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While the Taliban would have us believe their promises to uphold women’s rights, reality paints a much different picture. Public protests by women against the Taliban have been violently quashed. A shelter for women fleeing domestic violence was burned to the ground by the Taliban. Other women’s safe houses across Afghanistan have closed, and the directors and occupants are in hiding. In rural villages, girls have been dragged off into sex slavery as Taliban “brides.” Thousands of women and their children displaced from rural areas by these threats and by ongoing armed violence have sought refuge in Kabul, congregating outdoors without shelter, food, or water.
As dire as the situation is for women and girls in Afghanistan, they have not gone silent. They are organizing. Bravely, fiercely, tirelessly. While they may be less visible because conditions demand it, grassroots feminist activists are drawing on their networks, forged over decades of war and conflict, to meet the urgent needs of women, girls, and their families around the country. They are mobilizing to protect each other from the threat of assassination and provide urgent humanitarian aid to those who have been forced to flee their homes.
Those of us in the US have the opportunity to support these efforts and stand with Afghan feminists as they rebuild a strategy to sustain their movement under Taliban rule. To be effective allies, we must learn the lessons of the two-decades-long debacle of US intervention in Afghanistan.
One clear conclusion is that women must be involved in peacebuilding. For years, women in Afghanistan demanded to be part of the peace process, organizing their own forums to chart an inclusive path to peace. Instead, the US, the Afghan government, and the Taliban refused to allow women’s meaningful participation, and today’s disastrous reality is a direct result.
By excluding women, the gatekeepers of the ‘peace process’ excluded the priorities and interests of the vast majority of the population. That’s because, when wartorn communities are struggling to survive, it’s invariably local women who step up to meet their needs, for food, water, safety, and more. By doing this lifesaving work, grassroots women’s organizations build up an invaluable store of the people’s trust. They establish wide, meaningful community-based networks, and if they were allowed at the peace table, women could better uplift people’s needs and keep people informed about the negotiations. But, instead warring parties have been the only ones allowed around the table, resulting in a failed process.
Another clear lesson is that Afghan women’s rights were never a true priority for the United States, despite ongoing claims to the contrary. The US spent nearly 1,000 times more money on military intervention than on support for women’s rights, and was frequently willing to trade women’s rights away, whether in negotiations with the Taliban or with its allies in the government. In fact, US-backed alternatives to the Taliban often imposed similarly violent restrictions on women.
From the very beginning, MADRE opposed US military intervention in Afghanistan. We never believed war would be a sustainable way to win rights for Afghan women or anyone else. Around the world, we saw how violent conflict exacerbated gender-based violence and destroyed the conditions needed for women’s movements to thrive. Back then, however, anti-war voices, including those of anti-imperialist feminists, were drowned out by supporters of the invasion. The calls of Afghan feminists who knew war was not the answer were completely ignored.
Instead, the voices that were amplified in the war-mongering after 9/11 were those calling for the use of military force to “save Afghan women” from their terrible men. People like First Lady Laura Bush lauded the US invasion as a moral war “for the rights and dignity of women.” And far too many US feminists accepted her racist proposition. Theirs was the logic of what we now call white feminism and it needs to be transformed. War is no way to secure lasting rights for women. As we near the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, this must be a third enduring lesson for everyone who calls themselves a feminist.
There are better ways to stand with Afghan women. We must recommit to ensuring women are never again used as a pretext for war and devote ourselves to what really works to protect women’s rights and end abuses: supporting grassroots feminist organizing.
At MADRE, we are in constant touch with our grassroots partners in Afghanistan and are mobilizing support to reach women where it’s needed most. Their first priority—and therefore ours—is preventing women and girls from being killed and abused by the Taliban. MADRE is supporting local Afghan activists with funds to provide security and protection and sustain an underground escape and relocation network for those who need to flee their homes.
We’re also supporting immediate and lasting efforts to protect women and families, inside Afghanistan and in countries where thousands of Afghan women and families have arrived as refugees. We’re funding local organizations to provide much-needed support, including food, shelter, medical care, and trauma management, as well as long-term support for resettlement.
Now is the time to begin applying the bitter lessons of 20 years of war on Afghanistan. This time we can stand with Afghan women on their own terms, by asking them what they want and working hand-in-hand with them to support their leadership and meet their communities’ needs.
While we can’t be sure what the coming months will bring, we will continue to listen to and follow the lead of grassroots feminist activists who know best what they and their communities require to survive conflict and crisis, and to continue the work of advocating for sustainable, lasting peace.
Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women’s health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peacebuilding. She has also written extensively on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and her critical analysis has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewhere.