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Afghan Feminists Told Us War Wouldn’t Free Them
I am feeling a pervasive sense of déjà vu in reading the news of how the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan within weeks of the U.S. withdrawal. Nearly 20 years after the U.S. invaded one of the world’s poorest nations in a retaliatory response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the so-called enemy force is back in power. Afghan feminist activists have spent the past two decades warning the U.S. against resorting to violent solutions like war and collaborating with armed fundamentalists. Their pleas were ignored. So, it should not surprise us that the Afghanistan occupation—and withdrawal—have gone as badly many predicted they would.
Watching the Taliban’s consolidation of national control is like seeing the start of the war in reverse, when American forces overthrew the fundamentalist government with stunning speed in 2001. But now, the Taliban aren’t just back where they started—they’ve gained a well-armed military worth $83 billion, bought and paid for by American tax dollars. And just as Western media pundits and liberal feminists in 2001 justified the war in the name of saving Afghan women from the institutionalized misogyny of the Taliban, today we hear similar warnings about how women “will now be subject to laws from the seventh century” under Taliban rule.
I first became aware of the appalling conditions facing Afghan women in 2000 via reports by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. RAWA’s website detailed the Taliban’s edicts and how the Orwellian-sounding Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced those strict rules against women’s education, employment, and assembly. RAWA is the oldest feminist organization in Afghanistan and for decades has been operating underground inside the country as well as in the Afghan refugee camps of neighboring nations such as Pakistan.
Inspired by their courage, I joined a handful of other Americans in starting a nonprofit organization to gather small donations from American individuals and grassroots groups to financially support RAWA’s long-term educational, health, and employment projects for women and girls. In 2000, I organized a nationwide speaking tour for two young RAWA members who spoke enough English to explain to American audiences why they should care about the Taliban’s misogyny. During their speaking events, the women showed an appalling video that a RAWA member had secretly recorded under her burqa in 1999 of the Taliban’s public execution of a woman in broad daylight in Kabul Stadium.
Then, the 9/11 attacks happened, and less than a month later, American aircraft were dropping bombs over Kabul and other Afghan cities. My colleagues and I, educated by RAWA of the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, knew in 2001 that a war would do nothing to solve the nation’s problems. In fact, as RAWA members had explained during their American events, the Taliban first came to power to quell a bloody civil war that was fought by fundamentalist warlords (known as the mujahedeen) hired by the CIA to defeat the Soviets using American-supplied weapons. War was the problem, not the solution.
Within days of the U.S. invasion, RAWA released a statement titled, “Taliban should be overthrown by the uprising of Afghan nation.” The organization knew that war would only hurt ordinary Afghans: “This invasion will shed the blood of numerous women, men, children, young and old of our country,” RAWA’s statement read in part. They were right. The eventual death toll for Afghan civilians was more than 70,000—likely an underestimate, given that bombing victims were often assumed to be fighters and not counted as civilians.
RAWA also warned that, “The continuation of U.S. attacks and the increase in the number of innocent civilian victims not only gives an excuse to the Taliban, but also will cause the empowering of the fundamentalist forces in the region.” Once again, they were right. The Taliban has justified their return to power by claiming, during their Aug. 17 press conference, that “emancipating the country was a great, noble cause, to get rid of the occupiers.”
RAWA was also prophetic in its prediction that U.S occupation would fuel fundamentalist violence. The U.S. oversaw the resurgence of violent armed warlords, who were handed power and money and offered up as a less extremist alternative to the Taliban. These men spent the past decade and a half ensuring that freedom remained out of reach for most women. As Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Reid testified to the Senate Foreign Relations committee in 2010: “The Afghan government, often with the support of the Bush administration, has empowered current and former warlords, providing official positions to some and impunity to the rest.” She added, “Backroom deals with extremist and abusive commanders profoundly undermine the rights and security of Afghan women.”
