Afghan Women are In Charge of Their Own Fate
Afghan feminists cannot prevent or delay what is likely inevitable—the overdue U.S. pullback. It is time that they take action for themselves.
For almost two decades, the United States has been investing in the betterment of Afghan women. We oversaw the drafting of a constitution that cemented their rights and guaranteed them a significant presence, via quota, in their country’s parliament. We built schools, provided scholarships, funded dormitories for girls from rural areas to attend university in the cities. And we launched innumerable training programs to prepare Afghan women for positions of leadership, with consultants who taught them how to articulate their views, how to speak effectively, how to design political programs and platforms, how to run for office, how to be self-assured, how to network, how to start their own businesses. Now, the time has come to put all of this extensive preparation to the test. It’s time for Afghan feminists to put their shoulders to the wheel and start doing what women everywhere have had to do when they wanted their rights: fight for them. And by fight for them, I don’t mean via op-ed in the pages of the Western press, I mean within their country and their society.
As women in Western civilization, we didn’t get our rights because people from a different culture far away felt sorry for us and sent their soldiers and tons of their money to lift us out of oppression. We got our rights through a lengthy and difficult struggle, by proving our capabilities and our worth and by perseverance. Every step of it was hard—the right to vote, the right to study, the right to work, the right to not be beaten by one's husband, the right to own property. We were met with ridicule, violence, and vastly unfair laws and judicial systems. Many of these changes caused social turbulence and required debates within our own societies; some of these debates remain ongoing. Advancement toward greater justice, fairness and inclusion is a process every society has to go through on its own.
Now it was natural, when we saw the dismal circumstances under which Afghan women were suffering when first we came to their country after 9/11, to want to help them. And hopefully, our massive and expensive efforts on their behalf will make their task easier. But the direction some of them seem to be taking in the face of our intended drawdown is worrying me. Emancipation and equality aren’t the product of pity or guilt, and you aren’t owed them by someone else’s army or taxpayer dollars. Seventeen years, 2,500 dead Americans and $126 billion are enough. More is not only unjustified but wouldn't achieve the desired outcome anyway.
Two Afghan women recently expressed in a New York Times op-ed their frustration with the fact that in the current prelude to peace talks, women’s rights are defined as an intra-Afghan matter. They apparently feel that women’s rights should be imposed by the United States. But, the only true and lasting path to women’s betterment in Afghanistan, the only way that progress will stick, is through intra-Afghan debate. It won’t be quick or easy. It will probably take as long as it took in the West—several hundred years, and counting, because we’re not done here yet, either.
Episodically, some newspaper publishes photographs from Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s that show Afghan women in flapper-style short skirts, playing tennis, or leaping about on volleyball courts, or as stewardesses in stylish uniforms, or driving around Kabul in nifty cars. The intended message of these photographs is to show how sad it is that things went backward from there. But no, that’s not their actual message. The actual message is that this was an externally superimposed diorama, that never got to the core of the country, never reached the bulk of the actual Afghan population, and therefore vanished in a blink.
I believe that Afghan women are just as capable as Western women of achieving their social and political aims. They now have a group of trained and educated and articulate potential leaders—those women just have to face the fact that their platform of action is their own country, and that this is where they must show courage and strategic intelligence. Shaming their Western benefactors into doing it for them will not pave the road for their country’s social change.
I believe that Afghan feminists, once they put their minds to it, will find that their path is actually quite clear. First, they need to recognize that the Taliban is not their only—and perhaps not their worst—problem. Deep-seated cultural values and traditions, such as the so-called Pashtun “honor code,” are far more devastating to women’s lives, and most of these are clearly un-Islamic or even anti-Islamic. For example, Pashtun tradition allows girls to be promised in marriage as infants and, indeed, even before they are born. It allows clans to resolve disputes by having the offending side give a girl as a slave to the other family. It punishes women for giving birth to a lowly unwelcome girl. All of this is absolutely forbidden in Islam. Afghan women will need to ensure that Islam is applied and interpreted correctly and to the most contemporary extent possible, by persons knowledgeable in Islamic law and theology, not by some ignorant village mullah as was often the case in the past. Intelligently approached, the Taliban can be an ally in combating Pashtun anti-woman traditions.
In a joint project between the RAND Corporation and The Woodrow Wilson International Center some years ago, we collected the most advanced applications and interpretations of Muslim family law across the Islamic world. Afghan women should draw on the work of their Muslim counterparts and be ready with substantive suggestions and programs when Afghan Islam is defined and codified.
Secondly, as every effective political activist must, Afghan feminists will need to go where their fellow women are and address the problems they have. Frankly, the Taliban’s criticism of Kabul feminists is not entirely without merit. Their Moscow Declaration states that “the so-called women rights activists stayed in Afghanistan for seventeen years, in this period billions of dollars came to Afghanistan, but still Afghanistan is at the top of the countries where many women die during delivery due to lack of health facilities… Due to corruption, the expenses brought and spent under the title of women rights have gone to the pockets of those who raise slogans of women rights.” This is not entirely untrue. Far too little effort was made to reach, and help, women in rural areas and urban slums. Also, the Taliban offer some traction points for positive discussion. For example, even the Taliban’s harshest opponents concede that if you are a widow and your neighbor is trying to steal your land, you are more likely to keep your property in Taliban-controlled areas than in places where a secular judge will sell you out for a bribe.
Is it great that the Taliban are poised to become part of Afghanistan’s official governance? Is the United States delighted to be negotiating with a terrorist group that a superpower ought to have been able to dispatch with ease? No and no. But politics means working with ground realities. For the United States, this means confronting the fact that despite our best efforts, despite fighting the longest war in U.S. history, despite two surges and all the brilliance of our Pentagon and think tanks and development programs, we have not defeated the Taliban. It means accepting that unless America wants to stay indefinitely in just one little country to the neglect of all the other places requiring our attention and our investment, it needs to work out a deal. And frankly, I think it means understanding that Afghan society was deeply and organically resistant to our semi-permanent presence and not ready for many of its ideas, or at any rate, not ready to have modernity imported by America instead of evolving towards modernity in its own way. Afghan feminists, too, must operate within reality and they ought to be developing their strategy and their tactics accordingly.
What I would advise them to do is to define some red lines on behalf of Afghan women, and to be extremely specific about what those red lines mean. Taking the Moscow Declaration, in which the Taliban devote a long paragraph to their vision for Afghan women, I would probably not go the mat for the “promiscuous” television serials that they appear to be all worked up about. Let them ban the Indian soap operas for now—these will definitely find their way back, because everyone loves them, probably including most members of the Taliban. I would, on the other hand, drill down hard on what the Taliban mean exactly when they say that “Islam has given women all fundamental rights, such as business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health, and right to good life.” By education, do they mean all education including university, or are they planning to send girls home after primary school? What does “good life” mean? Does it mean that a woman can live alone if she so chooses? Is the burqa coming back? Do they intend for women to need a male chaperone when they go out in public, like in the bad old days? Can they agree to not bring back stoning for adultery?