As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is perhaps pertinent to reflect on the Afghan women’s rights movement, and the position of women in the country since the invasion on 7th October, 2001.
As part of the justification for a war against a country that was believed to be sheltering a Saudi man who (as we now know) was eventually found sheltering across the border, the language of feminism was co-opted by the American right. This war was about ‘liberating women’ from the Taliban, ‘empowering’ women who were oppressed. But ten years later, as peace talks loom on the horizon and mutterings about negotiating with the Taliban abound, what is the position of women living in Afghanistan, the women whom the invasion was supposed to ‘save’?
A recent report found that Afghanistan is the worst place to be born if you are a woman. This was put down to lack of maternal healthcare, resulting in a between 1-8 to 1-11 women dying in childbirth; widespread violence against women and girls including forced marriage and trafficking; poverty, conflict violence and lack of access to healthcare. 87% of women in Afghanistan have experienced some form of violence and between 70-80% of marriages are forced. Girls are also often used to settle community disputes via ‘baad’ (this practice is not unique to Afghanistan).
It is important to recognise that some improvements to women’s lives in Afghanistan have been made since 2001. 27% of MPs are now women (more than in the UK), and more girls now have access to schools and education, although 1.2 million girls are still not in school. There is also a vibrant women’s rights movement who are currently campaigning to have women’s voices heard at the negotiating table when it comes to bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Before the Taliban took over in 1996, women – particularly in the cities – enjoyed relative equality. After all, Afghanistan gave women the vote in 1919, before UK women, and long before Swiss women who couldn’t vote until 1971. Women had access to education, were doctors, teachers, civil servants. They enjoyed freedom of movement and were not required to wear the burkha. It is important to note this, as all too often when we talk about women’s rights in Afghanistan, the conversation treats women’s inequality as inevitable, as ‘cultural’, with the implication that the fight for women’s rights is hopeless and therefore not worth fighting for. The fact that the widespread oppression of women is relatively new in Afghanistan proves the opposite; that women’s equality can be achieved.
Both men and women are affected by conflict. However No Women No Peace believe that in many ways it is more dangerous to be a woman in war than it is to be a soldier (whilst recognising of course that women are soldiers too). The impact of war is different on women than men. They are threatened with abduction, abduction of their children, rape and sexual violence, widowhood, increased maternal mortality, starvation and an increased risk of the spread of HIV/Aids. The different impact of conflict on women is just one reason why it is essential that women have a voice at the peace negotiations that will decide their futures.
Take the issue of widowhood. In many parts of Afghan society – as a result of women’s oppression under the Taliban – women are not allowed to leave the house without a male relative. If a woman’s husband is killed, how can she then leave the house to earn a living? To seek medical care? To take her children to school?
Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan live and work under the threat of violence, and a number of prominent women activists have been assassinated. The bravery and determination of these women cannot be underestimated. But all too often, these women’s voices are not heard. Their bravery and their work is not counted. In 2010, a peace conference in Kabul attended by a range of world leaders invited only one Afghan woman to speak. Considering the men around the table are deciding the futures of these women, this simply isn’t good enough.
With the peace conference in Bonn scheduled for 5th December, and the increasing concern that peace negotiators are going to start talking to the Taliban (a move that will be disastrous for women and women’s rights), women activists in Afghanistan have a simple demand. They want 25% of the seats at the negotiating table to be for women. They want to be counted, to be included and to be listened to. They want to be part of the decision process that will shape and define their futures.
This isn’t too much to ask. With so much at stake for gender equality, women should have a voice when it comes to finding peace in Afghanistan. Women’s views and stories must be represented.
This autumn, No Women No Peace and GAPS are asking women across the UK to stand in solidarity with the women of Afghanistan. They are asking for us to write to MPs to ensure that women’s voices are represented. They are hoping for a series of solidarity events across the country to show that in the UK, we take women’s rights in Afghanistan seriously and will not put up with our leaders silencing women’s voices. In Bristol we will be organising letter writing and a big public event. Watch this space for more details.
Stats and resources:
Many of the stats in this article come from a workshop ran by GAPS and NWNP and are taken from the Powerpoint they presented. You can learn more about them here: