For a few weeks last summer, Afghanistan dominated the international news. Images of people desperately clinging to planes taking off on the tarmac of Kabul airport, desperate to somehow escape the Taliban, symbolised for many the failure of the West's self-declared emancipatory and humanitarian project. But just a short time later, most of the media had forgotten about Afghanistan and the people on the ground.
Many questions remained unanswered, not least, how and why twenty years of “nation building” failed so badly in just a few weeks. How could a country which had seen billions pumped into its military and civil society, fall to the Taliban militia, which was comparatively lightly armed? To introduce this Afghanistan focus, we asked four experts to get to grips with our questions about the situation on the ground and in particular about how women are being treated.
Why was there so little resistance to the return of the Taliban? Was it welcomed by parts of society?
For years after the end of the first Taliban rule in 2001, people longed for a united and reconciled Afghanistan with a credible government. But there was a growing realisation that democratic change had failed, at least after Ashraf Ghani became the new president after a disputed election in 2014. The same corrupt men and women still held crucial government, parliamentary and administrative posts. Many of these actors did not hold Afghan passports, others used their influence to embezzle public funds and move them out of the country.
In the two years leading up to the Taliban’s return in the summer of 2021, there was a massive increase in targeted killings of women judges, journalists and human rights activists, as well as government officials. Women’s participation in government and their work in local and national organisations were increasingly only symbolic (see question 3).
The people of Afghanistan were tired, they had had enough of this corrupt apparatus, the discrepancy between the ordinary people and the government increasingly perceived as foreign rule, the empty promises, the violence. They longed for change, no matter where it came from.
Negina Yari is an activist and education expert. She runs the NGO Afghans 4 Tomorrow, which assists Afghan families
How has women's situation changed since the Taliban came to power?
These developments have been negative across the board. Women no longer play any role at all in the government and institutions such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs have been completely closed down. The current legal and security situation makes it impossible for women judges to continue their work. There are almost no educational opportunities for girls between grade 7 and 12. Violence against women and femicides have increased, as has the rate of female suicides. In addition, there is an increase in forced marriages, which are often inflicted on children (see question 4).
Most NGOs have given up while female leaders have fled the country if they could. Before the return of the Taliban, about 5,000 women were registered as entrepreneurs throughout the country; only two percent of these projects are believed to still exist today. According to the UN, about eighty percent of the refugees from Afghanistan are women and children. There are many reasons for this: the steady deterioration of the security situation; many aid organisations only operate in the cities and hardly reach rural areas (see question 5); climate change is making it increasingly difficult for rural families to generate enough income from agriculture.
How did Afghan women participate in politics during the ISAF mandate from 2001 to 2021?
The new Afghan state, which was decisively shaped by the Petersberg Conference on Afghanistan in 2001, was geared towards the interests of the international community. These included centralised institutions, free elections, opportunities for broader sections of the population to participate in political processes, especially for women. However, efforts to involve more people and marginalised groups came into conflict with the effort to involve former Afghan warring parties such as the Northern Alliance, which was allied with the West, in the building of the new republic.
This was the only way to secure long-term peace in the country. It meant that some of the original goals were already compromised at the beginning of the Petersberg process, and idealism often had to give way to power-political calculations and pragmatism. For example, (male) representatives of the various warring parties elected the first transitional government under President Hamid Karzai. The inclusion of women as well as ethnic minorities and civil society groups was to be achieved in an extraordinary people’s assembly, the Loya Jirga, in 2002.
“Men voted by proxy for real or supposed women from their household”
This was a process that was overshadowed by corruption and intimidation and characterised by a lack of transparency. Even at the beginning, it was clear for the young Afghan republic what the role of women in the political system for the next few years would look like: out of consideration for the expectations of international actors, they were politically represented, but marginalised in comparison to the old (male) elites and largely excluded from decision-making.
In 2004, for example, a record number of women voters registered, a phenomenon that was in itself gratifying, but which observers explained with so-called electoral proxies, i.e. men who voted by proxy for real or supposed women from their household by showing several, real or fake, IDs. Genuine participation of women thus remained a marginal phenomenon with a few prominent exceptions.
Tareq Sydiq is a research assistant at the Centre for Conflict Research at Philipps University Marburg, specialising in political participation and social movements
Thousands of underage girls are believed to be forcibly married in Afghanistan every year. Why and what is the social outcome?
In Afghan culture, arranged marriages are normal, but tend to occur in very poor families. In the south of the country, widows are often forced to marry the brothers of their deceased husbands so that the children stay in the family. Even before the Taliban took power, many families were living precariously; since the collapse of Ashraf Ghani's government, the situation has deteriorated even further. Theft of girls and women is a phenomenon that occurs in Afghanistan especially in times of power takeovers by militant groups.
Therefore, fears grew after the Taliban took power in August last year. Many families preemptively arranged marriages for their daughters to protect them from abuse. However, according to “Rukhshana Media” - a news website founded in November 2020 and named after a young woman who was stoned to death when she tried to escape from a forced marriage - only a few cases of abductions and forced marriages can be proven. This does not mean, however, that they do not take place.
It is true that one of the Taliban’s first decrees last year was to ban forced marriages. The traditional forced marriage of widows is also now illegal. But what sounded promising remained ineffective in practice. Until now, the Taliban have kept girls’ secondary schools closed (see questions 2 and 7). Women are still allowed to study, but without a school-leaving certificate they do not qualify for university. Moreover, when women’s access to the labour market remains difficult, marriage becomes the only option. The Taliban’s policy thus forces families to marry off their daughters quickly.
Jasamin Ulfat-Seddiqzai teaches at the University of Duisburg-Essen and has a PhD on the concept of race in the Anglo-Afghan War.
