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Afghan Women Brace for Worst After US Failed to Educate in Tribal Areas
Burqa-clad Afghan women shop at a market area in Kabul on Aug. 23, 2021 following the Taliban's military takeover of the country. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

Afghan Women Brace for Worst After US Failed to Educate in Tribal Areas

America’s mission to build a new Afghanistan foundered because it ignored majority’s mindset, analyst says 

[Islamabad] The US and the West, in a two-decade effort to modernize Afghanistan, failed to win the hearts and minds of its people because they deceived themselves into thinking that what they saw in Kabul and in a few other big cities could be extrapolated to the rest of the country, experts say.

The nation-building effort did not take into account the conservative and tribal mindset of the rural majority, Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based human rights lawyer and national security expert, tells The Media Line.

“There has been a couple of issues related to the education of women that the US has not taken into account and which are now coming back to haunt the US,” Tsukerman said.

“First, the overwhelming majority of the attention toward that topic was devoted to women from highly educated and relatively open-minded families from more liberal and urban areas such as Kabul,” she noted.

“Large portions of the country, being fairly conservative although not supportive of Taliban policies, did not necessarily prioritize women’s education or other rights-related issues. In addition, not taken into account has been the vast difference of views among different tribes,” Tsukerman said.

“Most women in the country, or at least a significant portion, were mostly overlooked,” Tsukerman said. “All that money went toward a very narrow portion of the country, whereas other women were underserved.”

This is important, she says, because “the failure to understand Afghanistan’s culture and failure to reach significant portions of society facilitated the spread of Taliban outreach and the growth of its ideological base of support, in addition to other issues.”

“NATO and the US set themselves up for part of the failure that we are witnessing today by failing to engage the conservative leadership of the various tribes across the country,” Tsukerman said.

Large portions of the country, being fairly conservative although not supportive of Taliban policies, did not necessarily prioritize women’s education or other rights-related issues

Meanwhile, the Taliban has rejected reports that it recently killed a woman in Afghanistan, by shooting her down in the street for not wearing a burqa, a garment that covers the entire body from the top of the head to the ground, with only a mesh screen allowing the wearer to see in front of her.

“Such news is baseless and nothing but a part of fake propaganda against the Taliban,” Zabiullah Mujahid, the movement’s chief spokesperson, told The Media Line. “The picture of the woman that had been shared by some Western media has no credible source.”

“At the behest of defeated elements, baseless news about the Taliban is being published without any confirmation,” Mujahid added.

Dr. Muhammad Naeem, a Taliban political spokesperson based in Doha, Qatar, also denied that a woman had been killed for not wearing a burqa, telling The Media Line that the allegation “is a conspiracy against the Taliban.”

A photo of a woman lying in a pool of blood after she was allegedly killed by Taliban fighters earlier this month for going out in Taloqan, Takhar Province, without wearing a burqa, has been circulating on the internet.

The TMZ online tabloid newspaper said that the photo is actually from February 2019, and that the woman was reportedly slain during a clash between Taliban fighters and Afghan soldiers.

Noor Rehman Khan, a Takhar-based journalist with a local radio station, told The Media Line, “Before talking about this alleged incident in Takhar, it is important to talk about the geographical location of Takhar.”

“The main ethnic groups in the Takhar are Uzbeks and Tajiks. It borders Panjshir, Badakhshan, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Tajikistan to the north, and the majority of these groups are anti-Taliban,” he said.

Khan noted: “Keeping in view Takhar ethnicity, it could be easily assumed that it was fake news, which was widely shared to offend the Taliban.”

“Though in the picture a woman can be seen lying in a pool of blood, at least no woman is being killed in Takhar for not wearing a burqa,” he added. “The alleged incident was not even reported in any local language media outlet.”

Khan also revealed that “in July 2020, a man stabbed his wife to death over a family dispute in Takhar city, and he was arrested by Afghan police.”

An official of UNAMA, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, told The Media Line on condition of anonymity that “our mission also monitors human rights abuse incidents, and no doubt casualties were on the rise during the first six months of 2021, but no woman in Takhar was killed for not wearing a burqa.”

After the Taliban’s lightning conquest of nearly all of Afghanistan this month, many women there are concerned about their future.

When the radical Sunni movement previously governed the country from 1996 to 2001, it imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia or religious Islamic law. Females were forbidden to attend school, work outside the home, or even go outside without male relative escorts.

Women were required to wear burqas while out in public.

However, in the 20 years since the US-led invasion, the majority of Afghan girls have been able to get an education, with many studying at universities. Women have worked and some took on senior roles such as judges and legislators.

Until recently, more than three million girls were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, according to the United States Agency for International Development. “Enrollment grew from 900,000 male students in 2001 to more than 9.5 million students, 39% of whom are girls, in 2020,” the agency said.

During the US-Taliban peace talks negotiations in Doha last year and then after taking control of Kabul on August 15, senior Taliban leaders have been attempting to convince the international community that their views and policies regarding women have changed.

Mujahid said in his first-ever press conference in Kabul on August 17 that “Women are going to be very active within our society, within our framework.”

Women will be allowed to work and study, but “within the bounds of Islamic law,” he continued.

