Foreign Affairs

The West has abandoned the women and girls of Afghanistan

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“Where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul” exclaimed Theresa May in response to Britain and the US’ humiliating withdrawal from Kabul. Kabul had fallen only a few days earlier on the 15th August and parallels to the 1956 Suez crisis and the fall of Saigon were already dominating politicians’ soundbites.

The rushed withdrawal received furious criticism from across the political spectrum in the UK, and deservedly so. As British troops, diplomats and helpless interpreters clambered aboard the final flights out of Kabul, the basic rights of Afghan women were left to be determined by the Taliban. A militant group with a dreadful human rights track record leaves much to be desired.

9/11 and the subsequent US and British invasion ushered in a change of fortunes for Afghan women. Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban presided over a regime that proved to be restrictive and authoritarian, and excessively so for women. Girls were not allowed to attend schools, and women were expected to remain in the home.

Despite President Biden insisting that “nation-building” was never the ambition behind the intervention, from 2015 onwards troops were solely deployed to conduct NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. The nature of this mission was non-combat, although it was viewed as critical in strengthening the institutions and government forces that would be responsible for ensuring that new freedoms and rights were never ‘rolled back’. The US and Britain’s state-building missions are not to be ashamed of, or concealed, as they were instrumental in improving the quality of life for millions of women. 

The presence of British and US forces facilitated Afghan women entering the workplace without fear of reprisals. Women were not only able to become active members of society but were allowed to shape the future direction of the country. The Reconstruction projects and the security they provided were pivotal in the transition from women holding zero in four parliamentary seats in 2001 to one in four more recently. A transition that admittedly was not revolutionary but was vital in legitimising the place of women in politics.

Aside from political freedoms, the impact of Western troops was most transformative in prompting girls to start attending school, without the fear of violent repercussions. But now the fall of Kabul has resulted in girls over 12 being banned from the classroom while women have been forced to work from home.

It is by no means a coincidence that attendance rates for girls in first grade peaked in 2011 at 65 per cent, while President Obama was bolstering the supply of US troops. Unfortunately, military intervention and the loss of 457 British military personnel have been the price for securing freedoms for the Afghan people. Freedoms we take for granted in the UK.

Rather than criticising the withdrawal itself, what was largely at fault was the nature of the withdrawal. The exit strategy and the deal signed between Donald Trump and the Taliban in February 2020 failed to include any guarantees or promises from the Taliban that they would continue to respect basic rights for women, which were the achievements of twenty years of Western occupation. Though to solely blame Trump for the desperate situation women in Afghanistan find themselves in would be to ignore the countless opportunities President Biden had to ditch the flawed exit plan.

The Taliban’s carefully planned press conferences have sought to promote a militant group that is not a replica of its former self. Yes, the Taliban have claimed that they will respect women’s rights, but a severe limitation to this promise is the condition that rights will only be protected which fall within the “framework of Islamic law”.

This condition is a huge caveat and allows the Taliban to suggest that they will uphold women’s rights, despite having no intention of doing so. The lack of substance in the Taliban’s statements has been highlighted by Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan- American novelist, who has said that the group is “very careful to say within the boundaries of Islamic law”, as this leaves whether they fulfil their commitment to rights “entirely open to interpretation”.

The Taliban’s actions since their succession to power demonstrate that the group is still determined to impose a regressive and backward conception of women’s rights.

The Ministry of Education’s most recent statement failed to support girls returning to school, as “all male teachers and students” were ordered to return to “educational institutions”. The omittance of any mention of women suggests that the future career prospects for Afghan women are bleak. When Biden announced at the start of his presidency that the US would “lead the world, not retreat from it”, most expected the president to not immediately abandon the Afghan people.

Britain has, in the words of Tom Tugendhat, “abandoned the Afghan people”, and women of all ages and abilities have been forced to put their dreams on hold. Whether it’s the 16-year-old who told the BBC that her dream “to be a doctor” had now “vanished”, or the television presenter Shabnam Dawran who was told to “go home” when she tried to work, one truth is very clear and outstanding. The fall of Kabul is an immediate humanitarian catastrophe.

The failure to allow women to attend school marks only the beginning of the likely degradation in further human rights. The abolition of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and its replacement, the ministry for “the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice”, emphasises that women’s rights occupy no serious place in the Taliban’s new regime. 

“What happened to Global Britain and AMERICA IS BACK” tweeted Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative backbencher and Lieutenant Colonel. Unfortunately, this is a question that will be ‘too close to home’ for the women of Afghanistan and will haunt both global powers in the years to come.

Cover image: Photo RNW .org via Flickr. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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