Alternative Narrative on Women Empowerment in Afghanistan

The US and its allies are making a case to browbeat the Taliban using women’s freedom as an alibi to cover their incompetence to correct the wrongs in Afghanistan. — Photo used for illustrative purposes only

With the retreat of the US the Afghan women have really lost nothing as they never enjoyed anything that was for a tiny minority living in Kabul

Syed Ali Mujtaba | Clarion India

THERE is much talk about the trampling of women’s rights in Afghanistan in the media. The narrative being built is how under the Taliban rule, girls are not allowed to go to school, working women are told to stay home, demonstrations by women are put down with iron hands, women are not represented in the Afghan government, etc.

These views on the repression of Afghan women under Taliban rule are occupying the dominant space of the media. India along with the US allies is insisting that the Taliban government should shun their conservatism and give women the freedom to move about freely, go to school, go to work and induct them into the government. This dominant view is backed up by the condition that if the Taliban do not become soft on their women, the western aid promised to them will be stopped, and also, they may not be recognised as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

These are valid points to impress the progressive societies. However, what is being preached and propagated is only one side of the story about the Afghan women and there is another side of the story as well. This remains unheard and needs to be told for the people to cast their judgment on this issue.

The starting point for this narrative is what the US and its allies really did for the empowerment of women during the 20 years of occupation of Afghanistan. The freedom that Afghan women got under US protection was to wear jeans, play football or cricket in public, and go to school or work but that was only to a very small section of women living in Kabul. The rest of the country had no such freedom that’s alien to Afghan women. As such with the retreat of the US the Afghan women have really lost nothing as they never enjoyed anything that was for a tiny minority living in Kabul.

The majority of the Afghans who live in the rural areas remain rooted in their traditional values. It’s since time immemorial their lives have never changed. In fact, their sufferings increased manifold with the US occupation of their country. They were subjected to daily bombings, wanton killings, and arbitrary violence of the warlords, some of them being allied to the US forces. In such a repressive atmosphere under the US occupation, the lives of Afghan women deteriorated further than improved on freedom and liberty index.

The US had repeatedly stated that promoting women’s rights was one of the key reasons for their intervention in Afghanistan. However, after 20 years their record says they did nothing to improve the condition of women in Afghanistan. The fact is 80% of Afghan girls do not have any school to go to, the health care centres for women and children remains abysmally low. These facts point out that US occupation did not improve the condition of women of Afghanistan rather it made it worse.

The Afghan war cost the US taxpayer US$2 trillion but not even a fraction of it went to the Afghan women. The fact is the rural areas where women largely live never benefited from the western donors and aid agencies and their condition never improved. The corruption in the middle siphoned off much of the money supposed to go to them. What little went to the rural areas did not make any significant impact on the lives of the women of Afghanistan. Even the basic amenities such as health, education, and water supplies were not improved by the US-controlled government.

The sorry state of affairs in Afghanistan is to be solely blamed on the international community that is largely responsible for the all-around devastation of that country. The ‘Afghan Jihad’ has brought untold misery and mayhem to the people of Afghanistan. Nearly four decades of war have left the country totally battered and bruised.

Now when Afghanistan has got freedom from foreign occupation, the West is talking about the plight of the women under Taliban rule. This is to absolve themselves from the sorry state of affairs created by them in Afghanistan. The US and its allies are making a case to browbeat the Taliban using women’s freedom as an alibi to cover their incompetence to correct the wrongs in Afghanistan.

The Afghan women had never experienced the individual freedoms enjoyed by the women of the West. Such freedom is alien to them. The societies of the occident have undergone tremendous changes following the renaissance and reformation, the birth of Protestantism, agriculture and industrial revolutions, capital formation, etc. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution had tremendous impacts on the lives of people in the West and had their own impact on the women living in these countries.

In comparison, the societies of the orient have not experienced any such shock therapies. They witnessed very slow-paced changes that too after reaching a higher level of economic development. Educational development was the key to women’s empowerment in all Asian societies.

In this social context, Afghan women are at the bottom of the ladder because their country has neither been economically sound nor they made any progress in educating its people. The women in Afghanistan are still struggling to gain respect in their homes. They still live in a male-dominated family where their repression is a common theme. They yet have to become partners in the decision-making process of the family. Their fight is to gain ascendancy in the family and then in the society and after that to become visible on the streets. All these are tall order and a work in progress.

The majority of the Afghan women are happy at the departure of the foreign troops. They are equally happy at the return of the native rule, no matter how flawed that may be. They now feel at ease at the modicum of peace being established in their country that eggs them towards freedom of mind and to determine the pace of their development.

However, right now, the top priority of Afghanistan is the reconstruction and economic safety of the people rather than the empowerment of women. The focus is on repairing and improving the infrastructure, ensuring supplies of essential goods and services, creating institutional structure, training manpower for administration purposes, etc. Improving the condition of women is below the agenda of priorities in Afghanistan.

The US and its ally after their abject failure to improve the condition of the people are talking about women’s rights. Their precondition to release financial aid and de-freeze the Afghan assets locked in western banks only after the improvement of the women’s rights is quite disgusting. This is being done at a time when Afghanistan desperately needs funds to stem the human catastrophe ticking over their country.

The threat to stop foreign aid to Afghanistan is a total misreading of the women empowerment narrative in that war-torn country. The US and its allies should allow the Afghan women to choose the kind of social change they may like to bring about and the kind of values, mores, and norms they may like to adopt to live freely in their country. They should also be allowed to change at their own pace and not at the likings of the foreign powers.

Empowerment of women is a work that has just started in Afghanistan. It may take a long time to reach the benchmark set by the western countries. Till then we have to support the reconstruction efforts of Afghanistan and at the same time give a gentle push to the task of women empowerment there.


Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at 


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