Feminism, Peace, and Afghanistan
Afghanistan opened 2019 with robust talks of peace, which now dominate headlines about the country. The Taliban and the United States are invested in finding a solution to end their nearly 18 year long war. However, we must look at history to avoid the repetition of past mistakes, which undermine human rights principles, especially human rights. The images and realities of repressed Afghan women hidden beneath their blue burqas shocked not only the international community but was used to help justify the 2001 US-led intervention in Afghanistan. Yet, the current peace negotiation being brokered seems to have forgotten the dire human rights situation of Afghan women and has neglected the fact that their future role within the country will have a significant impact on attaining a truly sustainable and long-lasting peace. The politicization of Afghan women has been a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout the course of Afghanistan’s history. By taking a closer look at the role that Afghan women have played within the country, I offer an Afghan-feminist framework to deconstruct the current situation. I argue that only by taking an honest look into Afghanistan’s history and both recognizing and eliminating the culture of exclusion that has been imposed onto Afghan women can we set concrete foundations for the way forward.
Politicizing Women: A Long and Diverse Practice
Gaining its independence from the British in 1919, Afghanistan joined the non-aligned movement in the post-war era. Agnostic to the East and the West, the country continued to receive aid from both spheres of influence. Poverty has been prevalent throughout Afghanistan’s history, with a long reign of feudalism carving Afghanistan into small fiefdoms and a centralized power base in Kabul. Afghanistan went through a series of key shifts in power that eventually led to the Soviet Invasion of 1979. Before the invasion, there were signs of progress for women. Afghanistan had a number of women in cabinet; in the country’s urban cities women were going to school; and there was a female presence within the police force. I myself studied in a co-educational environment in the country’s southern province of Helmand, where I spent my childhood. In 1973, Mohammed Daoud Khan seized power from the long-time monarch King Zahir Shah. Daud was launched into power with the help of the USSR-backed Parcham faction.1 His main goal was to push for modernization and to re-visit the ethnic-based territorial dispute over Pashtunistan with Afghanistan’s southern neighbor Pakistan.
It was during this time that Afghanistan was reducing the role of Parcham in the government, undoubtedly disgruntling the USSR.2 This rift in relations guided Daoud Khan to play down the Pashtunistan issue and improve relations with Pakistan, as well as open ties with Iran and Western nations. He wanted to reduce the Soviet role within Afghanistan and affirmed this when he banned all other political parties after establishing his own Mili-Ghorzang.3 This was a critical blow to the USSR-supported People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which was gaining momentum with the uniting of Parcham and Khalq parties in Afghanistan. After engaging in a tense discourse with USSR President Brezhnev, and declaring that, “[Afghanistan] will never allow [The Soviet Union] dictating to us how to run our country, and whom to employ in Afghanistan,” Daoud made it clear that he wanted to reduce Afghan-Soviet relations. He underscored his political decision by ordering the arrest of PDPA leaders for reasons of subversion. This subsequently led to the coup d’état by the PDPA and the assassination of Daud and his family.
Termed “The Saur Revolution,” the USSR-backed government, led by Nur Mohammed Taraki who was the leader of the Khalq faction of the PDPA and Babrak Karmal who led the Parcham division, sought radical change in Afghanistan. It was within this time frame where they began utilizing women’s rights as a political tool.
Rather than trying to bring about long-term, substantive programs to empower women, the regime implemented superficial gestures such as promoting women entertainers. Prior to the PDPA regime, as a part of weddings, the groom was required to give the women a mehr (money or property), which would be in her name. The regime set a limit of 300 Afghanis for a women’s mehr, the reduction of which further exacerbated women’s financial insecurity. The PDPA also went so far as to place limits on the cost of weddings, often raiding receptions and sometimes looting the venues. This inherently stripped the Afghan people of their freedom of expression and association. The PDPA also tried to implement its programs by force. For example, the regime required women to attend a literacy program. When government officials met with resistance in Kuner Province, they slaughtered hundreds of people in one night.
