “no longer imprisoned in their homes.”

A few years ago, as the American public grew increasingly exhausted of the war, TIME magazine ran another cover questioning what would happen to the women of Afghanistan if the United States did indeed pull out. Would Afghanistan go back to the days of Taliban rule when women could be flogged for showing even an inch of skin, beaten for going to school, and stoned to death if found guilty of adultery?

Seventeen years after U.S.-led Afghan militias drove the Taliban out of Kabul, the United States is now doing the unthinkable by negotiating with the Taliban, and having no issue throwing the hard-won rights of Afghan women and girls under the bus.

Despite major challenges remaining, such as the vast majority of Afghan women still being illiterate and in forced marriages, overall since the start of the US invasion, things have improved for women and girls. Education for Afghan girls has spread, and today they make up roughly 40% of the country’s elementary school students and about 35% of its middle and high school students.

In addition, Afghan women make up nearly a third of civil servants, and a network of women’s shelters has been established across the country. Even though maternal mortality is still the biggest reason for death among women, the number of Afghan women dying during pregnancy and childbirth has significantly declined as a result of U.S. and international efforts to fund midwifery efforts.

Afghan women are worried, and rightfully so, that all these progresses will be wiped away when the United States leaves.

“The talks are behind closed doors — it’s not transparent,” Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told the New York Times. “We’ve heard nothing about the discussion of women. The Taliban keep saying we will give women rights based in Shariah. Women here are very, very worried and I think we are all united in saying we are not going back.”

Wazhma Frogh, founder of the Women & Peace Studies Organization and member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, cites incidents in 2019 where the Taliban executed women, burned down girls’ schools and threatened women, including teachers, for working outside the home. She told Ms. magazine that in areas under Taliban rule, tribal courts frequently mete out punishments like amputations and executions.

Why is the United States even considering the Taliban as a legitimate player in the future of Afghanistan? Simply put, because today the militants control more territory than at any time since the 2001 U.S. invasion. And so far, they have refused to talk to the Afghan government. Add to that President Trump’s well known, shall we say disdain, for Muslims and people of color, and there you have your answer.

The fate of Brown, Muslim, Afghan women and what happens to their rights is not a priority for the Trump Administration. Even if previous U.S. governments shared Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for cutting the cord and exiting Afghanistan, Trump has the advantage of a well-established record of racism and sexism that allows him a brash exit not very likely to be challenged by the international community.

It would have been unimaginable at the start of the U.S. war to think that by the end, the United States would be talking about handing power back to the Taliban, yet here we are.

But if the larger U.S. public does not remember that promises were even made to Afghan women in the first place, clearly we have bigger issues to tackle. One of those issues is not letting White men use the suffering of and violence against women of color to justify invading another country is a good place to start.

*This article of mine is published on Medium.*

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