The Taliban have achieved in hours what many would thought would take them at least months. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have folded like a house of cards. Kabul has fallen, and many provincial capitals too. And despite earlier protestations to the contrary, the Taliban is not looking to share power. After twenty years of international intervention, the loss of tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars of aid, many of the gains made have been rolled back in the blink of an eye.
Analyses of what went wrong will continue to emerge. Those who warned of the perils of history – regurgitating phrases like ‘graveyard of empires’ – or who raised concerns about flimsiness of the ANSF or who shook their heads about the ill-conceived nature of liberal state-building attempts may crow, but if they do, it should be without any pleasure. For what comes now?
After twenty years of slowly clawing back women's rights it is nearly impossible to imagine the desolation and rage women must feel, although first-hand accounts provide some insight, with many women asking “what should I do with my family?” whilst others remain defiant - “Afghan women will not hide. We will not be afraid”. The Guardian reported on a university student who drew attention to the depth of the losses to come in recalling the words of three men: “Go and put on your chadari [burqa],” one called out. “It is your last days of being out on the streets,” said another. “I will marry four of you in one day,” said a third.
What is to be done? Some women may find refuge outside of the country. The New Zealand government has suggested that the total of those that might be brought to New Zealand from Afghanistan is around 200, and a C-130 will soon be on route. Australia has said it will send in a rescue mission when the situation allows. Other countries too are scrambling to process visas, to extract nationals and to prioritise select refugees. Yet most of these refugee places will be reserved for those that had aided American or NATO efforts in the preceding twenty years, and not all will or can exit.
The international community can seek to bring pressure on the Taliban to respect women’s rights via other means too. The Taliban receives much of its funding from opium, mining and private donations. Sanctions or asset freezes may help limit such resources. Pressure could potentially be leveraged against Pakistan in attempts to limit the movement of Taliban members or goods across borders. Aid could also be made dependent upon certain compromises: Fawzia Koofi, peace negotiator and first female Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Afghanistan, suggested in early 2021 that any incoming aid should be contingent upon the realisation of women’s rights.
Yet attempts to push back against the impingement of women’s rights may prove difficult. Many assert that the Taliban cannot be reformed, and that their core ideology is “fundamentalist, particularly towards women.” Moreover, although some recent surveys suggest that the Taliban as a movement may enjoy little popularity in Afghanistan (just over 13% in a 2019 survey), other surveys have suggested that attitudes towards women within the country remain resistant to certain gender equality ideals. In a 2013 Pew Survey, for example, 85% of those surveyed believed that stoning women to death for adultery was an appropriate punishment.
One important and ongoing effort that can be made by all is thus to recognise and actively pursue gender equality. Women make up at least 50% of the world’s population but are not equally represented in positions of power. There is no gender equal country in existence in the world. Violence against women (VAW) continues to occur in epidemic proportions across the globe. Yet research has increasingly demonstrated that increased gender equality brings huge benefits in the form of peace and prosperity. Valuing gender equality, in any setting, helps to delegitimise the actions of the Taliban. In the late 1990s much was made of the value of ‘soft power’, the notion that power resides in the ability to determine the agenda, to set the dominant values of the day such that others ‘want what you want’. More of us need to want gender equality and to demonstrate its power to help undermine the ethos that sustains Taliban rule.
In the meantime, however, whilst we wait to see what happens with the status of women over the coming days there are a number of ways in which individuals can offer more practical help. This Georgetown University page offers a number of options, whilst in New Zealand there are a number of campaigns such as the Auckland Refugee Family Trust’s gofundme campaign to help resettle three refugee families, or this page which directs money straight to trusted personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. Seeking out the words of those most directly affected via Twitter or other social media to understand the impacts of recent events, engaging with local refugee communities, or signing letters in support of asylum seekers (such as those organised by Monash University) are other ways to offer support and to stay engaged.
B.K. Greener is Associate Professor of Political Science at Massey University in Palmerston North.
Image credit: Amy Brosnan/Supplied.