Afghan Women at the Crossroads of Geopolitics
At the same time that the PDPA was mobilizing, mujahideen factions were forming in resistance to the communist political expansion, with Islam as their choice of political ideology. In reaction to the actions of the PDPA, when they took over the area, the mujahideen opposed formal education. The era saw the spread of pan-Islamic ideas throughout the Middle East and the rise of a religious national leader in Iran and the Islamization of President Zia in Pakistan. The USSR saw Afghanistan as a fellow Soviet state, although it was neither part of the eastern bloc nor a true socialist state. It was within the same timeframe that the PDPA continued to highlight the party’s façade of female empowerment. The PDPA underscored the high numbers of Afghan women enrolled in universities by ignoring the dwindling number of Afghan males enrolled, as many had left Kabul in exodus, escaping execution by the ruling communist regime.
On 24 December 1979 the first USSR planes arrived in Afghanistan. The Soviets proclaimed that they had decided to grant the PDPA’s “insistent request…[for] immediate aid and support the struggle against external aggression.”4 They also added that the Soviet contingent would be completely pulled out of Afghanistan when the demand was no longer needed. The invasion ignited the outrage of the non-communist world. The US saw the invasion as a clear defiance against the West and gross disregard for détente. The timing of the Soviet invasion exacerbated the U.S. outlook on Soviet intentions.
The Soviet invasion jolted American beliefs that the USSR was taking advantage of declining American presence in the region following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It fueled U.S. concerns that Soviet control of Afghanistan would be a major step toward overland access to the Indian Ocean and to domination of the Asian subcontinent.5 The invasion took place at a time when “the Americans were in the mood to be upset.”6 In what can be referred to as the “red template syndrome” the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was seen as a threat to the security of the oil-rich Persian Gulf.7 Four days after the invasion, the United States approved a broader plan instructing the CIA to provide military supplies and humanitarian aid to the Afghan freedom fighters (mujahideen).8 On 4 January 1979, U.S. President Carter addressed to the nation on the strategic significance of the invasion, saying that a Soviet-occupied Afghanistan threatened not only the world’s oil supplies but also the very security of the United States. Carter solidified U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen, and Carter and the Congress were united in their opposition to the Soviet Invasion.9 The humanitarian aid that was being sent was tailored towards funding and training the mujahideen to fight in what would become a proxy war between the US and USSR.
The Carter Doctrine had as its premise that “any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and would be repelled by any means necessary, including the use of military force.”10 Carter’s strategy was designed to address Soviet advances in the “Third World,” but was also recognition that America’s security had become interdependent with the security of Western Europe, the Far East, and the Middle East.11 It also gave birth to the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDF), which allayed the widespread fear that the US could not fulfill its commitment within the Gulf region.
Diplomatic measures were also taken by the U.S. to further ostracize the Soviet Union. Carter, in a bid to attract European support, highlighted the human rights aspect concerning the invasion. The Carter Administration urged the UN to investigate Soviet human rights abuses in Afghanistan. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and imposed sanctions on the supply of services and equipment to the USSR in connection to the games.12
Pakistan was key to launching the CIA’s covert aid to the mujahideen. Lethal equipment was first shipped from the US to Pakistan in January 1980.13 By the end of the Carter Administration in January 1981, the United States was spending roughly $60 million per year in military aid to Afghanistan through Pakistani channels.14 Pakistan took a primary role in helping the US because it was receiving both economic aid and fulfilling its political interests in Afghanistan.15 President Ronald Reagan continued the covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which accounted for 80 percent of the CIA’s annual covert operations expenditures.16 The Reagan administration proposed $3.2 billion in aid to Pakistan to give it “confidence in [the U.S.] commitment to its security.”17 In return, the Pakistani intelligence service trained tens of thousands of mujahideen fighters in Pakistan from 1984 to 1987.
