It’s only been days since Taliban’s return to Kabul prompted by America’s exit, and we are already witnessing varied accounts of the fear that has crept into the psyche of Afghan people in general and women in particular. When Afghanistan’s first female mayor said that she was now waiting for ‘Taliban to come for people like me and kill me’, she is neither alone nor unreasonable in her fear. Historicity of women’s condition under the previous Taliban rule is enough to send chills down the spine of most Afghans who grew up in a relatively fairer and peaceful Afghanistan of 2001-2021. Thus, as Taliban prepared to assume total unchallenged control in Kabul on Sunday, a number of chilling and heart wrenching accounts of experiences of life under Taliban rule for women and children are being shared all across social media, some by victims and survivors themselves, others by those raising their voice against the rise of Taliban to protect the rights and lives of women and children in Afghanistan.
Return of Taliban
As Taliban seized Kabul, ironically on India’s Independence Day i.e., Aug. 15, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, gunfire and panic returned in the streets. Shocking visuals of desperate people falling off crammed planes, being killed in firing by security forces on runway and gun-toting Talibani soldiers occupying Presidential palace in Kabul make way into our homes and most of us are convinced that human rights of most Afghans are threatened under Taliban. It is urgent, however, to give special attention to the additional compounded dangers to the lives and rights of women in the ‘new-old’ Afghanistan. Despite the quick and significant gains made in the last two decades of comparative normalcy, women in Afghanistan remain far from emancipation and now face augmented vulnerabilities in the face of changing regime. As rulers change, women continue to be the last colony being exploited for their ‘territories’ i.e., bodies and the actions they perform.
Women, “The Last Colony”
The idea that women are a colonized group has been discussed in feminist discourse over last few years. It has been famously said by women’s rights activist Kamla Bhasin that “Women are the world’s last colony; other colonies have at least won their formal freedom, but not women.” In ‘Women: The Last Colony’, Maria Mies, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Claudia von Werlhof also show how women and colonies are similar in the economic and ideological mechanisms in which domination of these is accomplished by their ‘masters’.
Though Afghanistan is a ‘free’ country and cannot be defined as a colony in the strictest sense, the country has been at war for decades and has seen a number of ‘rulers’. People have been routinely dispossessed of their land, possessions and rights, with women being the most exploited class under the Taliban rule. As a community, women continue to struggle for their liberation as they face exploitation of their productive and reproductive resources at the hands of their colonial master: the patriarchy.
With the return of Taliban, patriarchy finds an ally in the hardline ideology of Taliban, making exploitation of women legalised, justified and even necessary for their country. The absolute power assumed by the upholders of values that justify culture of violence and seamless control over women is nothing but colonialism getting repackaged to exploit the colony of Afghan women. As a battery of anti-women rules are dictated by the new Taliban regime, it is but just a reminder of the colonial ways of legalized exploitation of controlled communities.
Women’s life under Taliban
The various ways in which Taliban colonized women’s bodies and dispossessed them of their rights as human beings were ruthlessly practiced when Taliban first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The use of violence to ban women and girls from voting, attending schools and working outside under all circumstances was normalised. Any suggestion of disobeying of rules by women led to flogging and even stoning to death. Total control of women’s bodies was also assumed by prohibiting women to leave homes without a male guardian.
Fearing re-infliction of brutal elimination of human rights, nearly 2,50,000 Afghans have fled their homes ever since the U.S. forces began a withdrawal in May; eighty percent of those displaced are women and children. Despite their promise of protection of women’s rights under “their interpretation of” Islam and Sharia law, Taliban has begun forcing decisions typical of their rightly earned reputation. It’s shuddering to see young girls reaching schools that are closed for them now as their teachers turn them away quite sure that they’ll never be able to resume their education now.
In July, Taliban leaders directed local religious leaders in Badahshan and Takhar to give them a list of girls and widows between the age of 15 and 45 so that they can be sex slaves to Taliban fighters under the garb of marriage.
Within a few quick months, the rights won by Afghan women over last twenty years have been reversed. Women are being forced out of jobs and fearing for their lives, they are destroying evidence of their education and employment. As presence of a male guardian is mandated to go outside even to see a doctor, women’s lives are effectively at the mercy of the men in their lives.
Most of these women left behind are young and have lived a fairly safer life in post-2001 Afghanistan and don’t know how to live behind the veils and walls. During the 20 years after the fall of Taliban in 2001, they have seen a country where they could dream of education and a career; where women were represented in government and offices and a country whose constitution held equal rights for women and men before the law.
Why Taliban 2.0 may be worse than Taliban 1.0.
When Taliban ruled last, it earned the country pariah status in the international community for their treatment of women and minorities. But the ‘new’ Taliban is keen to show a more mellow image and is seeking international legitimacy for its government in Afghanistan. They are reaching out to Russia, China and Iran to seek allies and Baradar even shared the platform with then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year. In their latest attempts, Taliban leaders also assured Afghan Sikhs and Hindus of safety amidst the chaotic change of power.
Women are pleading for help and already feel that international community has abandoned them. Under such a situation, world leaders can do better than providing legitimacy to Taliban and their hardline notions of justice. One cannot be naïve enough to ignore the various reports proving how the promises made by political leadership are not in tune with the actions of their soldiers on the ground.
As we look into a future that seems more bleak than uncertain for Afghan women, I really hope we can hear and be their voice. Whether Afghanistan is the victim of the Taliban, the US policies or the corrupt government officials, the fact is that its women face more exploitation than ever by the twin masters of Taliban and patriarchy.
With inputs from Dr. Swati Banerjee
Featured Image Source: Reuters