As starvation and desperation close in, Afghanistan’s women are facing a winter of hunger and violence. Already brutalised by the Taliban, women and girls are likely to be further victimised as the deepening economic crisis nurtures even higher levels of domestic abuse and vanishing access to healthcare.
Twenty years of constitutionally mandated freedoms and real progress for women in some important areas – including lifespan and literacy – have come to a sharp halt. Those who worked for the advancement of women’s rights say they are being threatened by the Taliban. Many are in hiding or have left the country.
Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan’s former parliament and a prominent voice for women’s rights, is one of those who fled for her life as the Taliban entered Kabul on 15 August. She now worries that the impact of the Taliban’s abuse of women, combined with a rapidly unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, will be irreversible for generations.
“High domestic violence in Afghanistan stems from war and poverty. Right now, we are facing huge poverty, which will have a direct impact on increasing domestic violence,” Barakzai says. Human Rights Watch reported in 2018 that 87 per cent of Afghanistan’s women and girls would suffer abuse in their lifetimes.
The Taliban’s inability to govern has led Afghanistan to the brink of collapse. International aid organisations are now warning that almost the entire population of around 38 million people faces extreme poverty.
Afghanistan is entering a Himalayan winter that will see temperatures drop far below zero. Already, children are dying for lack of food. There have been reports of some families selling their babies so they can eat.
People cannot access funds in their banks as the United States has frozen all financial assets. The World Bank has ceased payments to aid and development projects. The United Nations says it raised more than $1 billion in pledges to alleviate the suffering, but has so far received only a third of that figure.
The European Union says it has flown in medicines and plans to re-open its diplomatic mission in order to get aid to the Afghan people. But it is unclear how supplies will be distributed to those in need. Borders are closed, curtailing supplies of foodstuffs and fuel. Urban Afghans, who are mostly jobless, report rising crime including kidnap-for-ransom and theft. Some have said that even Taliban foot soldiers are stealing food, and they fear civil unrest, in a country where many people are armed, if food and cash (at the very least) are not made available soon.
The Taliban have said they will start passing out wheat, though what the average household is expected to do with unmilled wheat is anyone’s guess. Bread is a staple, bought freshly baked from ubiquitous bakeries that are finding it increasingly difficult to source flour, city residents say.
Yet, as this tragedy is unfolding, the Taliban have concentrated their energies not on improving living conditions, but on brutalising women and girls, reducing them to chattels, forcing them into their homes, barring them from work, education and sport. Small, brave demonstrations by women demanding that their rights be respected are broken up by turbaned men who beat and threaten them with sticks and guns.
These women, who are not afraid of the consequences of their confrontation, have clearly taken the Taliban by surprise. Unlike members of her own generation, Barakzai says, most of Afghanistan’s people have grown up in the past 20 years – which is to say, in the period since the Taliban’s previous cruel regime in 2001. The vast majority of the population is aged under 35 years old, and the mean age is 18 years.
For two decades, women and girls became accustomed to choice, opportunity, and progress. For urban women, this meant education, careers and freedom of movement. For women in the rural regions, access to basic healthcare led to a drop in maternal and infant mortality, and improvements to their quality of life.
Across the country, millions of children went to school, and 40 per cent or around 3.5 million of them were girls, up from almost zero under the Taliban, according to the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR), set up by the US Congress to monitor development spending. In a report published in February, SIGAR said that, based on its research, many Afghan people believed access to education was “the greatest post-2001 gain for women and girls”.
By February this year, between 65,000 and 75,000 women were employed by the government as teachers, one-third of the total number working in the sector (a figure also up from zero under the last Taliban regime). Women went to university, won scholarships to study abroad, started their own businesses, joined the police and military, flew planes.
They were doctors, dentists, lawyers, judges, journalists. They ran beauty parlours, cafes and restaurants, non-governmental organisations, fashion boutiques. They worked in embassies, consulted multilateral organisations, were government ministers. Few areas of Afghan life did not have a female presence.