Other Middle Eastern nations played a role in aiding the US in training and supplying the mujahideen, including by providing fighters. Egypt trained Afghan guerrillas, and Iran was able to train and send monetary aid to the mujahideen.18 Israel sold hundreds of tons of soviet-made armaments, which it had captured in its 1982 incursion into Lebanon, to the United States for shipment to the mujahideen.19 China had also sold many of its armaments to mujahideen fighters through Pakistan.20 In this way, the mujahideen were supported by the United States and its allies. Saudi Arabia was also brought into the alliance against the USSR because of its willingness to augment American funds to the mujahideen. During the Carter Administration, Saudi Arabia matched the United States’ $60 million per year expenditure in Afghanistan. For Saudi Arabia, this was a unique opportunity to gain influence in the region and to export its brand of ultra-conservative Islam termed Wahhabism.21 Saudi Arabia over time became the United States’ most important Middle Eastern backer, and Wahhabism was spread throughout the refugee camps they funded.
From Cold War to Extremism
Much like the PDPA, the mujahideen at this time were using Afghan women as a political tool. Only instead of communism, their tool was politicized Islam. It was during this period of brutal guerilla warfare that human insecurity spread throughout the country. Drought and access to food exacerbated nationwide poverty levels, and many Afghan families were selling or forcing their daughters into marriages due to the lack of security or for financial gain. On occasion, women kidnapped by fighters were doubly victimized when they were precluded from returning home due to social stigma. Though widespread human insecurity was prevalent throughout Afghanistan, Afghan women suffered the brunt of the invasion. Their bodies became a weapon of war. The mujahideen fighters used the vulnerability of Afghan women to sell their vision of Afghanistan to the broader population, promising that they would ensure the safety of Afghans and their women.
The successive years of brutal conflict between communist and mujahideen factions led to a mass exodus of Afghan refugees pouring into neighboring states and the western hemisphere. At this point, I myself was left a widow and single mother to my son after my husband was abducted. I continued my studies in Kabul and first practiced medicine at the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, later relocating to Jaghori, a district of Ghazni province free from the government. I opened my first clinic in 1982 with limited resources. The women of my village were adding to Afghanistan’s high maternal mortality rates in high numbers, many dying of basic health complications that would take minutes to cure in an adequately equipped hospital. Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) operated in Jaghori at the time, and, at my request, I received some basic medical supplies to sustain my practice and serve my community. I used every possible means of transportation, including donkeys, to reach and help people in need.
Pakistan witnessed an influx of nearly 6 million Afghan refugees who were given only limited emergency and humanitarian aid by the Pakistani government. With no formal education available in refugee areas, boys were sent to religious madrasas, which later gave rise of the Taliban. For female refugees the living conditions were particularly dire. There was little to no access to basic necessities such as washrooms, medical clinics, and education. The aid that was being distributed was both male and war dominated. By end of 1984, I migrated to Pakistan as a refugee and was practicing in a hospital based in Quetta as well going to the refugee camps twice a week. I distinctly remember treating a woman who was battling preeclampsia, a treatable maternal complication, and who later died. It was this very case that prompted me to open the first women’s clinic in 1987 for Afghan female refugees living in Quetta, Pakistan. I later in 1989 opened the second hospital Shuhada hospital for women and children in another location of the town. Later on I opened first school for refugee girls there in 1990.