What the Afghan People Want
When my partner James Ingalls and I visited Afghanistan in 2005 to research our book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories, 2006), we were struck by the profound thirst among Afghan people for democracy, education, and women’s rights. Not only did we meet women who were working in dangerous conditions to educate their people, but we also met men who deeply believed in equality for their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters.
We visited an orphanage filled with bright-eyed children who had lost both parents to the civil war fueled by the U.S. or whose parents simply could not afford to care for them. We spoke with the male principal of a brand-new school in Farah province run by RAWA. We met the widows of men who had died valiantly standing up to years of American-sponsored terrorism that predated the 2001 war. And, we met a young, soft-spoken woman named Malalai Joya who would go on to win election in 2005 to the Afghan parliament and emerge as one of the most vocal critics of the warlords, the Taliban, and the U.S. occupation.
As a member of Parliament, Joya gave voice to Afghan demands for democracy and women’s rights. Whether or not Afghanistan’s nascent government would tolerate her presence was to be a measure of the freedoms that Americans believed they had delivered via war and occupation. Within just two years, Joya’s outspokenness proved to be too much for the U.S.-backed warlords in government to bear. In 2007, they banned her from Parliament and forced her underground in what was a stark symbol of America’s failure to live up to the promises of Afghan women’s rights.
The Taliban Are Back—Because of Us
In a 2008 interview with The Guardian, Joya warned, “The perpetrators of these crimes should have to face the courts. But every day, they become more powerful.” Like RAWA, she called for international accountability for war crimes by U.S.-backed warlords. Instead, the U.S. allowed the warlords to keep a stranglehold on political power, thereby ensuring that Afghan democracy remained weak and hostile to women.
Even more presciently, Joya pointed out in the interview, “Now the U.S. wants to negotiate with the brutal Taliban and share power with them.” Indeed, it emerged during Barack Obama’s presidency that U.S. diplomats had been engaging with Taliban leadership to lay the groundwork for a withdrawal. Now, as the Taliban resume control of Afghanistan, we see the fruits of the Western validation of the very group that the U.S. had designated as an enemy and claimed to be saving Afghan women from.
The Taliban’s return ought to be sparking retrospection among American elites about the folly of exploiting Afghan women’s oppression for war. Instead, a deeply racist victim blaming has emerged, exemplified most recently by an ignorant headline written by USA Today’s Jill Lawrence: “We can’t make a country care about its own women. Only Afghanistan can do that.” Like so many in U.S. media today, Lawrence ignored the U.S.’s central role in deliberately undermining women’s rights and democracy for decades by choosing over and over again to work with fundamentalist misogynist leaders.
Perhaps if Lawrence had met people living in the U.S.-backed fundamentalist hell that has been Afghanistan since the 1970s, she might have insisted on a different headline. Perhaps she would have realized that we can’t expect women’s rights to flourish when we have empowered misogynist leaders in Afghanistan.
We should have listened to RAWA and Malalai Joya. But we didn’t, and the Taliban are back.
Of the many people I met more than 15 years ago in Afghanistan, the words of a woman named Mariam, who lost her husband to war in the 1980s, still remain with me:
“We are also human beings. We are women. We want our rights, we want education. We also want all these things that your people want. I also want to be free like you people, to go freely to America, and to Japan, and to other countries to visit and see other people, to see how they live. For how long should we be living in these rooms with no freedom and such cruelty?”
I have no answers left for Mariam. Today, we have relegated Afghan women once more to a locked room with no freedom and such cruelty. No amount of bombing or U.S. troops will free them. No amount of hand-wringing or judgmental ignorance will absolve us.
When I asked RAWA about its response to the Taliban’s takeover, the group promised to persevere: “We will continue our struggles while finding smart ways to stay safe,” they wrote. But they still have fears—namely that “the world may forget Afghanistan and Afghan women like under the Taliban bloody rule in late ’90s.” After so many decades of using women’s oppression to justify our war and occupation, the very least we can do is not forget about the women of Afghanistan.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com