While the subject of Afghan Taliban legitimacy is still being debated, a humanitarian disaster is looming: the plight of Afghanistan’s largely stateless population, particularly women, is not limited to food and medication shortages. The Taliban’s political ineptitude is the source of their existential predicament. This threat, which flips the concept of a “reformed Taliban,” endangers Afghanistan’s future while exposing our own “cruel optimism” – a fantasy encapsulating unrealistic expectations of a terrorist band.
Public freedom has teetered on the verge of political indecision since Kabul was methodically made to ‘fall’ to the Taliban. Despite encouraging assertions that all schools would be opened gradually, the Taliban have yet to deliver on their pledges. A broad amnesty had been announced previously. Ex-government officials, on the other hand, are being targeted.
Assaults on women are also been reported, which has led to a rise in women’s protests. In a cash- and food-strapped Afghanistan, restrictions on women’s movement stifle their economic activity. Instead of seeking political solutions, the Taliban use ‘liberal’ means to stifle free speech and restrict rights. They recently proposed that international help be unconditionally handed to them, cleverly hijacking the humanitarian discourse in an effort to depoliticize the catastrophe and enhance their claim to represent the entire Afghan population. This strategy of holding the Afghan people captive is bordering on blackmailing the world community.
Despite the fact that Afghans, particularly women, are suffering the most, they have not given up hope. According to a viral video, some of them have built a covert school in Kabul, a house that has been converted into a teaching-learning center away from the Taliban’s frightening glare. Similar covert operations have been reported in other sections of the country. Caught in a militarized zone, these women have borne the torch against obscurantism on the one hand, but are also plagued by non-democratic regimes and paternalistic ideologies on the other.
When infighting among Mujahideen factions became more intense in the 1990s, regional backers of the decade-long Afghan ‘jihad’ found it difficult to govern these fiercely autonomous warlords. As a result, the formation of the Afghan Taliban was a result of the necessity to establish an alternative. What went wrong? According to legend, a legendary warlord in Kandahar unleashed a reign of terror. He abused women on a daily basis while in charge of the checkpoints, and in one incident kidnapped two newlywed women.
A vengeful gang of Madrassah students (Taliban) developed spontaneously to destroy these checkpoints and marched from Kandahar to Kabul, eventually becoming the country’s rulers. However, for ordinary Afghans, the Taliban’s identity, as a result of the porous Pak-Afghan border, was as vague as their doctrine. Then 9/11 happened, and the United States deposed Al Qaeda, a militant group known for harbouring terrorists. In this storey, an Afghan woman is reduced to a faceless appendage, used to legitimise a religiously motivated group’s political gain through militancy.
What Taliban are you referring to? Should we stay inside or go outside? In the Afg-Pak region, turning women into victims and then rescuing them has proven to be an effective approach (‘atrocity stories’ were also used to reinforce several armed organisations in ex-FATA, especially after the Jamia Hafsa operation). Women are first denied access to workplaces and schools, and then segregation is exploited as a tool for continuous oppression. Women were abused at checkpoints by ruthless warlords, but the Taliban kept such torture at home. Paternalistic rules are dehumanising, oppressive, and brutal in both cases.
However, militarism only explains a portion of the violence against women. Another facet is traditional systems of social control. During my latest investigation, I spoke with a displaced Afghan journalist about her Taliban ordeal. “Which Taliban are you asking about?” she asked, catching me off guard. “Should we stay inside or go outside?” Afghan women’s roles are as varied as their labour is dangerous, ranging from enduring severe disciplinary measures at home to confronting foreign-sponsored predatory militants on the streets.
Meena Keshwar Kamal, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, was kidnapped and decapitated in Quetta in 1987. (Her husband had been killed earlier). Because she was a prominent opponent of the US-sponsored “jihad,” suspicion landed on a warlord, a blue-eyed Pakistani establishment lad. RAWA was the progressive face of resistance, the lone voice for a secular and democratic Afghanistan, while the region was erupting in state sanctioned militarism. RAWA members opposed fundamentalism, imperialism, and Soviet puppets while living in close proximity to the feared ‘jihadists’ in Peshawar and Quetta. They also raised their voice for freedom and rights. Its activists developed handicraft centres and arranged for orphans and widows to attend nursing classes. They were also the first to promote the concept of hidden schools, reminding the globe that an entire nation cannot be made into passive victims. Many people died in this struggle against a backdrop of crisscrossing militarisation, but they never gave up hope of seeing a forward-looking Afghanistan.
Their principles have been highly politicised to the point of neo-colonialism since their existential struggle is always severe. “The war against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” the Bush administration announced shortly after the US bombing of Afghanistan. “Women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” Laura Bush added, referring to recent military successes in most of Afghanistan. Afghan women never saw the bombing of their nation as a source of salvation, and they denounced Western countries’ backing for militant rule in Afghanistan. This nuanced stance – fighting for disarmament through a nonviolent movement – exposed them to further dangers.
Though militarised violence in the Afa-Pak area is a complex issue, understanding it is dependent on how well we challenge the dominant narratives. The Taliban’s birth was not a result of a power vacuum, and their current comeback is not a one-off event unrelated to imperialism’s regional legacy. The Taliban is a religiously inspired organisation that has been utilised as a strategic alternative for gaining political legitimacy through militancy, which is a paradoxical concept. The regional cycle of local violence is dependent on this paradox. The radical position of Afghan women is critical to the resolution of this problem. “Each of us needs a little RAWA,” Arundhati Roy observed, moved by their revolutionary resistance.