• Monerica Arnuco

Women in Afghanistan: Pawns then, pawns again

Since August 15, 2021, the world has been watching with bated breath as the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in what appeared to be an easy takeover of Kabul. It provoked indignation among Westerners who viewed the scenario as an irresponsible abandonment by the US, while a segment of the American populace supports the withdrawal claiming that it is past the time for the "expensive" conflict to be brought to a close. This begs the question of, what happens to Afghan women now?

The dialogue concerning women's rights in Afghanistan has resurfaced with recent developments that captured the international community’s attention once more. The discussion on the state of Afghan women under Taliban rule also reignited the debate about the West against the Middle East. Much of the current debates concerning women in the Middle East and Islamic states have focused on the contradiction between a western model and one based on women's ongoing submergence in family and society. These constructs are associated with varied sociopolitical systems. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1995) discusses how the west perceive and portray Muslim women (particularly in the Mmiddle East) as in need of saving and liberation which has been the common rhetoric for years. This explicit desire for involvement in another culture proved that even in modern times, the west feels the need to “better” the subaltern’s quality of life based on their standards. A modern example is the French government's recent decision to prohibit Muslim women from wearing headscarves (hijab) under the pretense of secularism and ostensibly to protect women from dressing in such a way that signifies their "inferiority" to men. Susan Carland (2019) resounds with Said’s arguments when she asserts:

The desire to free Muslim women didn’t spring from misplaced paternalism. The ‘plight’ of Muslim women has, however, been used to ‘rationalise’ invasions into Muslim-majority countries, such as Afghanistan.”

Afghan women were made the center of attention in order to obscure the actual motivations for the US invasion of Afghanistan. Laura Bush's 2001 assertion that the United States was "fighting for women's rights and dignity" seems dubious at best. In an article published in the New York Times, Afghan-American Rina Amiri states:

"If we cast a glance backward through the annals of Afghan history, we see that women have long been the pawns in a struggle between the elite modernists, usually defined as pro-Western, and the religious and tribal-based traditionalists." (Amiri, 2001)

Women were utilized as symbols of a changing order by modernizers, western feminists included, who encouraged women's education, their uncovering – in the context of literal “unveiling” of their hijabs, and their participation in public life, among other things (Berry, 2003). Those opposed to the changes asserted that Afghan culture is endangered as a result of such initiatives. Following this, traditionalists gained control hence attempted to restore their perceived "traditional" society by imposing more stringent limitations on women's rights and mobility (Amiri, 2001). What these "modernizers" overlooked is the critical nature of understanding Muslim societies’ social institutions. Caused by a lack of understanding about Islam and the history and politics of Afghanistan, many people believe that the Taliban represent the area's traditional Muslim culture. Cultural and theological dimensions, most notably the dynamics of political Islam, should have been thoroughly examined before merely imposing western principles on a foreign and supposedly autonomous nation. This was reiterated by Andreas Von Brandt, head of the EU delegation to Afghanistan, who told MEPs that western institutions learned a painful lesson when it has miscalculated the conservative nature of the country. Brandt also asserted that there has been an over emphasis on the metropolitan areas of Afghanistan resulting in the neglect of rural areas – in which around 74% of Afghan women are reportedly occupying.

As of the time of writing, journalists reported regular activities in the capital, but the absence of women on the streets was noted. Their absence from public life continues to be evident on a daily basis as the Taliban maintain power. Is the absence of women in Kabul simply a product of alarmism? Or is it a result of the Taliban’s newly imposed restrictions on women’s participation in the community? Is this a fresh occurrence, or has this been a recurring theme among rural women who may have gone unnoticed?

As the new governance under the Taliban strives for normalcy, spectators worldwide wait for developments to unfold. The remaining question is whether the Taliban will deliver on their promise of a “New Taliban” --- a governance that, according to their statements to the press, will acknowledge women’s rights. Although the Taliban remains vague about what rights shall be retained or granted to women, the international community has enough leverage to pressure the group to honor their word. This leverage comes in the form of foreign aid and Da Afghanistan Bank’s (DAB) assets which the country desperately needs apart from the recognition and acceptance of the new established order.

Is the war over? Based on this author’s findings, this is simply the beginning of another phase. As the Biden administration focuses on China, the US head-of-state made it very clear that other nations must “fend for themselves” and should no longer depend on the United States for security. This changes a lot of things especially for the Middle East – which is a whole other issue however, such drastic change will eventually prove to show how regional actors will be looking out for themselves before ‘others’. One of the others being the women of Afghanistan.

Women's position and status in future Afghanistan may challenge the West's dominant rhetoric on citizenship and feminism, providing non-western governments and minorities in western nations with alternatives that are capable of attaining social justice and economic equality for everyone. The contemporary social environment welcomes new insights into theoretical notions of modernity, secularism, and gender equality.


Monerica Arnuco obtained her Bachelor of Arts in International Studies major in European Studies from De La Salle University, her Masters in International Management with specialization in Strategy & International Business at Nova School of Business & Economics. She is currently based in Brussels and as a Phd Student in Communication Sciences specializing in Organizational & Strategic Communication.

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