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On May 7, the Taliban issued a statement making their version of the hijab — a full face covering — mandatory for all women of Afghanistan. The recommended form is a burqa, though this full-body covering is hardly a traditional Afghan garment. Since taking control of the country following an agreement with the United States, the Taliban has banned girls from secondary education and prevented women from working or traveling long distances without a male escort, among many other restrictions.
Meanwhile, the world watches as the Taliban commits constant human rights violations, raising the question of why the world cares less about the rights of women in Afghanistan than elsewhere.
More than 20 years after 9/11, there is once again talk of “saving Afghan women” — but Western good intentions will not necessarily improve their lives. Used in this context, “Afghan women” has become a political-economic construct coined by several actors that instrumentalize the women of Afghanistan for political ends. In the last two decades, Western powers, Afghan strongmen, and (to some extent) the women of Afghanistan have contributed to amplifying this term to serve the political and economic needs of the parties involved.
The term “Afghan women” has become a box. To fit in this box, women must be victims; they need to have experienced violence at the hands of men, wear specific clothing, and appeal for help, but — most importantly — they should be ambitious enough to be saved by Westerners. Today, the women of Afghanistan have become a business opportunity once again.
The instrumentalization of women in Afghanistan for political and economic ends is not a recent development. “Women’s rights” has been deployed as a tool starting from the era of Afghan King Amanullah Khan in the early 20th century. Inspired by reforms from the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, King Amanullah sought to modernize Afghanistan by giving more freedoms to women.
Women got the right to vote in 1919. Two years later, Queen Soraya Tarzi opened the first girls school. These and several other freedoms for women in Afghanistan were short-lived because Britain accused King Amanullah of supporting the uprising in India against the British Raj. In response, Britain supported Afghan tribal leaders and religious clerics in Afghanistan in their revolt against the king’s policies, resulting in the removal of King Amanullah in 1929.
The second wave of instrumentalization involved the politicization of Afghan women’s bodies during the civil war of the 1980s. Mass atrocities and sexual violence took place all over Afghanistan when the mujahideen, supported by the United States, took power from the communist government.
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Growing up as a kid in Helmand province, I remember gunmen each night entering one of our neighbors’ homes — everyone could hear the cries of women that followed. Those families belonged to the communist government or followed their ideology. The next morning, the assaulted family would leave the community. Each night, the whole neighborhood would stay awake, fearing who would be next. In the last few years of the civil war, sexual violence against women once again became a key strategy. As a result, suicide among women and girls became common.
The most recent instrumentalization of the women of Afghanistan took place after 2001. Beginning with 9/11, “saving Afghan women” was made one of the main justifications for the U.S. invasion. Western governments, the United Nations, and global humanitarian groups included the term “Afghan women” in their documents to appeal for an extension of their so-called intervention in Afghanistan each fiscal year.
To many Afghan women, including myself, it became a full-time job not only to represent Afghanistan at all times but to do so as an “Afghan woman” and constantly act like one, which has its parameters. I have lost count of the number of consultation meetings by donor agencies and countries where the main topic is “Afghan women” but the participants of these meetings are predominantly Western white men. Often, their main suggestion is to fund women’s organizations, and that funding does not come without conditions; what Afghan women actually want was never the concern of these stakeholders.
The intention is always to help, but that help comes with the baseline presumption that “we the developed” and “civilized” people know what is good for you. To operationalize these good intentions, policies must be quick and generalizable, and that is how more than 15 million women of Afghanistan were put in a box and labeled poor, hapless victims.
This is not to say that the wealthy countries of the world should not support poorer ones like Afghanistan when they are desperate for help, but rather that the population receiving the support should have a say in how they want to fix their problems.
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In our own voices
Much has been written about “Afghan women,” but very little has been written by the women of Afghanistan themselves. I spent the last several years interviewing fellow women from Afghanistan who do not accept the identity that has been created for them.
When people hear the term “Afghan women,” the image that comes to mind is a poor victim, someone with very little agency who is not allowed to participate in the public sphere and lacks equal rights. Unfortunately, the women of Afghanistan have done too little to break out of this box designed for them.
Being an “Afghan woman” is a responsibility to be carried and does not feel natural to most Afghan women I interviewed. However, staying within the box of victimhood also brings certain opportunities. For example, Western institutions and aid organizations take pride in saving Afghan women from their miseries by offering them support through scholarships, vocational training, and platforms to talk about their suffering. To benefit from these opportunities, the women of Afghanistan must show that they are in need of help. Aid organizations, in turn, need Afghan women to be victims. They can run their projects, create jobs, and sustain an enterprise only if there are women who are victims to be reached.
Fatima Airan, an Afghan economics student, told me she had been concerned that her decision to portray herself to admissions offices as a strong woman who has never experienced physical violence — rather than a “poor Afghan woman” — would hurt her chances of getting into college.
Salma Alokozai, a former Afghan government official, said: “The term ‘Afghan women’ suffocates me because it represents misery and refers to a business that its stakeholders benefit from. It neither describes the women of Afghanistan nor what they entail.”
