With foreign troops and diplomats hastily fleeing Afghanistan and humanitarian aid withering, Afghan women face rapidly escalating crises of health, education, and violence including attacks specifically targeting women and girls. Some of these attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State; for others it is unclear who is responsible.
Though the Taliban’s views on women’s rights are largely unchanged, countries retreating from Afghanistan show little concern for the dark future they are leaving behind for women and girls.
In my lifetime, America’s concern for Afghan women has had more dramatic peaks and valleys than the Hindu Kush. In the 1980s, a photograph of an Afghan girl with haunting green eyes graced the cover of National Geographic magazine. Living in a refugee camp, she was unaware that her photograph had evoked a wave of empathy for a girl who had been displaced by the civil war and Soviet invasion.
Once the Soviets withdrew, America looked away, and Afghanistan descended into a factional war in which thousands were killed and women were raped by fighting forces.
In the late 90s, images of Afghan women cowering under the whips of bearded Taliban extremists activated feminist sympathies from Hollywood to DC. But it wasn’t until after 9/11 that those liberating energies helped justify American military involvement in dollars and troops. In our home, we prayed that this attention would bring a reprieve to a tortured homeland.
I write novels inspired by the grit and fortitude Afghan women have shown as they bear the trauma of conflict. Since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the women of Afghanistan have not squandered a second of daylight in resurrecting their lives and cementing their rights. School girls in Kabul told me they dreamed of becoming teachers, doctors, and pilots. Today, women serve in many governmental roles, as parliament members, ministers, and ambassadors.
The number of girls in school had steadily increased until about 2015, when corruption, declining aid, and rising insecurity reduced the numbers. Many have graduated with degrees. Women are artists (graffiti, fashion, singers, andmusicians) and entrepreneurs, feeding local economies and their families. During the pandemic, the award-winning Afghan girls robotic team engineered low-cost ventilators.
Maternal and infant mortality have decreased. Life expectancy has increased. International assistance has made a real and positive impact.
But in anticipation of international troops withdrawing, humanitarian aid has been shrinking. A recently released report by Human Rights Watch on access to maternal health care notes that at the 2020 Geneva donor conference, international pledges for Afghanistan for 2021-2024 dropped by up to 20 percent compared with the prior four-year period.
In late April, the State Department ordered an unspecified number of nonessential personnel to leave Kabul. This announcement came on the heels of the announcement that the United States would withdraw the remaining troops from Afghanistan by September 11. An anonymous State Department official creatively called it a “reposturing” of American diplomatic engagement.
On May 25, Australia announced that it would be closing its embassy in Kabul in four days. According to the Associated Press, several other embassies have ordered non-essential personnel out of Kabul and advised nationals against traveling to Afghanistan. The UK government has asked a network of organizations working in Afghanistan to help identify British nationals in the country, in order to know who may need emergency evacuation in case of catastrophe.
The Afghan women Human Rights Watch interviewed shared the barriers they face in accessing care – costs, insecurity, scarcity of providers and facilities. Hospitals are understaffed and rural facilities have long been nonexistent or inadequate. One woman described spending hours in labor on a road blocked off by fighting. Hospitals and clinics have been targeted by all parties to the conflict, making access to vital care much harder. The worst of these was the horrific attack on a maternity ward run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Attacks on women activists, leaders, and journalists are on the rise. I met Zarifa Ghafari, mayor of the town of Maidan Shahr in central Afghanistan, during her 2020 visit to Washington to receive the State Department’s International Women of Courage award. Months later, bullets flew through the window of her car. Though she emerged uninjured, just a month later her father was fatally shot in front of his home.
I regularly hear women activists in Afghanistan reaffirm their commitment to fight for their rights despite credible threats to their lives, despite the fear they feel when a motorcycle rumbles past their homes. Even as the world withdraws, we cannot feign ignorance. An armed struggle for the future of Afghanistan will produce more casualties, displace more families, shorten already contracted life spans, and make it less likely for a newborn to live to her first birthday. The percentage of the population grappling with disabilities and mental illness will increase.
In the past, the plight of Afghan women has helped justify military involvement. Let us employ a novel approach and let the gains made by Afghan women in the past 20 years inspire lifesaving continued humanitarian aid. Let us not look away.