The world watched this week as images of women were painted over on beauty parlours in Kabul. The symbolism was impossible to miss. After twenty years of limited — though steadily increasing — freedoms, the concealment of the women of Kabul, and Afghanistan, had resumed.
After the Taliban announced that it will respect women’s rights “in accordance with Islamic law” on Wednesday, a woman was reportedly killed for not wearing a burqa and another was beaten to death in front of her four children for refusing to cook for them. Women for the Taliban are the first target for enforced isolation, silencing and extreme violence. Women are central to the Taliban’s theocratic vision. They are the first to be subjugated. If they can coerce, terrorise and control women, the rest of the population will follow.
Afghan women were central to the US policy too — an astonishing US government report from February 2021 shows just how central. The Americans pursued a strategy of “gender mainstreaming” in the country, a suite of policies that aimed to empower Afghan women. Quotas were introduced that guaranteed a set number of women in parliament; rural councils, likewise, were balanced by gender. The US sent “gender advisors” to the country; they attempted to integrate women into the Afghan army; training centres, housing, child care centres, gyms, dining facilities, and bathrooms were all built for women. And Afghan men were enlisted to the gender mainstreaming cause — US programs gave “trainings to 1,105 Afghan men in which they could discuss their own gender roles and examine male attitudes that are harmful to women.” One initiative was called the “National Masculinity Alliance”.
So what went wrong? The report details numerous pitfalls such as; building schools that were left empty because parents wanted their kids to herd sheep, the lack of a Dari and Pashto translation for “gender equality”, a culture of sexual harassment among parliamentarians, and the restricted mobility that hinder women from public participation to name a few. Women remained a priority for the US but not for Afghanistan.
Women’s rights continued to be viewed by many as a foreign notion that was introduced by invaders to sully women’s honour and distract them from their divinely determined duties inside the home. To these people, the concept of women’s rights belongs to the secular sphere that the infidel West was trying to impose upon a deeply conservative and religious country. The Taliban see their role as rectifying the behaviour of their people who were tempted by the devil.
The US tried to switch Afghan women into Western-style feminism — a dream that dissipated because it wasn’t grounded in Afghan or Muslim reality. A focus on gradually revising religious discourse and allowing for a more tolerant understanding of Islam might have yielded more sustainable results — sadly we will now never know.