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#Afghanistan

Reasoning with the Patriarchy: the Political, Economic, and Social Fallout From Talking with the Taliban

Women and girls in Afghanistan are being deprived of their fundamental human rights and their political, economic and social agency is systematically being taken away. At the same time, no concrete actions are taken by the international community to truly put pressure on the Taliban to revert what ultimately is an erasure of Afghan women and girls from public spaces. This analysis looks at the structures of oppression at play, examines the political economy behind “reasoning” with the Taliban, and highlights what the international community needs to do to support Afghan women in reclaiming their rights.

Image credit: WILPF
Negina Yari and Nela Porobić
20 March 2024
Table of Contents

Afghanistan is one of the most oppressive countries to live in today — especially if you are a woman or a girl, queer or a gender non-comforming person. The country is facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Two-thirds of its population are facing hunger; more than three million children are suffering from acute malnutrition; and millions are experiencing protracted displacement. It has one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates, and thousands of women die from preventable pregnancy-related causes. According to a report from the World Bank Group, “The welfare situation of Afghan households remains one of high deprivation and extreme vulnerability.” On top of the humanitarian crisis, the people of Afghanistan are faced with widespread human rights violations, gender-based violence and violence targeting ethnic minorities, enforced disappearances, torture and other violations and crimes.

Afghan society has experienced an extended period of violence, spanning from occupation by what was once the Soviet Union, to the US-led invasion and occupation as part of the so-called “War on Terror.” This level of prolonged  violence leaves no society untouched. On top of the many lives lost, the balance sheet of years of physical, political and economic violence perpetrated against the Afghan people has led to widening social and economic inequalities, disruption of the social fabric, trauma, corruption, poor governance, and flooding of the country with weapons — all of which eventually culminated in an abrupt, televised abandonment of the Afghan people at the mercy of a group with deeply regressive, misogynist and patriarchal world views: the Taliban. 

There Is No Salvation in Weapons

In August 2021, chaos and fear engulfed Afghanistan as the Taliban, in the wake of the total US withdrawal, swiftly and efficiently defeated the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). This came after 16 states supplied weapons and equipment to the country for nearly two decades. A full 74% of those weapons were supplied by the US, which spent $83 billion USD on training and arming ANDSF. If anything, this should stand as a stark testimony about how little military spending and militarisation of a society actually have to do with peace, safety and stability.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan people — including countless journalists, civil society activists, judges and prosecutors, people championing gender equality and many more — were left to their fate once the Taliban took over the country. Those who managed to leave in those chaotic first days and weeks have now largely been stuck in neighbouring countries either as undocumented migrants or awaiting resettlements to third countries — a process that is painstakingly slow, costly and precarious. The threat of being deported back to Afghanistan looms over their heads. 

The Consequences of Neoliberal Interventions

The return of the Taliban, the complete disintegration of Afghanistan’s government and the total collapse of the economy did not happen in a vacuum. Following the US invasion and occupation, the state-building interventions championed by the US government — which were supported by the European Union and other countries — were driven by neoliberal assumptions. These assumptions were that the market forces, if provided with an enabling environment and necessary freedoms, will lead to economic growth. In turn, according to this line of thinking, this economic growth will lead to stabilisation and development and that development (measured through neoliberal standards) will lead to peace. 

All these assumptions are based on a capitalist, Western understanding of how any country should function. Governance centred around a universalised idea of a nation-state, underpinned by the rule of law and “good governance,” are widely marketed “solutions.” In Afghanistan that “solution” meant a massive reconfiguration of society, including through the creation of a false sense of security, spearheaded by massive military spending. But none of the assumptions materialised. Instead, they have been detrimental to peace, as has been the case in many other countries, such as Iraq or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The fact is that the neoliberal peacebuilding experiment has failed. 

The Price People Must Pay

In Afghanistan, the price of the failures of this neoliberal approach on its people has been massive. Instead of promised stability and prosperity, 20 years of interventions led to corruption, political instability and widening of social and economic gaps. According to the World Bank Group, by 2020 aid accounted for around 43% of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product, financed 50% of the budget and represented 75% of the total public expenditure and 90% of security expenditures. 

Instead of prosperity, the neoliberal approach led to nurturing a protracted conflict within Afghan society, feeding off food insecurity, poverty, civilian casualties and harms, ultimately enabling the Taliban to take over control of the country. The takeover was followed by massive displacement and human rights violations. In addition, the international community withdrew all its aid, approximately $8 billion USD a year, leading to a total collapse of an already poorly functioning economy. 

Lives Erased

While the costs of this failed approach have been tremendous for all Afghans, the costs for Afghan women and girls are unfathomable. As the Taliban continues to entrench its rule over Afghanistan, women have lost more than their physical safety — their very existence is being threatened. They are systematically deprived of their fundamental human rights, every single day. They have lost their freedom of movement and with it their access to socio-economic rights, especially their right to work and education. These key rights, which enable people to live a life of dignity and women to break free from forced dependency on male relatives, are almost totally lost. The misogyny and patriarchal norms shaping the Taliban worldview and, now, Afghan society, has made women “prisoners in their own homes”. It is becoming impossible to find safe spaces for women, in particular those that have taken up public roles or are advocating for women’s and human rights, including peace activists. Many women have been arrested or killed, or have had to leave Afghanistan or go into hiding. 