The Media Line spoke with women’s rights activists and NGOs.

Afghanaid is a British humanitarian and development organization that has been working in Afghanistan to strengthen the rights of women and children.

Natalia Deane, Afghanaid’s London-based head of communications, told The Media Line that “although there has been marked progress toward the realization of women’s and girl’s rights over the last few decades, women and girls in Afghanistan still face major barriers to accessing education and employment, and face widespread discrimination and hardship.”

“Retaining and furthering the hard-won rights of women and girls will continue to be essential for the future of Afghanistan,” she said. “There is an enormous number of talented women working and making a huge contribution at all levels of Afghan society. The country cannot afford to forgo this pool of talent.”

“Indeed, in Afghan culture, it is essential that women can work with women to enable them to fully play their parts in lifting their families out of poverty,” Deane said. “In 2021, our work is continuing to support over 1,200,000 men, women and children across Afghanistan.”

Despite the efforts of numerous nongovernmental organizations and millions of dollars spent on modernization projects, the Taliban and its conservative mindset retained great support in rural areas.

There is an enormous number of talented women working and making a huge contribution at all levels of Afghan society. The country cannot afford to forgo this pool of talent

Syeda Sadia Bano, a Herat-based women’s rights activist and lawyer, told The Media Line, “For NGOs to succeed in reaching their goals, a motivated staff plays an important role, but, unfortunately in our country, most of the NGOs’ staffs were incompetent and hired based on political recommendations.”

“Unfortunately, in recent years, the motivation to do good has almost disappeared from staff members, and there is widespread recognition that NGOs have failed to live up to expectations,” she said.

“In Afghanistan, most of the NGOs were formed by influential politicians, including all the former presidents and ministers,” Bano continued. “They exploited their relationships with the West and grabbed millions of dollars in the name of poverty alleviation, held photo-ops and fled the country with bags full of dollars.”

“It is a matter of public record that these politicians placed their wives and siblings on the boards of directors of these NGOs,” she said, adding: “This foreign aid, destined for the Afghan people, was callously used to feed the warlords and their militias.”

Helena Kakar, a women’s rights activist, told The Media Line from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan that “since the Taliban have taken over Kabul, working women feel that their future is at risk.”

“In the last 20 years, Afghan women have made notable achievements, particularly in the field of education. Thousands of female graduates are employed in government and private institutions across the country and are helping their families,” she said. “All of them fear that once again they will be considered the inferior part of society.”

“The Taliban has not set forth its laws, but everyone knows their attitude toward women from experience,” she added.

Kakar said regarding the improvement of women’s status that “though the NGOs claimed to spend millions of dollars, the NGOs didn’t do as well as they were supposed to do. “Lack of competency regarding the target community, undue political interventions, inconsistent results and non-implementation of accountability mechanisms are the basic reasons for the failure of such NGOs,” she continued.

“As a working Afghan woman, I am greatly apprehensive regarding my future. I am confused, but there is still hope for the finest future,” Kakar said.

Marwa Afghani, a resident of Kabul, a university student and a civil rights activist, told The Media Line that “the Taliban have not yet imposed any such restrictions on Afghan women that can hurt or demean them.”

“No doubt there are hard-liners among the Taliban fighters, but their leadership’s attitude indicates a positive transformation among them,” she said.

“Afghanistan’s corrupt political system needs wide-ranging reform at the grassroots level, and reform in the war-torn country will take some time,” Afghani added. “Regardless of political and religious affiliation, the Afghan nation must support the reform process,” she added.

“The security situation in Kabul is improving and concrete barriers have been removed from the city,” Afghani said.

As a working Afghan woman, I am greatly apprehensive regarding my future. I am confused, but there is still hope for the finest future

Faiza, another female resident of Kabul, works with an international humanitarian agency. She told The Media Line that “when the Taliban entered Kabul city last Sunday [August 15], everybody was terrified, but at least we did not hear the sound of a single bullet. We were in the office and were asked by the managers to immediately leave the premises.”

“On Monday evening, the situation in the city began to normalize, and when I left for the office the next day, everyone was taking pictures with the Taliban fighters, but there were no girls or elderly women on the road,” she said.

Faiza added that she lives in a Shia-populated area and during the Muharram days, which take place early in the Islamic month of Muharram that began on August 9, Taliban fighters, all Sunnis, provided full security including for the Shia’s processions for the Ashura holiday on the tenth day of Muharram.

“In Kabul, for the first time in 20 years, no terrorist incident happened during the Muharram days,” Faiza said.

She also said, “The females who are associated with foreign organizations are terrified. Some of my colleagues were sent home by the Taliban police when they were on the way to resume work.”

“Regardless, we want a free and independent Afghanistan where one can live without any discrimination,” Faiza said.

Samira Hamidi, a South Asia campaigner at Amnesty International, told The Media Line, “While much work was still left to be done, women’s rights had improved significantly since 2001.”

Hamidi added, “Before the Taliban takeover, more than 3 million girls were being educated, and women actively participated in the political, economic and social life of the country, becoming lawyers, doctors, judges, teachers, engineers, etc.”

“Unfortunately, all of this is now at serious risk,” she said.

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