Many of us have watched the unfolding situation in Afghanistan with horror and grief, hardly able to imagine the situation worsening, only to see it happen. Personally, I feel like this is like a nightmare repeating itself for the people of Afghanistan. I can clearly remember hearing reports in the late 1990’s about the state of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban and trying to find first-hand accounts of women. Now, such accounts abound, but back then, those accounts were almost impossible to find. The women of Afghanistan were silenced by an oppressive society.
I also remember devouring books on Afghan history - about how the mountainous nation had never been fully conquered by ANY invading army. Even the mighty Greeks lost, assimilated into the Afghan fabric - there’s a blue-eyed tribe in the north that still carries their DNA. The Mongols failed, the Chinese failed, the Soviet Union failed. And now the US joins the illustrious ranks of nations failing to revolutionize this nation. The only conclusion I can make is that military aggression cannot change Afghanistan.
But what the world has learned since 2001, when the Taliban were run out of power, is that the situation for women was far worse than we could’ve ever imagined. And the current situation is likely worse than we realize, especially given the crushing poverty most Afghans now face. Women being told to “stay at home for their safety” because the soldiers “aren’t trained” to not harm women. Lawyers who had advocated for women’s rights fearing for their lives once this "honeymoon" period with the Taliban allowing international media in the nation ends. The nation perilously close to financial collapse, civil servants not being paid for months and stock of critical hospital items running critically low. The news reports, as horrifying as they are, probably don’t tell the full story of the nightmare normal Afghan men and women are living. So how do we move forward?
We must first recognize our own failure.
“How did we fail?” you may ask.
Sure, we (the West) may have brought educational reform, governmental reform, and other initiatives, but all of that is easily reversed by a new regime. That reversal has happened so quickly in Afghanistan, it has likely left people's heads spinning, if they managed to survive, that is.
No, we failed in the most basic way.
And hear me, because I think we never had a chance to succeed in the way that the Afghan people needed us to succeed - simply because this approach would never cross the mind of governmental or military planners.
We failed to address the underlying theological worldview that drives the Taliban’s appeal to the men of that nation. The Taliban offer an intoxicating power for men over women through their extreme interpretation of Sunni Muslim theology and Sharia Law. While many Sunni Muslims around the world value women’s contribution to society outside the home and family context, the Taliban’s particular interpretation relegates women to a role confined to her home and family. Women are blamed for their sexuality and unique design and told that abuse, if it occurs, is her fault. This is not only against what many modern societies around the world teach and value, it is also against what other Sunni Muslim nations’ faith leaders teach, calling into question the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of their theology.
So now Afghan women have been thrust into their own dystopian world after twenty years of being told they had rights and value by a western world that has now abandoned them. They’ve been plunged into a darkness wrought by the people who are supposed to offer hope and light. All too soon, women's health, education and standing in society will crater, if the last time the Taliban rose to power taught us anything.
How can we help?
What can we in the West “do” to change the situation for them (and I use the word “do” here very tongue-in-cheek as our efforts in the last 20 years have borne little fruit)?
1. We can help with resettlement efforts of those most vulnerable - those men and women who have advocated for women's rights in Afghanistan. While the window for this through official channels has closed, I’m reminded of the book Kite Runner, in which the main character sneaks out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan under threat of death, a journey that countless families undertook during the last Taliban regime. Given the terrain involved, this is a treacherous journey, but brave men, women and children have and will continue to undertake it in coming days. The border crossings into Pakistan, for instance, have been practically overrun in the last weeks. We should support those fleeing the regime in any way possible, obviously making sure known terrorists aren't making it to the West. These brave men and women are the people who form the seed of future change in their own nation.
2. We can advocate in the international community for pressure to be maintained on the Afghan government. While this likely won't succeed (it didn't before, remember?), international pressure sets a standard that the Afghan government is not meeting. And perhaps serves as a warning for any other nation contemplating similar policies.
3. We can pray for change in hearts of powerful Afghan men. It is the darkness inside the human heart that has led to this - the need for power and domination over another human being, for starters. But also the lust inside our hearts that deceives us to say we deserve our own pleasure (what else would drive a soldier to assault and rape a random woman walking alone to the market?). That this desire for domination became codified within a religious framework reveals how awful this truly is for women. Faith should be a place of peace and comfort, not oppression. Furthermore, one of the factors that drove a change in women’s rights in the US in the early 19th century was the support of powerful men and faith leaders. If powerful Afghan men - and imams in particular - aren’t willing to speak out for the rights of women in their own nation, I’m not sure we will ever see lasting change.
4. We can encourage the women in Afghanistan through social media. Despite the best efforts of any nation to block internet traffic into their nation, things get through. If you don’t believe this, witness dissidents in China and their use of social media to organize despite very sophisticated internet blocking. The internet is one of the great equalizers of our day and age. Thoughts, ideas and support for women can penetrate where we physically cannot. Let’s make sure the women of Afghanistan and their male allies know they aren’t alone, that they aren’t forgotten. The tag #afghanwomen has quite a bit of traction on Instagram, for instance.
As a dystopian writer, I can only imagine where this could go for the women of Afghanistan. I pray that their situation isn’t as bleak as the one my own fictional characters face. Yet, I am confident that leaders will rise up from within Afghanistan and its refugees around the world to throw off the oppression that armies over the centuries were unable to conquer. It is for those brave men and women that I pray.