The continuous attempts of the Soviet Union trying to control Afghanistan was becoming a bleeding financial wound, pressing the USSR to find a way to withdraw from Afghanistan—very similar to the peace talks of today. For Gorbachev, in order to revive the Soviet economy, he needed to end the occupation of Afghanistan whether by victory or retreat.22 After a series of Soviet-American talks, under terms of an agreement signed in Geneva on 14 April 1988, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan.23 The expulsion of the Soviets was celebrated as one of the most sensational U.S. victories of the Cold War. It was a triumph at a huge cost. The invasion had led to over 14 thousand Soviet causalities, and an estimated Russian war cost of $76-$152 billion.24 For Afghanistan the death toll was 1 million, with over 6 million Afghans both internally and externally displaced.25
By 1992 when Dr. Najibullah’s regime fell and the mujahideen took over central power in Kabul, the US abandoned Afghanistan. The status of Afghan women went from bad to worse. One of the new government’s first decrees was making the hijab mandatory. Though the mujahideen allowed women to continue attending school, female news reporters were barred from being visually represented on television. The screen showed only the picture of a rose, as the women would read the daily news. Later on, female reporters were banned from reading the news all together. In the series of international conferences that followed, the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development and the 1995 Beijing International Conference on Women, there was no Afghan government representation.
The Taliban began garnering state influence in 1994 and eventually took over centralized power in 1996. One of their first mandates was to close schools and public baths for Afghan women and girls, beginning in Afghanistan’s southeast province of Kandahar. As they continued to take over swaths of the country, they systematically revoked the rights of women and girls. Education became outlawed and women were denied to work out side of the house and access to adequate health care. This was in part due to the monetary aid flowing in from Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, which called for the segregation of men and women and the active implementation of its extreme brand of Wahhabism.
Under Taliban rule, children were prohibited from making and playing with small toys, which were deemed unlawful live representations. Sports fields were no longer used for leisure, but as stages of public executions. Afghan women were ordered to wear the blue burqas ensuring no part of their body was visible. Many Afghan women who lived through this era can recount a time where she was whipped or beaten by the Taliban due to her shoes mistakenly showing or for merely making noise, which the Taliban deemed as distractions.
The extent of female oppression in Afghanistan, for the most part, fell on deaf Western ears, with little attention in Europe and North America. Emma Bonino, who was a European Commissioner at the time, was shocked at the status and condition of women in Afghanistan after her first visit to Kabul in 1997 when she and her companions were arrested as they were taking photos of a female hospital. She launched the campaign “A Flower for the Women of Kabul” in 1998 and called upon “member governments of the United Nations, as well as all international organizations, to do all in their power to help restore the basic human rights of women in Afghanistan.”26 Alongside the U.S. Feminist Majority Foundation, I joined Bonino in Brussels at a press conference for International Women’s Day. I took part in the conference wearing a burqa for my own security, which in hindsight reminds me of the painful struggles I and many other Afghan women have gone through in fighting for our basic freedom and human rights.
In the United States, the Feminist Majority in 1997 launched a Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, working in collaboration with human rights and Afghan women-led organizations and women members of Congress. The Feminist Majority Foundation’s campaign generated media attention to the plight of women and girls under the Taliban and mobilized grassroots activity to galvanize Congressional action and press President Clinton not to recognize the Taliban regime.
From Extremism to Intervention
In 1998, I vividly recall meeting with the U.S. State Department Desk Officer for Afghanistan in Washington D.C. with my intention being to reengage the U.S. in Afghanistan, to advocate for educational aid, and to convey dire human rights situation in Afghanistan. I highlighted three key realities. First, that Afghanistan had now become a training camp for terrorist, mentioning that they will eventually launch attacks westward. Second, the drug trade was flourishing, particularly opium harvesting and exporting, thriving as a cash crop in Afghanistan and destabilizing regional security. Third, and finally, Afghanistan had become the biggest prison in the world for women and girls.
I was shocked by the response. I was told that he did not believe Afghanistan had become a training ground for terrorists; even if Afghanistan is and/or becomes the largest producer of opium, the supplies will not reach the US; and, with regards to the Taliban’s oppression of women’s rights, it was “part of Afghan culture.” Not only did this further isolate Afghan women, but in hindsight, this incompetence foreshadowed the state of the conflict today. Even now, countless lives and trillions of dollars later, Afghanistan is still struggling to with the core problems I mentioned over 20 years ago in the US capital and that were so summarily dismissed.