Only a quarter of Afghans live in cities, the majority live in rural areas. Does this situation lead to one of the central conflicts of Afghan society?
In Afghanistan, urbanites in metropolises like Kabul and Herat have better access to education than the rest of the population. However, this discrepancy alone does not explain the existing intra-Afghan conflict. Problems always arise when the more progressive values of the cities are to be transferred by force to the often more traditional rural population. This mistake was been repeated by Afghan rulers up to Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. Only King Mohammed Zahir Shah, in his long period of rule between 1933 and 1973, was careful to leave the periphery its independence.
“Many newly constructed buildings, especially in rural areas, remained unused”
The result, however, was that most of the foreign aid money flowed into the centres, while poverty and famine reigned in the countryside. Even when aid projects were implemented in rural areas in recent years, the corresponding buildings, such as schools or medical centres, were often built, but there was no long-term funding for the salaries of teachers and medical staff. Because of this lack of staff, many newly constructed buildings, especially in rural areas, remained unused.
The provinces have also suffered disproportionately from bombing and drone attacks by international troops over the last twenty years. If the periphery now moves into the cities with the ordinary Taliban fighters, there will inevitably be acts of revenge against the urban population, who are generally thought to be opportunistic war profiteers.
What is the significance of religion in view of the ethnic, cultural and political diversity of Afghan society, especially for women?
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and multilingual country in which religion and culture have an identity-forming effect. Without an explicit commitment to Islam, no government in Afghanistan’s history has been able to establish itself in the long term. Even the socialist leadership sought closeness to religion, especially at the end of its rule in the 1980s. Overall, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, with the majority Sunni Pashtuns dominating, followed by the Tajiks. Despite certain commonalities, there are major disagreements in society along intersectional - i.e. gender, ethnic, cultural and geographical - lines and influences on issues of morality and social order.
It is exciting that religion is also identity-forming for many Afghan women’s rights activists. In emancipatory discourses of the Global North, it will be perceived as rather irritating if someone professes to be a feminist and a believer at the same time. In Afghanistan, this is not a contradiction, it is normal to combine several seemingly contradictory identities. It simply reflects the complexity of life’s circumstances. Activists, former politicians and teachers regularly criticise the exclusion of women from public life, for example, and refer to protagonists from Islamic history - for example, the “Queen of Sheba”, who is called “Belqis” (Sura 27) in the Koran - as well as to traditions and Koranic quotations that contradict the Taliban’s ideas.
Exemplary here is the activist Tafsir Siaposh, who declared: “I am a human being first, an Afghan woman second, then a believer.” In July 2022, on the programme of Afghanistan’s largest private broadcaster TOLO TV, she quoted Sura 17, verse 70 from the Quran: “And we have honoured the children of Adam” - a cipher for the Afghan people. But the world community as well as the Taliban had abandoned them, which in turn had mainly affected women.
Shortly after the return of the Taliban in the summer of 2021, Siaposh had already quoted Sura 1, verse 6 of the Koran: “Guide us along the straight path.” To this she followed, provocatively with regard to the Taliban, the question: “Why have we strayed from the straight path?” So far from being a purely restrictive dialogue for Afghan women, religious dialogue offers them opportunities for emancipation and self-assertion.
Mina Jawad was co-host of the “Opium Podcast” and writes for “What's Afghan Punkrock anyway?” She is involved with the “Afghan Diaspora” initiative in Europe.
Are there competing views within the “new” Taliban on the participation of women?
The Taliban is not a unified political force; its fighters and members come from very different radicalised groups. It can be assumed that at least two wings exist, which have conflicting ideas, especially about the role of women in public life. The complicated nature of internal power struggles and ideological conflicts are obvious in the discussion about girls’ schools. Taliban spokespersons announced that they would be opened on 23 March 2022, but by the deadline the decision was revised until further notice. Representatives of the “Kandahar Group” around the now deceased leader Mullah Omar are considered ideological hardliners who reject any participation of women.
Mullah Baradar, who negotiated the peace agreement with the United States in Qatar and was later appointed deputy head of government, on the other hand, is considered a moderate representative of the so-called “Doha faction”. This Taliban wing also includes Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Stanikzai, who has called for the opening of schools in speeches, but at the same time rejects high office for women.
The particularly militant “Haqqani Network”, on the other hand, responsible for the planning and execution of some serious attacks, is relatively moderate regarding the opening of schools to girls of all ages. Even ideological hardliners like the Defence Minister Mullah Jakub, son of Mullah Omar, express at least contradictory views on the opening of girls’ schools.
“The lowest common denominator is probably their desire for international recognition”
In fact, since Mullah Omar’s death, differences within the Taliban have become rather entrenched, even though they repeatedly proclaim to be a political force united in the oath of allegiance to their Emir Haibatullah Akhundzada. But neither can it be said that the Taliban are pursuing an inclusive policy in order to avoid an imminent civil war, for example, nor is there any concrete political agenda of any kind to be discerned. The lowest common denominator is probably their desire for international recognition and multilateral economic relations.
The Taliban also continue to be deliberately vague about human rights, women’s rights, freedom of the press and freedom of expression, stating, for example, that they support “rights within the framework of Sharia and Afghan values”. In fact, after the fall of the republic, the Taliban reinstated parts of the 1964 constitution which, according to their conservative view, are in line with Islam.
At that time, there was a constitutional monarchy that was supposed to usher in Afghanistan’s transition to a modern democracy. However, the Taliban, whose ideological interpretation of Islam is shaped by the orthodoxy and austerity of the so-called Deobandi movement, categorically reject everything Western and non-Islamic. It is important to emphasise that their dogmas are at odds with religiosity as it is (traditionally) practised in Afghanistan.
Translated by Jess Smee