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In a shocking series of events, the Taliban rapidly took over Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Sunday as the U.S. military withdrew, and the Afghan government toppled. With the takeover of the Taliban and the promise of the reinstatement of Sharia law, Afghan women are both literally and figuratively caught in the crossfire. A Kabul resident mourned the unfairness stating, “As a woman, I feel like I am the victim of this political war that men started.”

Many Afghan women who have assisted the United States have taken to destroying any evidence of U.S. ties from the past 20 years, not trusting they will be guaranteed safety while still in Afghanistan. Demands that Afghan women who are high risk should be evacuated have largely been ignored by the U.S. government, citing that recent events are not enough “to secure even a limited number of women who could be at the top of the list of Taliban targets.”

It’s an “outrageous nightmarish scenario,” a source assisting with evacuations out of Afghanistan told Verily. “It is deeply troubling that after such investment there has been no exit strategy that would protect women who are now particularly at risk.”

This is the vivid loss of Afghanistan stunning the international community—to watch as the safety, freedoms, and gains of Afghan women and girls are seemingly lost. Education, careers, and honorable positions in society all appear to be stripped away. If they haven’t yet been explicitly stripped away, many women are too fearful to go about their daily lives as they did before Sunday, August 15.

Safety threatened, lives upended

Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor, Zarifa Ghafari, told the public she is “sitting here waiting for [the Taliban] to come. There is no one to help me or my family. I’m just sitting here with them and my husband. . . . I can’t leave my family. And anyway, where would I go?” The Taliban have threatened to kill Ghafari previously, and now without protection for her and her family, this threat weighs heavily for her.

On Wednesday, August 18, twenty countries, including the United States and those in the European Union, demanded the rights of Afghan women be protected and vowed support would be sent to “ensure that their voices can be heard.” However, chances are slim the United States or the international community will declare this a humanitarian crisis or violation of human rights, because that would require action to be taken in their defense.

Unfortunately for Afghan women, their harrowing situation is reminiscent of President Obama’s “red line” rhetoric concerning Syria’s use of chemical weapons. When 1,500 Syrian civilians including children were attacked with sarin gas in the military’s botched attempt to attack rebel-controlled areas of Damascus in August 2013, the world expected the U.S. to take military action. A year prior (August 2012), President Obama had reported that if Assad of Syria resorted to chemical warfare (a “red line” for the Obama Administration), U.S. military action would be a sure response. However, action was not ordered, and the United States did not intervene militarily, dashing hopes that a world power would seek to help and protect innocent Syrians. It would appear that two administrations removed, American forces have provided the same unsure policy and shaky rhetoric, verbally committing to a moral standard, without following through.

Most Afghan women are deeply skeptical about the Biden Administration’s claims of assistance. A Kabul native said of President Biden’s prior words of support toward Afghan women, “It should not just be rhetoric. It is all possible. But there has to be the political will and the appetite to do so.” As a result, the vulnerable parties usually safeguarded from enduring the harms of war—women and children—are, in this case, experiencing them most vividly.

Ignorance of avoidable damage

As politics and military action become the center of the news cycle and discussions, Afghan women are forced to fade into the background societally and culturally. They are not a part of the conversations; they do not have a seat at either the international table or the table that discusses the state of their own homeland. Our fellow Afghan sisters, mothers, workers, and students wait in fear as the world appears to stand idly by.

While the Taliban’s regime is thousands of miles away from the United States, the humanitarian crisis for Afghan women is a significant step backward for all women. If our very own government neglects fellow women in the midst of a botched troop withdrawal, how valued are women’s rights by our own country? How long will Afghan women have to uphold their homes, families, and hopes without assistance? How long will women’s rights not be considered a critical facet of human rights? These questions and implied answers make up a far broader, confidence-shaking message than the American government intended to send; nevertheless, for many women watching the news this week, it has been received.

Many Afghan women admit they are afraid and are shocked by the lack of action by the international community. Contrary to accounts that suggest that the majority of Afghan women do not share the same views as more vocal activists, a report published in July 2021 by the Afghanistan Analysts Network found that many rural Afghan women were “worried the situation would unravel or that ‘peace’ would result in greater Taleban control, more restrictions or a higher level of violence.” Further, rural women expressed desires for “a greater feeling of safety” and “to move around more freely, safely visit relatives, attend family gatherings, pursue work or education, travel and see the country and even go sightseeing.” 

The report concluded:

Almost every woman we spoke to, regardless of the political stance and level of conservatism that could be gleaned from the answers, expressed a longing for greater freedom of movement, education for their children (and sometimes themselves) and a greater role in their families and wider social circles. In that respect, this report makes it clear that dreams of greater agency for Afghan women are not the exclusive domain of those who can speak up publicly. The priorities of rural women are not that different from those put forward by the more well-connected women activists and the concerns these activists raise are indeed deeply-felt and urgent.

Still, women's voices are largely unheard. The report notes, “Politicians and diplomats [have] argued, sometimes explicitly, that women’s rights and basic freedoms, though important, may need to be the price paid for achieving peace and ending the hardships of war.” Sadly, women's experiences are not factored in that calculation of peace.

Despite the overwhelming sense of lost rights and increased danger, Afghan women have proved that in the face of unimaginable fears, they do not easily back down. A video circulated by an Al Jazeera correspondent, Hameed Mohammad Shah, shows women in Kabul protesting for their rights while armed men hover nearby. They quietly hold small signs in protest as others on the street watch. In a separate video, the same women walk down the street, demanding the rights to continue their work, go to school, and be involved in politics. This small but beyond powerful act is being considered the first protest of the new Taliban regime. According to Shah’s translation of the video, one of the women chants, “No force can ignore and stifle women.”

One hopes, in due time, international bodies will act in the best interest of the most vulnerable Afghan people, including women and girls. Even if they do not, it clear that these women, who have never backed down from hardship, will once again prove their resilience and tenacity are enduring constants in the country’s tumultuous history.