In August 2021, the Taliban overthrew the government of Afghanistan. Months before he could have qualified as a doctor, I met a young Afghan refugee in Rome. At the university, her older sister was pursuing a career in dentistry. Both of her younger sisters were top students. They, along with 14 million other Afghan women and girls, had their access to higher education, employment, and freedom of movement abruptly revoked. She gave her father a hug as we talked; he was an expert on rural development in Afghanistan for many years. With his family in tow, he fled the country, leaving behind everything they owned. She sobbed into my shoulder and explained that she wasn’t sad for herself but for all the women of her country.
Even before 9/11, the world was outraged by the stoning and whipping of Afghan women and by their being denied access to education. To justify NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan, Western leaders cited restoring basic rights for Afghan women alongside the removal of the Taliban. Even as violence and suffering persisted in Afghanistan for years, the sight of Afghan women raising themselves up through their own efforts over the last twenty years—with the support of many Afghan men—was a bright light. Women in Afghanistan have held positions of authority for the past 12 months, including those of doctors, teachers, artists, police officers, journalists, judges, lawyers, and even elected officials. A number of suicide bombings were committed against Afghan schools, but the children there persisted. Progress was undeniable, but the picture was very different for rural women, especially in areas still controlled by the Taliban. Everything has changed so rapidly it’s hard to keep up.
Such a betrayal as the breaking of those promises is difficult to fathom. There has been a resurgence in the number of female political prisoners, and women are being beaten in the streets or abducted from their homes at night and tortured. Reportedly, the Taliban has been kidnapping young women to force them into marriage. It pains me as a mother and a woman to contemplate how helpless Afghan families must have felt during the Taliban regime in the 1990s. Despite the risks, it has been Afghan women themselves who have shown the most resistance to the rollback of women’s rights in their country.
The United States and its allies would make the worst possible move if we decided to abandon Afghanistan now that we have been there for two decades and are tired of and embarrassed by our failure there. However, it is important to keep in mind the original motivations for our involvement in Afghanistan.
Mistreatment of women in Afghanistan in the 1990s prompted justifiable outrage, and it should continue to provoke that outrage today. In the last few years, the United States has gradually backed away from its commitments to the women of Afghanistan. This includes the decision to negotiate with the Taliban without requiring them to guarantee women’s rights or allow them to participate in the government or civil society. Instead of making diplomatic concessions that hurt women, we should be looking for ways to help them. Girls who have been kept from attending school need help in order to continue their education, either at home or in secret underground institutions. Human rights activists in hiding require assurances that their efforts will not be forgotten and that authorities will be held accountable for their treatment. There are deserving female inmates who are currently behind bars. There are Afghans in the country and in exile who need assistance to continue to keep the idea of women’s rights alive in the country, such as organizations like Rukhshana Media, which continues to report on the fate of women in Afghanistan.
And we must not forget the over six million Afghan refugees and displaced people whose precarious situation has worsened as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and inadequate international aid. This is a matter of self-interest as much as principle. If proof were ever needed that there is a direct link between systems that oppress women and threats to international security, it’s that Al Qaeda leaders once again feel free to return to Afghanistan.
As for my Afghan pals, I have faith in your mettle and determination. Taking my daughters there would be a dream come true, as would meeting interesting people, exploring your stunning country, and witnessing your joy at being free to make your own choices about the future. Afghanistan’s history is complex, encompassing a wide range of eras and a number of tragic low points. One of them, without a doubt, is this. Nonetheless, I’m positive this isn’t the final page. Having a pluralistic, open Afghanistan where everyone has a voice and everyone’s ideas are taken seriously may seem like a pipe dream, and in some ways it is. The thing is, I know it’s feasible. This isn’t the final chapter.
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