A weaponised gender equality narrative, underpinned by an orientalist discourse of “liberating” Afghan women, was central to the framing of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the US and the wider international community abandoned these same women with impunity in 2021. For each day during these last three years, Afghan women and girls have had to live with the reality of their rights being taken away and their futures shattered. 

The Taliban has banned millions of girls from attending schools and universities and their ability to work is limited, including in local non-governmental organisations that distribute much-needed humanitarian aid, not least to women and girls. They are even banned from working at beauty parlors, and more and more young women are being arrested under the pretense of not wearing hijab properly. The consequences are enormous. In the short term women have lost access to income, becoming ever more dependent on men. The lack of access to humanitarian aid and support to women is making the humanitarian disaster even worse. In the long term there will be an extreme lack of women professionals in many vital sectors due to lack of education (or opportunities for education). This means fewer female doctors, fewer teachers and fewer social workers. And with no (or very few) women in positions to provide public services, fewer and fewer women will have access to them. 

Erasing Women Is at the Heart of the Taliban Regime

For 20 years, under invasion and occupation of foreign forces, the women of Afghanistan fought for their rights. Now they have once again fallen victims of a misogynist regime, which will leave them with no other social role to play than the one assigned to them by the Taliban. A role defined by oppression, discrimination, structural gender-based violence and violations of human rights, with the aim to completely break down women’s political, economic and social agency.

This is not a byproduct of the Taliban regime. From day one, the return of the Taliban was marked with curtailing women’s rights. Decree by decree, the de facto Taliban authorities have erased women from public life. The situation is so bad that leading UN experts have said that this kind of treatment can amount to gender apartheid

For individual women and other marginalised people, this is an extremely hard, dangerous and painful situation. Especially since the international community, to which Afghan women have looked to for support, continuously fail to act while at the same time expressing concern over Taliban’s decimation of women’s rights and realities. Instead,  Afghan women have been forced to witness the international community’s leniency towards the Taliban. The tolerance for the Taliban regime by international actors increases every day, coming dangerously close to a total resignation to the Taliban rule and enforcement of their way of life. 

The Gendered Nature of International Relations

It is difficult to understand why this is the case without understanding the patriarchal nature of international relations. The actions, or inactions, of the international community take place in a gendered reality in which power and perspectives of men dominate. That is why we are seeing a contradiction between their words and actions. Their actions tell us that when the problem is described through the masculine, militarised, geopolitical vocabulary of terrorism that poses a security threat to the region and the world, less talk and more action is advised. But when the women of Afghanistan are asking the international community to see the workings of the patriarchy behind the Taliban’s actions and to support them in pushing back against it, the international community is less about action, and more about talks and compromises. Unfortunately, these talks and compromises are dominated by the perspectives of men.

Very little or no space for Afghan women’s voices exists at the international level, and no concrete actions are taken by the international organisations on the ground to truly put pressure on the Taliban to reverse its bans. Different parts of the international community continue to organise dialogues and talks at the global and regional levels, many times claiming to speak on behalf of Afghan women. But while the Taliban has openly refused to sit down and talk to women, various parts of the international community have hidden behind the “gravity of the situation” and hurried to appease the Taliban, sending all-male delegations or not inviting any Afghan women to their talks with the Taliban. This is in breach of their obligation to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which demands all states ensure women’s participation and engagement in everything concerning peace and security. 

The Instrumentalisation of Humanitarian Aid

Space to exert influence over the Taliban does exist. The Taliban’s ability to hold onto power is dependent on its ability to maintain at least a resemblance of a functioning state. As noted earlier, Afghanistan’s economy is non-existent. People are kept afloat on a bare minimum by aid provided by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), funded through the Afghanistan Resilience Trust Fund. In a media information sheet from January 2023, UNAMA says that since December 2021 the UN has brought approximately $1.8 billion USD into Afghanistan to support UN agencies and their partners in the provision of life-saving assistance to more than 25 million Afghans. However, the research from inside Afghanistan shows that aid distribution and aid architecture are both insufficient and inefficient. Aid is not able to target those most in need, namely women and girls. This is a consequence of the constant compromises made. And the highest price paid is by the women and girls. 

The propensity of the international community to appease the Taliban plays right into the hands of the regime. The Taliban has instrumentalised the humanitarian crisis to its own benefit, knowing all too well that the aid will continue to come. By leveraging the bans, they are making sure that they are the ones setting the rules through “exemptions” from them, for a “small” price in the form of either bribes or control over aid distribution. 

