The situation on the rights, or lack thereof, of women is at the forefront of discussions on Afghanistan internationally. In an unprecedented phenomenon of our century, Afghanistan has been rendered a “gender apartheid” by scholars and human rights practitioners as the Taliban’s laws and policies are directly targeted to the discrimination of women.
As the abysmal state of women remains center stage, there seems to be a big paradox. International discourse on women has left us questioning how foreign policies of countries that apparently have, and continue to, care for the wellbeing of women in Afghanistan simultaneously support a group which enforces gender apartheid, and on a more systematic scale, engages in widespread atrocities against diverse communities? This critique also extends to the so-called activists outside the country who have co-opted Afghanistan’s women’s rights discourse. How can concerns be genuine when the policies of states, world leaders, and international organizations, have placed, and continue to keep women, in their current condition?
We know that the United States partly justified military intervention on moral grounds by using the discourse of saving women. But we see that women’s rights and lives are being exploited in the name of competing political agendas today, be it the Taliban or the international community. As the Taliban heighten their persecution against women with regular edicts to undermine their most basic rights to life and dignity, their so-called formal recognition by states is contingent on the “improvement” of these conditions. As we see in Afghanistan’s modern history, women’s lives and bodies are again being instrumentalized for political bargains.
Women’s rights are also seen in isolation to the rapidly changing political, economic, and social conditions in Afghanistan. Yet, the struggle for women’s rights intersects with the struggle against other inequalities, which in this case means against authoritarianism, occupation, patriarchy, imperialism, ethnocentrism, and so on. Thus, resistance against just one system of oppression, leaves in place other systems of oppression. This interconnectedness is what Patricia Hill Collins has referred to as the “matrix of domination”.
Resistance by women have navigated multiple hierarchies and dimensions of power as they resist systems of oppression that are interconnected. This is seen in the example of women protestors who took to the streets in the weeks following the current Taliban occupation and chanted bread (nan), work (kar), and freedom/liberation (azadi). Azadi does not mean forwarding the most basic rights of women is disassociated from the occupation, violence, and oppression that is currently ongoing. The struggle for the rights and wellbeing of women is directly tied to the occupations, wars, and unending violence that affects society as whole.
We see that violence against women is gendered, at times with sexual undertones. Grassroots activists who have been detained by the Taliban and imprisoned were subject to psychological, physical, and sexual violence. We know that this form of violence becomes commonly used as a weapon of war, not just to violate and hurt an individual but to humiliate and harm entire communities. Violence based on gender is central to extreme forms of authoritarianism like the Taliban as it is linked to oppressing, marginalizing and controlling, especially when women must carry the heavy burden of honor. The Taliban also engages in what Deniz Kandiyoti calls, public performances of Islamic retribution, similar to the violence perpetrated by ISIS fighters, where spectacular events such as lashings and executions are deployed for social control that affirms their power and legitimacy. In both contexts, this form of violence exists within other forms of sexual and gender-based violence and cannot be understood through simplistic explanations which take religion as point of reference.
Resistance not only implies “acting in opposition”, but in the words of Kandiyoti, also reflects the “potential for subversion and contestation in the interstices of established orders”. Women are subverting systems for social change to advance their rights and justice that intersects with the liberation of society. This also challenges the purely pacifist notions and calls for non-violent resistance, usually enforced through a top-down manner. Nadje al-Ali reminds us that support of armed resistance which does not view armed struggle an end in of itself, but a necessity in the context of a broader socio-political project that puts gender equality and justice as its center, cannot be overlooked. Especially when it is motivated to defend communities who are at risk of violence.
The struggle for the rights of women in Afghanistan is rooted in broader visions of socio-political change and are seeds of a social revolution which is the only solution to prolonged crises and socio-economic hardship.