Zeweri OpEd - For some Afghan women, the U.S. and the Taliban are a problem

Helena Zeweri
Washington Post

The chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan that began Aug. 15 has resulted in the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of Afghan nationals who face imminent violence at the hands of the Taliban. While the promotion of women's rights served as a justification for the U.S. military intervention, as can be seen from first lady Laura Bush's November 2001 radio address, it is Afghan women who were most hurt by the brutal fallout of war, military occupation and now uncertain aftermath.

Yet what is often left unsaid is that women in Afghanistan and its diaspora have known for a long time that the U.S. intervention was never going to be the antidote to the Taliban.

Since the beginning of the "Global War on Terror" in 2001, certain sectors of Afghan women at home and abroad have adopted an anti-imperial feminism that has fervently characterized both the United States and the Taliban as repressive and violent. For many of these women, the Taliban and the United States reflect two sides of the same coin. While the Taliban actively denies women their human rights, the United States has funded warlords who have gone on to do the same and actively resuscitated the Taliban's power in the 2020 Doha negotiations.

Women have long been at the forefront of opposing repressive regimes in Afghanistan. In 1977, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was formed with the aim of promoting women's human rights and democratic governance. While created by a particular group of urban educated women, RAWA aimed to include women from across socioeconomic strata in the struggle for women's rights.

RAWA's activities shifted toward resistance in the wake of the 1978 Soviet-backed coup d'etat that overthrew Daoud Khan. Over the decades, the group has spoken out against the Soviet-backed government in the 1970s, the anti-Soviet resistance (mujahedin) in the 1980s, the Taliban regime in the 1990s, the role of the Pakistani state in creating the Taliban and the U.S. occupation of the 2000s. They did so while opposing fundamentalism, warlordism and imperialism.

As the War on Terror continued into the mid-2000s, activists like Malalai Joya and the Afghan Women's Network (AWN) spoke out against the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians as a result of U.S.-led drone warfare. They also denounced the United States' political maneuvers of bribing and empowering regional warlords and breeding other forms of corruption in the central government.

For years, Joya and women at AWN have argued that Taliban fundamentalism and U.S. imperialism benefit from each other. Joya has repeatedly stated that the U.S.-backed Karzai regime brought former warlords into the government, where they committed war crimes, abused Afghan civilians and continued their ties with narcotics, smuggling and criminal networks.

Such was the case with the U.S.-backed peace deal between the Ghani government and Hezb-i-Islami warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also known as "the Butcher of Kabul." For Joya, the 2016 agreement set the stage for the 2020 U.S.-led negotiations with the Taliban, which ultimately resulted in the replacement of one dehumanizing force in Afghanistan with another.

As the U.S. mission in Afghanistan shifted from a short-term military operation to a long-term nation-building project, women-led activist groups in the diaspora also became vocal about the war's ongoing violence, which ended up killing 71,000 civilians and displacing 5.9 million Afghans between 2001 and 2020. Organizations like Afghans for Peace partnered with Veterans Against the War to protest the war's human fallout. As organizer Suraia Sahar noted in a 2012 protest, "You cannot liberate women through occupation, through war, through violence, through bombs, through tanks."

During the same period, organizations like the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association released public statements condemning the 2012 Panjwai massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar province.

In recent years, organizations like the Afghan American Community Organization, the Afghan American Women's Association (of which I am a member), the Samovar Network and the Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress have been publicly challenging the idea that Afghan women and LGBTQ people have been faring well under the United States' prolonged occupation. These organizations have forged solidarities with local LGBTQ organizations and raised awareness around the experiences of displaced Afghans who are stuck in detention centers and refugee camps throughout the world.

In the wake of the 2020 U.S.-led negotiations, groups advocating for Afghan women to have a seat at the table eventually condemned the Trump administration for empowering the Taliban while delivering a setback to the causes of Afghan women over this past year. People like Mahbooba Seraj of the AWN have recently declared that U.S.-backed governments are lousy alternatives to the Taliban. As Seraj recently noted, "I do not understand the United States for undoing and now redoing the Taliban in Afghanistan, whose ruling will affect women's lives the most, which will be ruined yet again."

Over the past several weeks, diasporic groups have mobilized at an unprecedented level to help get loved ones out of Afghanistan and to call out the United States for wreaking havoc yet again on vulnerable Afghans based on its own political timelines and agendas. Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, the Afghan American Coalition and ADEP have organized protests and calls to action demanding that the Biden administration ensure that more Afghan women and LGTBQ people have a viable chance at resettlement.

Academics, artists, writers and Afghan student associations have also joined in Afghan women's calls to refuse to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political actor, while at the same time critiquing the United States' role in creating a political and humanitarian disaster. Just this past week, several organizations in the diaspora have been amplifying the voices of Afghan women taking to the streets to protest the Taliban in Herat and Kabul, emphasizing the power of solidarity over "saviorism," a politics of justice over a politics of rescue.

Surely, while many women in Afghanistan and its diaspora continue to fight for justice and equality, they do not exist as a monolith. Their desires and aspirations are shaped by what part of the country they live in, their socioeconomic status and how they have been situated vis-a-vis this 20-year war, as well as their own communities' experiences of the two decades of civil war and unrest that preceded 2001.

By homing in on histories of resistance with respect to both the United States and the Taliban, it becomes clear that Afghan women recognize that gender-based violence comes in many forms and from both developed nation states and terrorist networks.

- - -

Helena Zeweri is assistant professor of global studies at the University of Virginia and a member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association (AAAWA)

Female protesters gather in downtown Kabul after a brutal Taliban crackdown on demonstrations