MOST Afghan women live in rural areas and have seen their suffering increase manifold during 20 years of war. Their daily existence was defined by bombings, killings and arbitrary violence by warlords, some of whom were allied with the American forces.
These rural women saw few, if any, benefits of the efforts by Western donors and aid agencies to improve their living conditions. Corruption siphoned off much of the money and what little did get to the rural areas did not make any significant improvement in public services, such as health, education or water supplies.
For these women, it is said, the return of the Taliban is a good thing as it means a cessation of violence and a return to the rule of law — however flawed it may be.
There were of course a minority of women, mostly in Kabul, who enjoyed many of the freedoms of the Western countries — freedom to, say, wear jeans, have education and even to play football or cricket.
But such freedoms were said to be alien to the Afghan society and losing such ‘rights’ is irrelevant to much of the country. To clinch the argument in favour of a hands-off approach, it is said that if the Afghans want to change, it has to be at the speed and pace of their own choosing.
This is a deeply flawed and callous argument. Women’s rights are not just about dressing as one likes, about participating in sports or wearing a veil in public. It is also about having the right to be educated; to aspire to any job or career you wish; to live without repression; and to have the freedom to move, think and speak without fear or hindrance.
The fact that the majority of Afghan girls do not have schools that they can go to, jobs to which they can aspire to, or the time, energy or money for sports or recreation does not negate the rights of those who do have these opportunities. On the contrary, every effort is needed to give such rights to all Afghan women.
A particular responsibility rests with the countries with influence in the new Afghanistan; countries like China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey. These countries must not turn a blind eye to the lack of opportunities and rights for women.
In fact, they should use all the leverage they have with the Afghan government to make it respect women’s rights across the land; from Kabul to even the remotest area under its control.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2021