No More Compromises

The Taliban has violated every basic human right of the Afghan people. It has nearly erased women from public life, barred them from school and jobs and limited their freedom of movement. Any work that might lead to politically and socially empowering women has been banned. The women-led NGOs that work on peace, human rights, advocacy, capacity building and dispute resolution have had their permits revoked. Only those that work on humanitarian aid are allowed to continue working, albeit under rules set by the Taliban. The NGOs and CSOs led by women can no longer be registered and women signatories are totally removed from all documents. The Afghan women are rightly asking the international community what other compromises can possibly be made?

In a statement by the Umbrella of Afghan Women Leaders, their position is very clear: no more compromises. They say, “These tactics of the UN and of the international community have continuously failed. The compromises made with the Taliban have not led to any improvements in the lives of women and girls, instead the situation has become worse with every compromise made. The UN has leverage because of the crisis. It must use it.” They go on to say, “There should be no piecemeal negotiation of exemptions with the Taliban, such piecemeal arrangements secure the structures of oppression.”

It Is Patriarchy and It Is Capitalism

It is important to understand the structures of oppression at play in this situation. The media narrative might be all about portraying to us the shocking ways of the Taliban — but it is not as if we have not seen the extreme workings of the patriarchy throughout our common history. As feminists, we know that it is only through THE resilience, solidarity and actions of women, LGBTQ+ people and our allies that the tools of oppression wielded by the patriarchy can be truncated. We also know how quickly we can lose all of our hard-won gains. A backlash against women’s rights, queer rights and gender equality is happening across the globe right now.

So let’s not be fooled. The erasure of Afghan women is not only a product of the Taliban’s extreme religious teachings (which have been challenged by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). It is also a product of patriarchy and of capitalism. It comes from the structures and processes that uphold and perpetuate a system that creates a gender binary and privileges that which is masculinised and devalues that which is feminised. Whether the Taliban admits it or not, their actions are about ensuring that gendered reproductive labour takes place, so that the valorised activities reserved for men can continue unimpeded. Their multimillion dollar deal with Chinese firms, and their leaning on the extractive industry to raise money, show us that the Taliban, too, have an interest in participating in transnational economic processes; they too know how to leverage natural resources to their interest; they too know how to play the capitalist game.

As much as the Taliban’s patriarchal and misogynist policies come across as if women have no role to play, in effect the women will play a great role in the Taliban’s world — just not the kind that would benefit the Afghan women themselves. Afghan women and girls will be dislocated from the space they once occupied as active participants of Afghan society, and relegated to the devalued, feminised spaces in the privacy of their homes. Their care responsibilities will grow exponentially. They will be the ones tasked with all the social reproductive work — with all those activities needed for both production and reproduction of life to take place. That includes biological reproduction as well as cleaning, cooking, nurturing and taking care of family members under extremely dire circumstances. Women will even be tasked with the reproduction of the very culture, values and norms of the Taliban, passing those traditions on to children. 

This social reproductive work, although rendered invisible, is hugely important for any society and the Taliban is no exception. Productive economies are underpinned by women’s unpaid labour in homes. The Taliban’s monopolisation of economic and political spaces and agendas is contingent on removal of women and other marginalised people who might contest the power and resources claimed by them. Unlike the international community, which pretends that the Taliban ways are an exception, as feminists we know that even though they might be extreme, they are firmly rooted in, and framed by, good old patriarchy and gendered divisions of labour. 

Stop Bargaining with Women’s Rights

The international community, in all its variety, must live up to its legal obligation to engage and support the women and girls of Afghanistan so that they can reclaim their rights and freedoms.

To do that the international community must correct its course and stop bargaining with women’s rights. Instead equality and women’s rights should be put at the front and center of the agenda.

The international community must ensure that it is Afghan women who drive processes for participation forward. It must refuse to talk to the Taliban without Afghan women present and it must do much better in putting in place mechanisms to enable their participation. The aid must be conditioned with guarantees of physical safety for women and girls and on rolling back the bans that curtail their rights, especially to education, work and freedom of movement.

An enabling environment for efficient participation needs to be created. Here are some of our suggestions:

Support

Political and financial support must be given to enable Afghan women to meet, discuss and participate, which includes facilitation of their cross-border travel.

Funding

Flexible and accessible funding must be provided for women’s organisations and movements.

Open Dialogues

Safe spaces must be provided for dialogues between women living inside Afghanistan and those in the diaspora.

Channel to UN

A direct, continuous channel to the UN must be created on the ground through which women and girls can feed information, raise concerns and put forward their demands.

Humanitarian interventions must build on an understanding of the gendered political economy in Afghanistan and its different communities, so that where and how the support is provided contributes to the disruption of existing power structures and enables progress towards equality. To be able to do that, the international community must understand how power is created, held and used by Taliban and other actors in Afghanistan. It must stop seeing humanitarian aid as one-off intervention and instead encapsulate it in broader strategies for peace, equality and justice.

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Negina Yari and Nela Porobić

Negina Yari is a civil society activist and an education and peace expert. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Window for Hope and is a member of the WILPF International Secretariat Board of Directors.

Nela Porobić s a feminist activist from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and leads WILPF`s work on Feminist Political Economy.

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Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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