After the tragic terrorist attacks which occurred on September 11, 2001 on U.S. soil, American attention turned to Afghanistan once more. The reality of Afghan women’s rights became a tool for the U.S. government to garner national support for the intervention to remove the Taliban from power. Images of Afghan women allowed U.S. officials to depict the brutality of the Taliban, which made Americans more sympathetic to Afghan women and enraged by the socio-political status of the country, once more politicizing Afghan women, this time to establish an “us versus them” mentality, employing the US as the actor in charge of dealing with the situation.27
Early U.S. presidential statements with respect to Afghanistan were heavily focused on the plight of Afghan women. President George W. Bush gave speeches, saying that “the people of Afghanistan have suffered under the most brutal regimes in modern history; a regime allied with terrorists and a regime at war with women,”28 and that “[US] responsibilities to the people of Afghanistan have not ended. [The US] will work for a new era of human rights and human dignity in that country.”29
Most notably, First Lady Laura Bush addressed the issue of women’s rights in a weekly radio presidential address. Her powerful remark, “our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorist would like to impose on the rest of us”30 transformed the Taliban into a U.S. national security threat. Following Ms. Bush’s speech, Cherie Blair, the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, along with other female cabinet ministers, made a similar plea on behalf of Afghan women claiming, “the women in Afghanistan are as entitled as the women in any country are to have the same hopes and aspirations for ourselves and for our daughters.”31
The brutal treatment of Afghan women was also visually emphasized by television and press reports. Photos of Afghan women wearing the blue burqas were a constant visual reminder for the Western public of the Taliban’s extremist ideologies. Most notably, TIME magazine’s publication of the young Afghan woman whose ears and nose were cut off gave Western readers a chilling image of Taliban brutality.32 The headline, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan” further legitimized the continuity of the war.33
The Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001 supported reconstruction of Afghanistan, emphasizing the human rights of Afghan women and girls.34 The efforts of Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and a coalition of US women’s groups led by the Feminist Majority resulted in the allocation of $60 million for programs for Afghan women and girls and $5 million for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in 2003 as a part of an emergency supplemental appropriations package. Furthermore, the creation of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) registered an institution to uphold international norms throughout the rebuilding process of Afghanistan. More specifically one of its key mandates is to “focus on combating violence against women and enable their participation in the public sphere.”35 Furthermore, after the removal of the Taliban from power, sweeping reforms were underway to catapult Afghanistan into a “new,” modern society.36
The condition of Afghan women post-Taliban has improved. However, we continue to struggle for gender parity, equal access to opportunity and upward mobility. The isolation of most Afghan women remains entrenched in the “social structure, custom and culture of warlord anarchism.”37 Afghan women continue to suffer in uneven numbers from weak social, economic and health factors worsened by widespread insecurity and violence at the hands of hostile non-state actors such as the Taliban and ISIS.38 Furthermore, the insurgent strategy has violently targeted Afghan women in positions of power and influence, mostly because we symbolize an epitomized “betrayal” to the older order of the Taliban.39 This is because of our active and visible participation in what they deem to be “new” Afghanistan.40 The socio-political climate within Afghanistan remains unstable. It is therefore imperative for us Afghan women to channel our fears into tangible improvements that will endure regardless of what government comes into power in Afghanistan.
Peace and Feminism in tomorrow’s Afghanistan: Recommendations
For me, having lived through the 41 years of successive conflict and actively participated as a human rights defender, feminism within the Afghan context is centered on a notion of inclusivity. This means it must be an idea in which Afghan women and men can find themselves represented, irrespective of their sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or economic background. Given the culture of isolation that has historically framed Afghan women’s participation, we must employ inclusion in our dealings especially with regards to peace.
