As city after city in Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, I feel myself slip into an infuriating state of déjà vu. My mind is racing back to memories of these armed men roaming the streets of Kabul with their Kalashnikovs, whipping and beating blue-burqa-clad women in public. It was 1996. I was a 16-year-old girl in Bangladesh at the time.
In an instant, Afghan female doctors and engineers were banned from the workplace. Women and girls were brutally made to disappear from all aspects of public life. The Taliban threw acid on Afghan women for daring to venture outside their homes, and police officers whipped them for not standing behind their male guardians. It’s bone-chilling to think back to that time.
I vividly remember being terrified that what was happening in Afghanistan could happen in Bangladesh, too. But soon after, the world quietly decided to forget this nation in Central Asia. We heard nothing more about the Taliban until the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power in retaliation for the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.
Of course, that was the “official” reason for the invasion, but in reality, it was the plight of Afghan women that the U.S. government exploited to win the public relations and optics battle for the war with the American public.
Why am I so sure? In the 2000s, I was the Afghan project organizer for the Arlington-based political action group Feminist Majority Foundation’s Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls.
“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” then first lady Laura Bush said after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Thanks to U.S. intervention, she said, [Afghan] women were “no longer imprisoned in their homes.”
Today, I think back to that comment from the former first lady, and I am filled with rage. Today, as I see images of Afghans running onto the tarmac and getting crushed by an American aircraft that won’t fly them out of Afghanistan, I break down in tears. Today, as Afghan women begin to disappear from the streets of their country, I fear in my bones for their future.
“We are heartbroken by the devastating news coming out of Afghanistan about Taliban’s advances and are writing to you with our plea for your administration to take actions to protect Afghan women and girls and to address this unfolding human rights and humanitarian catastrophe,” reads the opening lines of a letter the Feminist Majority Foundation sent to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. It is co-signed by 85 women and human rights activists, including Gloria Steinem, and pleads for them to act swiftly to protect the women and girls of Afghanistan whose lives are now at risk as the Taliban takes control of the country.
“[W]e implore your administration not to agree to a deal that includes recognition and support of a Taliban regime,” the letter continues, reminding the Biden administration how “the U.S. and U.N. previously refused to recognize the Taliban based on their brutal disregard of human rights, especially of women and girls.”
The letter asks Biden and his government to take immediate action to save the lives of Afghan women’s rights and human rights leaders and advocates who have selflessly and courageously worked at great risk to advance the rights of women and girls who are now being targeted by the Taliban. “Safe passage to the United States must be provided immediately,” the letter demands.
But let’s be realistic. America’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years won’t provide a safe way out of the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Despite decades of progress for Afghan women and girls, a report released last month from the U.N. showed that the number of women and children killed and injured increased in May and June of 2021 — around the same time U.S. and other international troops began withdrawing their remaining troops from Afghanistan.
What really infuriates me is how quickly American foreign policy went from being all about liberating Afghan women to being all about getting Americans the hell out of the country. But maybe I was the naive one to believe even for a second that America’s longest war was about anything else except American interests. We just paid lip service to the women and girls of that country because clearly nothing is more disposable than the rights and lives of women and their children.
As news and horror continue to pour out of Afghanistan, I am anticipating a slaughter of women and children in that country that most Americans will watch from the comfort of their living rooms. I fear it will be Afghan women and girls who will end up paying the highest price. What do we say to our daughters when that happens?
People want to think that what is happening in Afghanistan is so far away that it doesn’t affect us. But that is not true. If I have learned anything in my 20-plus years as a feminist policy analyst, journalist, and activist, it’s that women’s rights are intertwined all over the world.
To echo the words of famous American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, none of us are really free until all of us are free.
Those words have never been truer than right now.