The abandonment of Afghan women and children should concern us all

Social Commentary

The abandonment of Afghan women and children should concern us all

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Taran M Khan’s travel memoir, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, begins with the line, ‘One of the first things I was told when I arrived in Kabul was never to walk.’ Having grown up in northern India, Khan is no stranger to the idea that a walk for pleasure, is potentially risky for a female body and rarely as simple for men. Khan’s words have been on my mind for a few days now, ever since news of the Taliban’s return – the swift, sinister efficiency of it – came in. War in Afghanistan is not new, that women and children are reduced to collateral damage and statistics in every war, is not new either. America’s swift, disenchanted withdrawal from Afghanistan now spells doom for the women and children behind. For it looks like no one is ready to fight for them.

In 1996, a woman in Kabul had the tip of her thumb cut off, because she chose to wear nail polish. Juxtaposed with it in my mind is an image that’s been making the rounds of news sites since last week – that of a man painting over images of women outside a beauty salon in Kabul. Places women convene, where they can be their unique, authentic, messy selves, forever in danger from a world bent on controlling them.  Afghanistan is regularly rated as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women. The return of the Taliban only underlines the precariousness of several hard-won rights they have painfully gained over the past few years, including access to education, technology and the right to work outside their homes.

Even as the Taliban issue statements hinting at a more ‘moderate’ rule and global leaders watch and make half-hearted promises to help preserve human rights, the women of Afghanistan appear to be alone in a desperate battle for survival.

Since 2013, the city of Herat has been playing host to an international women’s film festival. Women filmmakers from Afghanistan such as Sahraa Karimi, despite the constant threat of violence, have become dogged, courageous storytellers. Karimi, who penned an open letter asking for protection for Afghan artistes and women, managed to get out of Kabul and get to Ukraine a few days ago. She has vowed not to stop making films. . Even as the Taliban issue statements hinting at a more ‘moderate’ rule and global leaders watch and make half-hearted promises to help preserve human rights, the women of Afghanistan appear to be alone in a desperate battle for survival.

One of my favourite stories to come out of Afghanistan following the displacement of the Taliban in 2001 was about a secret women-only literary society called Mirman Baheer, formed in Kandahar, the heart of Taliban rule. Poetry, especially romantic poetry, was in abundance at these meetings, mostly held underground to ward off conservative and disapproving families. Mirman Baheer was going strong despite the pandemic, and I can’t help but wonder if the Taliban’s assurances of a more moderate rule will extend to women meeting in their own space and reading out original love poems. Honestly, I am sceptical.

The US withdrawal shows scant concern for maintaining the relative peace they helped broker. Most countries that have made an official response so far have been vague and watchful. Some have blamed the US for its botched policy, and the US itself has mostly shrugged and said it is time the Afghan army took care of things. But no one’s about to go back and fight for the women and children whose safety they’re calling out for. No one is going to fight for their right to learn, to work.and to play.

I wonder if Mirman Baheer will hold a meeting at one of them – the harsh sound of hairdryers competing with lyrical Pashto love poetry while they all get manicures.

I wonder if Taran M. Khan will be able to walk down a street in Kabul ever again. If there will be beauty salons run by and for women. I wonder if Mirman Baheer will hold a meeting at one of them – the harsh sound of hairdryers competing with lyrical Pashto love poetry while they all get manicures. We say wars are fought for freedom. It’s a loose, overarching assurance, telling us the violence and carnage is for the greater good. Civilians rarely have a say in when a war starts, when it ends, who is freed and what freedom means Maybe if the women were asked, they would simply ask for the freedom to walk down a street without fear, and tell stories under their own names, in their own voices.

The violent controlling of women’s bodies, their pleasures and their movement has been a quietly horrifying fallout of wartime. Some of it makes headlines, whereas some retires to a spreadsheet of statistics. But mostly, there is resignation – that when there are battles to be fought, when there is hostile takeover of a land and way of living, there is suffering, and much of it is female. Abhorrently, embarrassingly it is suffering no one, not even the Afghan men themselves are willing to fight or overturn. What, if anything, can we then expect from the rest of the world?

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