The experiences and barriers faced by Afghan women must be taken into consideration when we try to systematically and institutionally further our advancement in society. Gender equality in the Afghan sense must mean that Afghan children are brought into the world without being socially trained to conform to gender roles that have been molded and politicized by successive years of conflict. The reality is that Afghanistan is at an intersection of immense structural change, with the continued presence of repressive identities threatening the processes of state building that would afford all citizens, women and men, the ability to realize their potential as humans. This being said, the ongoing peace negotiations must take into account and be mindful of five key elements.
To begin, the process must be based on an honest narration of history, and therefore it requires time and inclusive deliberations. This is to say that Afghanistan is in need of a long-lasting peace, not a “quick-fix.” A short-term solution will result in continued conflict that threatens to poison not only Afghanistan, but also the region and the world.
Secondly, good governance must be central. The Afghan people must be afforded the ability to be represented by a functioning state that can account for their human needs. This includes basic necessities such as education and health services. An indication of a healthy democracy and social fabric is when the government has the capacity to provide basic social and civil services. A culture of corruption and impunity is part and parcel to blame for the paralysis of Afghan institutions.
This leads me to my third recommendation, which is ensuring citizens have fair and equal access to justice, which includes a functioning rule of law within Afghanistan. Currently, citizens have a low level of trust in the justice system with corruption being an exacerbating force. However, should Afghanistan be given the opportunity to pursue both truth in reconciliation and transitional justice, public confidence in the state structure would increase throughout the country. Rebuilding citizen trust and confidence is essential. Accountability, justices and mechanisms to heal the wounds of the victims must be central to the peace process. The peace process must incorporate the meaningful participation of Afghan women and Afghan victims of war and terrorism. Their role within the peacebuilding process must not just be symbolic, but substantive and commensurate with their stake in the outcome of negotiations.
Finally, and most importantly, human rights in Afghanistan must remain nonnegotiable. It is imperative to highlight that peace and freedom go hand in hand and that one cannot manifest without the other. Afghanistan cannot be allowed to regress on the human rights progress that it has made over the past seventeen years. But we must recognize that upholding universal principles of human rights is a shared responsibility among Afghans, the international community and United Nations agencies and must not be sacrificed or exchanged with the excuse of stability. As outlined in the preamble of the United Nations charter, regional and international actors involved in Afghanistan must be committed to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
As an Afghan woman, I have faced great injustice throughout my life. As a young girl, I was taught to believe that men were superior to women and that I could not be afforded the same opportunities as them. It was from a young age that I fought for my right to education, marrying in order to enter the university. I have fought for human rights and against discrimination in a country that has been ravaged by war and shaped by the political forces of patriarchy and global hegemons. I have been threatened by militia forces and told to close down my operations of educating Afghan girls. I always met such demands with the truth: that my crime would be giving girls pencils and paper, a crime I was willing to be hung in public for.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the promotion and protection of human rights, particularly for women and girls, is key to sustainable peace and development. This can be achieved if we work together. If we have learned anything from history, it is that the sacrifice of human rights and women’s rights in the name of political expediency will result conflict and abuses and will fuel the culture of impunity.
Sima Samar has served as the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission since 2002. Recently, she was appointed as a member of the High-level Advisory Board to the United Nations Secretary General on Mediation. Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she served as the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Women’s Affairs as a part of the Afghanistan Interim Administration. She founded the Shuhada Organization, which since 1989 has run schools, hospitals, clinics, income generation and other programs in Afghanistan and in refugee areas in Quetta, Pakistan. She is the recipient of numerous international awards for her leadership for women’s rights and human rights.
1 Henry S. Bradsher, Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18.
34 Office of International Women’s Issues, US Department of State, “U.S. Support for Afghan Women, Children, and Refugees” (Report Submitted to Congress), Washington, 22 June 2004, https://2001- 2009.state.gov/g/wi/rls/33787.htm.
35 “Violence Against Women,” last modified 23 October 2013, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Website, “Human Rights” (Web Page), last viewed 2019, https://unama.unmissions.org/ human-rights.