These women pursued careers, vocations and causes under intensifying threat – targeted in a vicious assassination campaign that followed the signing in February 2020 of an agreement between the Taliban and Donald Trump (one that effectively handed them the victory they claimed on 15 August).
Since the theocrats’ capture of Kabul, the campaign against women has been conducted as a matter of government policy. Taliban figures have appeared on television to ask whether women even have brains, and to pronounce them to be useless for anything outside the home. What women wear; how they smell; what body parts can be exposed to sunlight; when, and how, and if they can leave their homes, and with whom; how loud they can raise their voices; if they can exercise and play sport – these are the obsessions of the Taliban.
The constitution, the National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security (drawn up with much fanfare in 2015), the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the international treaties that Afghanistan signed, obliging it to abide by a host of UN human rights declarations – none of these appear to matter anymore.
The former Ministry of Women’s Affairs often struggled for relevance and resources under the previous, internationally supported government – but retained its core strength thanks to the actions of women themselves.
It has now been transformed into the “Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice”. Under the last Taliban regime, this ministry was “a notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses, particularly against women and girls,” according to Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
“The ministry ruthlessly enforced restrictions on women and men through public beatings and imprisonment. The ministry beat women publicly for, among other things, wearing socks that were not sufficiently opaque; showing their wrists, hands, or ankles; and not being accompanied by a close male relative. It barred women from educating girls in home-based schools, from working, and from begging. Its officials also beat men for trimming their beards,” she wrote in a recent report.
Now, many women who were already in peril before the Taliban victory are living in circumstances of absolute terror – terror that they will be found in their places of hiding, and summarily killed. I receive messages every day from people living in fear of retribution and asking for my help in getting them out of Afghanistan, to safety. The messages are heartbreaking and disturbing, and, to a bleak extent, represent the human face of the failure of Britain, the United States and NATO to follow through on promises that they – we – would never abandon the people of Afghanistan, especially its women.
In one northern province, according to the son of an elected council member, women provincial councillors, judges, rights advocates and those who helped women who had been beaten by their husbands have come under extreme pressure since the Taliban took control. He sent me details of what has been happening to his mother since the Taliban takeover, asking me not to use any names.
“Right after the Taliban took over Kabul, the female members of the local provincial council lost their power and left their houses, and hid in unfamiliar places,” he wrote to me. “Our house has been shot at by the Taliban many times. Even when they reached our province, they asked about my Mom and later they broke down our house door forcibly, and took items from our house.”
“Another member of the Provincial Council was shot by the Taliban and she got wounded, she has a terrible mental problem and she is scared and not to be caught by the Taliban because they will indeed kill her,” he said. The women in his province who had worked on the council were now homeless and penniless, as many had been the main breadwinners of their families, he said.
The situation is “way tricky for their children and husbands,” he goes on. “Things get worse day by day and we want that the world to hear our voices and help us to get out of this situation”. Tragically, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone inside or outside Afghanistan.
During three months of frontline reporting in Afghanistan – I left on the last commercial flight out of Kabul on 15 August – I uncovered Taliban atrocities in parts of the country that were coming under their control as the war progressed. I wrote articles for publications across the globe, talked on the radio and appeared on television worldwide. My stories were picked up and followed and re-confirmed by other journalists. I was praised and abused, in equal measure, on social media.
Most shocking and egregious among the Taliban’s activities in the regions that they overran was their order to communities to round up unmarried women, widows and girls so they could be married to Taliban fighters. This policy of kidnap, sex slavery and endorsed rape had been rumoured to be in place in some parts of the country’s north, but had not been confirmed until I met and interviewed women who had fled a remote district of central Bamiyan province in July to escape the Taliban edict. They said that the Taliban ordered the mullahs to announce from the loudspeakers of the mosques that women be named and made available. Taliban visited homes to check on the women and girls who lived there.
