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Women in Afghanistan hold the key to peace

Originally posted on Thomson Reuters Foundation

Afghan women have too often been used a justification for patriarchal militarism that harms them most. To build a better future, we must listen to their voices

Marie Clarke is vice president of global programs at Women for Women International, overseeing programs investing in women’s power in eight countries.

I will never forget my first trip to Kabul. I was in Afghanistan to meet women leading some of the most important organizations defending women’s rights. To my surprise, my colleague Frozan suddenly tore off her headscarf and threw it on the couch between us, saying, “Stop using my headscarf as an excuse to wage your wars.”

This challenge has come to mind countless times in the years that followed during my work with Women for Women International, in Afghanistan, and in other countries where we work with women survivors of war. It is front of mind when following the articles that have led up to President’s Biden’s decision this week, following negotiations with the Taliban, to withdraw the remaining US troops in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan map
                                    Afghanistan Map

I have seen women weaponized on both sides of the debate, as they have been throughout the “endless wars” in Afghanistan. The Taliban claim to be waging war in defense of women and their dignity while the Afghan government claims they, too, are fighting for women’s rights to education and agency, championed especially by the remarkable First Lady of Afghanistan; yet both sides have historically used women’s rights and equality as a mere political tool.

Frozan threw off her headscarf because she, like the tension in Afghanistan in which women have been suspended for decades, had reached a breaking point.

When the US pulls out of Afghanistan, there is consensus among wealthy and powerful nations that have backed government-allied forces that the resurgence of the Taliban will roll back years of progress made on women’s rights. Ultimately, it’s argued, the decision to leave will leave women more vulnerable than they have been in decades.

As a feminist that seeks first and foremost to stand alongside Afghan women, and in an organization that takes great care not to engage in partisan politics, I would like to reset the frame, and in the process, invite all global powers to center—not weaponize—women in the future of Afghanistan.

Women in Afghanistan crave peace. They and their children have been the most vulnerable in the last 40 years of war. They are casualties of violence, dispossessed and often deeply impoverished if their male relatives are killed or maimed in the conflict.

"Women in Afghanistan crave peace. They and their children have been the most vulnerable in the last 40 years of war."

Afghan women have mixed views on their earlier history which boasted mini-skirts, tremendous access to education and professions at all levels, and the erosion of their rights in the name of conflict over the decades since.

In the moments when the Taliban and other insurgent groups seemed to be on the run, we did see greater openness and access for women and girls to education and chosen professions. However, these gains in women’s rights were won not by the gun, but by the concerted efforts and work of women and the organizations that defend them to build a public political platform for women’s rights and to change social norms.

Mushroom Farmer and Mother of Four in Kabul, Afghanistan
Photo Credit: Rada Akbar

The goal of the US military mission in Afghanistan was never primarily centered on defending women’s rights. Militarism flows with patriarchy, not against it. If the US forces have not been able to successfully help build a strong government and security force in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, it is hard to imagine that keeping guns on the ground would have made the difference.

I fear a Taliban resurgence, but it is the militarism of the patriarchy, not feminism, that tells us that the only way to approach the Taliban is violence. I have seen in practice how women’s rights approaches have enabled women’s meaningful engagement in their homes, their communities, and even in the peace process in Afghanistan.

Afghan women and their organizations are able to shift culture, reframe women’s rights and value in Afghan society, defend their rights to education and chosen professions, and do this work with their male allies. They need our support and investment.

Something I have seen clearly in recent years is that when the US breaks its promises or when official peace talks are at critical moments, violence rises, and women are the biggest casualties. In recent months, we have seen schools burned and female journalists, politicians, health care workers, and activists assassinated.

And still Afghan women ask to remain at the political negotiating table. In their communities, they are speaking out and defending the future Afghanistan they envision. They push back on all sides of this war when armed men claim to fight wars for them.

Afghan women demand peace. They counter toxic masculinity using the Koran’s teachings and work alongside men in their communities to make change. 3,500 US troops won’t win women’s rights for Afghanistan but shifting the investment in war to funding Afghan women-led development initiatives could build a peace centered in gender justice.