Meanwhile, Afghan strongmen — including politicians, tribal leaders, and even the terrorist Taliban and other mujahideen factions — have successfully incorporated “Afghan women” as a useful business tool in their dealings with the West. For example, at the state level, in the past 20 years, there have been very few institutionalized programs for women within the Afghan government; those that existed were only established to attract donor funding.
Afghanistan’s national budgets set aside up to 30% for projects that support women. Similarly, women were part of Afghan police forces, not for law enforcement purposes but rather to fulfill donor requirements. At the societal and community level, many civil society groups and community programs included in the leadership of their initiatives the names of the women family members of male staffers in order to get access to funding and resources.
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In the year since the Taliban took power, they too have made “Afghan women” one of the primary focuses of their negotiations with Western governments. They demanded a seat at the U.N. and, in turn, offered to allow girls to attend primary school. They urged the United States to unfreeze aid money and offered women the chance to work in Afghanistan’s ministries as cleaning staff or attend universities — but with conditions.
The Taliban does not mind if women are begging in the streets — that does not violate their interpretation of Islamic rules — but they prohibit women from working in offices. They allow girls in primary schools — and in some universities — but only if they wear a black full-body hijab. But they have banned girls from secondary education, making it impossible for the next generation to pursue higher education. There is no logic to Taliban policies, but they manage to ensure the topic of “Afghan women” remains alive because that is the only way to get the world’s attention. We are a commodity to be traded by power brokers to seek support and favor in the international community.
Some women in Afghanistan have contributed to this commodification — keeping the victimhood box intact. For the last 20 years, projects were not designed based on the needs of women; instead, the needs of Afghan women were shaped according to the requirements of the donors’ projects.
Women, including myself, have held leadership positions within government and development enterprises, donor organizations, and the security sector on both the Afghan and international level. However, little changed after we assumed our roles. Most positions filled by women existed for symbolic purposes, without giving them substantial authority over decision-making. Women rarely protested for fear of losing opportunities.
The few women who had access to international platforms advocated on behalf of the entire country’s female population, creating a static and unified image of the women of Afghanistan. The whole world started to see the women of Afghanistan through the same monolithic lens, as if all roughly 15 million women of Afghanistan have unified political views and the same vision for their country. Those women of Afghanistan who had access to the “box” helped keep this narrative alive.
If the women of Afghanistan do not play the roles designed for them, they lose their membership in the tribe called “Afghan women.” Once a woman from Afghanistan is educated, for instance, she is not someone who needs help and is labeled a “diaspora Afghan.”
When I speak my mind or share analytical assessments, I am often told that I do not know what it’s like to live in Afghanistan by media outlets, in donor consultation meetings, and at conferences designed for so-called Afghan women. In fact, I have lived and experienced the war and trauma firsthand in repeated waves since the 1980s and have been exiled in the region.
Because of the commodification of Afghan women over the last 20 years, very little was done to broaden the scope of their political work. The focus of a woman’s activism was solely directed to women’s issues, ignoring their perspectives on other sociopolitical and conflict-related developments.
Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, tweets mostly about the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights. But separating women’s issues from nationwide issues — such as economics, human rights, and destabilizing state institutions — is the same mistake that has been made over the last two decades. The women of Afghanistan cannot be separated from Afghanistan. The Taliban are violating everyone’s rights.
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As I write this article, the Afghan women’s box is again in the making to serve a new era. The “Afghan women” of the last 20 years were becoming empowered, getting an education, leading households and communities, and competing in sports. They were breaking the box of victimhood and seeking membership in a global community of empowered women.
Aid organizations have shut down projects because they were not able to justify their women’s empowerment programs to help Afghan women who no longer needed to be saved. However, that meant the doors of their benefactors were closing behind them. Similarly, Afghan strongmen could no longer use Afghan women as their bargaining chip because the women of Afghanistan were facing them at negotiating tables as equals.
It was shocking to see in 2021 that the entire world handed over the same Afghan women they once wanted to save to a terrorist group who stripped away their rights. It has been a year since these empowered women have been prohibited from going to work, school, or participating in political and public life. Yet, this time, foreign leaders aren’t clamoring to save us.
Mina Sharif, an Afghan activist, believes the “Afghan women” narrative needs to suit the budgets of donor countries. “There must be enough violence allowed upon women in Afghanistan; they need to be oppressed for some time to become an enterprise again for the aid economy,” she said.
“In 2001, the Americans and their allies invaded Afghanistan to empower Afghan women, and 20 years later, it seems we are too empowered for them to listen to us,” Afghan artist Rada Akbar said.
It is not that the women of Afghanistan do not need support from the world. The problem is that the support comes at the price of degrading us and depriving us of agency.
It has been more than a year since the latest round of a dark era in Afghanistan — we, the women of Afghanistan, appeal for the support of the world. But first, we want to be considered equals by the leaders of the international community so we can demand equal rights from the Taliban. As long as we are viewed as victims and a commodity, our country’s political stakeholders will seek to trade us for political advantages.
A version of this story was originally published by Foreign Policy.