No one in this district, Saighan, had any doubt that if the Taliban hadn’t been run out of the district (at least for the time being) that they would have been taken and raped as “wives” of the victors. It’s a jihadist practice that claims everything, animate and inanimate, as spoils of victory. Now that the Taliban have snuffed out journalism, we know much less about the prevalence of this practice. But the anecdotal pattern is clear. One friend of mine who recently fled the country refused to leave a younger sister behind – because he did not trust his own father to resist Taliban demands that she be taken away for sex slavery dressed up as marriage.
The damage that has already been done is appalling. Shukria Barakzai says that even if, hypothetically, things were to change in the very near future, if the Taliban were to collapse and a proper government establish itself Afghanistan, it would be a long time before women recovered from the deep trauma of being abandoned, friendless, faceless and abused. And while all this has been happening in the past two and a half months, the world, for all its promises in August to the contrary, has turned away as if Afghanistan’s people just don’t matter.
The trauma, she says, will be greater because so many of the women affected have known a better alternative. “When mentally people cannot find themselves, emotionally they cannot find themselves, they cannot see who they are, where they are. If they don’t have knowledge, it may not hurt them as much as the two generations who grew up in these past 20 years. They had the knowledge and understanding and belief. This self-confidence will be lost over time, and this will have a bad impact in the long term,” she said.
“Politically things can be fixed overnight – the Taliban might say overnight: girls you can go to school, women you can work. But with what mindset will they have enough confidence in the system that they feel safe, that they can believe the promises made, that they can trust that this relationship that has been built between women and the community will last?”
There are people in Afghanistan who support the Taliban. And, of course, there are communities that don’t want their women to have control of their bodies, fertility, brains, futures, who don’t want their girls going to school or dreaming of anything beyond the restricted life that passes for tradition. Some argue that these aspirations were imposed on Afghanistan by people who didn’t understand the culture that keeps women sequestered and ignorant. But that is to assume, quite wrongly, that the expectation was ever that Afghanistan’s women would be catapulted to equality in the time it took to throw off a burqa. It was always going to be a protracted process.
Equality is, after all, still a dream for most of the world’s women. How long did it take progressive countries to allow half the population to go to school, work, vote, open bank accounts, own property, divorce, have agency over their ovaries? In which countries can women be confident they are being paid the same salary to do the same job as a man?
Yes, I am allowed outside my British home any time I wish, but I might be attacked, raped or murdered by a man and then blamed for being out, wearing the “wrong” clothes, having had one too many drinks. Women’s equality in Afghanistan was still in its infancy in August. It was alive, but still so vulnerable.
Some of the stories that I covered during my years as a correspondent in Afghanistan were truly horrific. In the western province of Herat, young girls spill diesel oil on themselves and set it alight so they can be taken to hospital to escape abusive families or husbands. Most deny they tried to kill themselves, but the doctors can tell by the pattern of their burns, which follow the path of the oil down their bodies. The hand and arm used to pour the diesel are burn-free.
In central Ghor province, it is still not so unusual for a woman to be buried up to her neck and stoned to death by a circle of men accusing her of running away, having an affair, getting pregnant before or outside marriage.
I’ve attended parties where young women were passed around for sex, and the men bragged later to each other about how many they’d had. In 2014, a young educated and religious woman called Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death by a mob at a mosque, after a man accused her, wrongly, of setting fire to a Koran.
A few weeks later, my friend, the performance artist Kubra Khademi, was hounded out of the country after making and wearing a suit of armour in the shape of a woman’s body to protest sexual molestation, which she had experienced since a child.
Some men I consider friends will easily reveal their own misogyny when it comes to the women of their own country and culture – and both these awful events, Farkhunda and Kubra, brought out the worst in people I respect and love. In others, though, it brought out the best. Change needs time and education, and can take generations. But this much is true: until 15 August 2021, the women of Afghanistan were at least on their way.
Photograph Elise Blanchard/AFP via Getty Images
Lynne O’Donnell is a journalist, author, and analyst. She was Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.