It’s going to be awful for women and girls. It’s going to be awful for almost everybody, but the return of a Taliban ‘government’ in Afghanistan is going to be particularly and singularly awful for women and girls. And it’s going to become awful for them really quick. We’ll see a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan before the end of the year.
It was probably inevitable, given that every foreign entity that’s tried to invade/rule Afghanistan has failed. It’s not because the Taliban are a superior military force; it’s because of 1700 years of Pashtunwalie warrior culture and tradition. They know they don’t have to win a war. They just have to keep fighting and eventually their foreign enemies will leave. Five years, ten years, twenty years–doesn’t matter. Ultimately, they’ll get tired and leave.
The problem for women and girls in Afghanistan is that the Pashtunwali culture–the norms and values that makes the men such dedicated warriors–is also deeply misogynistic. We’re talking about a pre-Islamic tribal code of conduct–a way of life that persisted even as Islam became the accepted religion. Regional tribal groups violently resisted any attempt to organize them into a nation. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when Abd al-Raḥmān Khān became the Emir, that Afghanistan had an actual centralized government. It was Abd al-Raḥmān who made Islam the national religion. But it’s important to understand that Islam is layered over Pashtunwali culture–and 1700 years of tradition, that shit’s hard to break.
We’re going to see a return of gender apartheid in Afghanistan (not that it’s ever completely left). Women and girls over eight years old will have their mobility severely restricted; they won’t be allowed in public unless accompanied by a man who is either their husband, a blood relative, or an in-law. In public they’ll be required to wear some form of full-body covering (“the face of a woman is a source of corruption”), and they’ll be required to be quiet or soft-spoken (“no stranger should hear a woman’s voice”). At home, windows at street level will be painted over or screened to prevent women from being visible from the street; women may even be banned from standing on second story balconies. Medical care for women will be sketchy at best; male doctors are generally prevented from treating women patients and women doctors are actively discouraged from practicing medicine. And, of course, women and girls will be discouraged–or actively forbidden–from receiving education. It’s going to be awful for women and girls in so many ways.
I should note that some women freely choose to cover themselves. We see it in Western cultures as well. There are valid reasons for that choice. The problem is never how women choose to dress; the problem is having a patriarchal society deciding how women are allowed to dress.
Let me say it again, because this is something that can’t be glossed over. When the Taliban takes over, it’s going to be completely fucking awful for women and girls in Afghanistan. We have to face that reality, as ugly as it is. But we also have to consider a response. How do you change 1700 years of tradition and culture?
This isn’t about Islam. All religions have conservative branches, and all conservative branches tend to impose restrictions women and girls. The more conservative, the more restrictive. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism–it doesn’t matter. But if we (and by ‘we’ I mean specifically the US and generally all of Western society) want to improve the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan–and if we want that improvement to endure–I believe we have to work within the bounds of organized religion. Sadly, religious change is almost never quick.
First, we need to fund Islamic NGOs to help provide health care for women and girls who live under purdah. But if we want to see systemic improvement in the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan, we need to address issues within religion. I suggest we need to encourage moderate madrassas–to fund and encourage moderate imams to open Islamic schools in Afghanistan in order to teach a slightly less misogynistic form of Islam. As moderate forms of Islam take root, then more liberal, women-centric practices can gradually be introduced. I’m not a fan of incrementalism, but perhaps feminism-creep–a slow, steady expansion of the rights and freedoms of women and girls–is the most practical approach.
I hate saying that. I fucking hate it. I hate it because it means writing off this generation of Afghan girls and women as lost. It means accepting that the lives of the next generation will likely be only somewhat less awful. But looking at the long, bloody history of that region, I can’t think of any other way to begin creating a better life for Afghan women.
I find myself thinking about the Afghan Girls Robotic Team. Seven teen-aged girls from Herat, they developed a solar-powered robot that could help farmers with seeding; in response to the pandemic, they built a prototype ventilator from parts of an old Toyota Corolla. And they did that during a war, under circumstances that were already restrictive to girls. Think what girls like this could do in a society that actively encouraged them. What’s going to happen to them when the Taliban take over?
It’s almost too awful to think about. Which is why we need to think about it.