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What’s at stake for Afghan women?

As many fear the Taliban could undo a generation of gains, Rashmee Roshan Lall recalls the experiences of the women she met while working in Afghanistan

Rashmee Roshan Lall
18 August 2021, 12.00am
Afghan women walk along a street on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, 2016
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REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/ Alamy Stock Photo

Now that Afghanistan is back in Taliban hands and the US is being berated for abandoning the country’s women and girls, two questions arise. Will the incredible gains made by Afghan women in the past 20 years be reversed? And if they are, were those advances in women’s education, reproductive health and employment prospects no more than cosmetic change?

The world is fearful that the Taliban will reimpose the brutal system that all but eliminated women’s rights during their five-year rule between 1996-2001. Girls and women were barred from attending school, from working, from leaving the house without a male chaperone and from accessing healthcare delivered by men. Along with the mandatory all-enveloping burqa, a ban on female involvement in politics or public speech made Afghan women effectively invisible during the Taliban years.

But as Taliban fighters entered the Afghan capital Kabul this week, the militant group’s spokesman Suhail Shaheen insisted their “policy” on women was clear and nothing like that of the past. He said women’s rights would be respected and they would continue to have “access to work and education (as long) as they observe a hijab”. He said the group would investigate reports from the southern province of Kandahar and Herat in the northwest of the country that some Taliban fighters were arbitrarily sending women home from offices and university campuses.

However, there is considerable scepticism about the Taliban’s stated good intentions towards women and there is lots to lose, not least a generation of gains.

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Here’s an example, from a decade after the December 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.

As a US government employee and resident of the now-evacuated US embassy complex in Kabul in 2011, I was privy to Pashtana’s story of lived change within her own family.

Pashtana, a 37-year-old illiterate mother of seven seemed to be living proof that Afghanistan’s past was no longer the future of its women. Her first child, conceived 20 years before we spoke, was stillborn. The ordeal began miserably – and predictably enough – at home in Charbagh, in the eastern province of Laghman. Her youngest child, who was three years old when we spoke, was delivered in ease and comfort at a Charbagh clinic, which monitored the health of mother and foetus at regular three-month intervals.

Many women in my village lost babies because there was no medical help

Pashtana was acutely appreciative of the comforts newly available to Afghan mothers-to-be. Of her first pregnancy, she said, “there were no clinics, no doctors, no nurses. There were some dais (traditional birth attendants) but even they were too far away to be able to come and help. At the time, many women in my village lost babies because they were born too early and there was no medical help.”

Until 2010, premature labour was one of the most common causes of infant mortality in Afghanistan. In 2000, one year before the Taliban were forcibly removed from power, the UN reported that more than 150 babies died per 1,000 live births.

Pashtana finished her account and urged her mother, Bihaji, to describe her life. “I lost a baby because it was born prematurely and too weak to survive,” Bihaji began. Her eyes crinkled with the effort of remembering. “My mother,” she went on, “lost six of the nine children she produced. All six were under five when they died.” She stopped and smiled, “I did a bit better than my mother.” It was a reference to the fact that Bihaji had nine living children.

Finally, it was the turn of Bihaji’s 19-year-old married granddaughter, Ruhina. Pashtana’s eldest daughter had three children of her own and wanted no more, by means of something that Afghan women called “the pichkari”. The Dari word for water pistol is a reference to an injectable contraceptive. Pashtana nodded approvingly. Like her daughter, she was using the pichkari, she said. Bihaji cackled and declared that she, too, would have taken advantage of the pichkari’s benefits had it been available in her childbearing years.

What I heard that day, from three generations of women in one Afghan family, was a perfect illustration of the findings of the Afghanistan Mortality Survey 2010. The first comprehensive national study of key health and quality-of-life indicators in the country, the survey told an encouraging story of change. It found that, in that year, six in ten Afghan women had access to a trained healthcare provider while pregnant, that family sizes were down from six children per mother to five and that nearly 80% of the population had access to community midwives and health workers, community outreach and first referral hospitals.

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By 2021, the nearly 20-year mark for America’s Afghan war, the freedoms won by Afghan women were substantial. The infant mortality rate had dropped to 47.4 of every 1,000 life births. Girls accounted for 39% of Afghanistan's estimated 9.5 million students last year. More to the point, as Rangina Hamidi, education minister in the government of Afghanistan’s former president Ashraf Ghani, told NPR days before the Taliban takeover: “The reality is, in general, that the psyche of the Afghan population, be it adults or children, has changed drastically (in the past 20 years)”. But the return of the Taliban led Hamidi to fear for her young daughter and other “joyous little girls”. Afghanistan, she says, seems “back to point zero, where we began in 2001”.

Is it back at point zero? How deeply have the changes in Afghan women’s lives taken root? Won’t husbands, sons, fathers and brothers join Afghanistan’s women in the struggle to protect the gains of the past 20 years?

It is true that international support provided the scaffolding for the edifice of change. The US worked itself into a state of righteous indignation about the situation of Afghan women in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In November 2001, weeks after US forces began bombing Afghanistan, then US first lady Laura Bush delivered a passionate radio address ostensibly “to kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Taliban”. She added that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

In the years since, this theme has developed and matured. The US military presence in Afghanistan – and later, the juggernaut of aid workers, NGOs and development specialists – was presented as a sincerely waged battle in defence of vulnerable women and children, a selfless struggle for human rights against the forces of darkness.

Given the return of the Taliban, the challenge will be for the Afghan people as a whole to determine the importance and primacy of the changes that came about in 20 years.

Rashmee Roshan Lall, PhD, lived and worked in Afghanistan for a year. Her novel ​​’The Pomegranate Peace’, on the absurdity of US efforts in Afghanistan, was published by Arcadia Books, London, in 2013. She is on Twitter @rashmeerl and blogs at www.rashmee.com

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