9th Dec 2023


Afghan women need global support, not feminism lessons

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Two years after the chaotic departure of US forces and the Taliban takeover — and despite the latest devastating earthquake in the west of the country — Afghanistan has all but disappeared from the global headlines.

Other crisis, including Russia's war in Ukraine and now the escalation in Israel-Palestine violence, obscure the rare references to Afghanistan's deteriorating humanitarian situation.

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  • Moving forward will not be easy, not least because of the apparent divide between women in the Afghan diaspora who mostly reject engagement with the Taliban and those in Afghanistan who favour contacts

The severe restrictions imposed on millions of Afghan women — described as "gender apartheid" by many observers — also often take a back seat as the world grapples with human rights challenges elsewhere.

No surprise then that Afghanistan is slipping down the global agenda, joining other "forgotten crisis" which are hardly ever mentioned. Yet this is no time to look away.

Afghanistan is currently facing an unprecedented hunger crisis caused by conflict, climate change and a general economic collapse, underlines John Aylieff, World Food Programme's regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

Humanitarian aid, which bypasses the Taliban, is down to a trickle — making life even more difficult for Afghan women.

"What we need to do is urge donors to put politics aside and put humanity first, and keep engaging with Afghanistan for the sake of its people," Aylieff told this columnist last week.

That is easier said than done.

The UN and the international community including EU governments do not recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan although the UN Mission in Afghanistan, does have a mandate to engage with the "de facto authorities", with the focus on women's rights and the need for inclusive governance.

The EU also reopened its delegation in Kabul last year and in addition to a new batch of post-earthquake humanitarian assistance recently provided €140m in much-needed livelihood and basic needs support, with women and girls as priority beneficiaries.

More is needed, however.

"We need more global solidarity," insists Parasto Hakim, one of the three Afghan education rights activists nominated for the European Parliament's 2023 Sakharov Prize.

Of the three, Hakim, now in exile, runs a home school and online university called SARK. Marzia Amiri manages underground schools and online courses after escaping from Afghanistan and Matiullah Wesa, who organises educational initiatives in remote Afghan regions, is currently detained by the Taliban.

If the decision on the prize goes in their favour on 12 October, the situation in Afghanistan may finally attract some international attention.

However, any future support for Afghanistan and especially for Afghan women and girls must not be a repetition of traditional Western one-size-fits-all approaches and instead explore new — and often unorthodox — ways of support.

Specifically, instead of pursuing purely performative Western-crafted 'feminist foreign policy' templates, EU policymakers must choose options which are based on a deeper understanding of the country's culture, religion, society and economic structures.

Future approaches should be adapted to local conditions, ensuring their long-term sustainability. This requires listening to local voices as well as a willingness to be innovative, be patient and humble.

The Taliban's mass oppression of Afghan women is undoubtedly the result of the numerous edicts, orders and restrictions enacted by the Taliban since they took power two years ago.

However, as author and women's right activist Rafia Zakaria rightly underlines, Afghan women are also suffering the consequences of Western feminists' very visible support for the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a war to liberate Afghan women.

As a result, women's empowerment is now seen by the Taliban as a foreign agenda. Amnesty International UK warns that this has also perpetuated a racist narrative that Afghan women are victims who need to be saved by Western powers.

The truth is that even in 2011 under president Hamid Karzai and during Nato's presence in the country, Afghanistan was described as the worst country in the world for women.

Later, Western governments allowed women to be excluded from negotiations on the Doha Agreement, leaving Afghan women dangerously vulnerable to Taliban mistreatment.

Having tried and failed over almost 20 years to introduce women's empowerment norms in line with Western standards, it is time the EU and other donors changed tack.

'White saviour' approach

Afghanistan has illustrated the folly of allowing social progress to be largely dependent on foreign intervention.

It has also shown the shortcomings of a tired and condescending 'white saviour' approach which, for all the media attention it receives, is culturally insensitive, denies the agency and resilience of local women and fails to acknowledge deeper political, social and cultural root causes of gender inequality.

Moving beyond the 'same old' patterns will not be easy, not least because of the apparent divide between women in the Afghan diaspora who mostly reject engagement with the Taliban and those in Afghanistan who favour contacts.

There is consensus, however, that future strategies require an effort to listen to, invest in, and support Afghan women, many of whom are exploring ways to carve out pockets of hope by forming new civil society groups to address community needs, running businesses, and providing health, education, and protection services.

Afghan women must be included in all conversations on their future whenever they are held with national and local authorities or in international fora.

The EU must keep women's rights at the top of its external engagement. But Afghanistan is a distressing cautionary tale on the urgent need to learn from past errors and make up for past mistakes.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She recently won the Catalonia European Journalist Association's prestigious Career Award 2023 for her work on EU affairs and focus on building an inclusive Union of Equality.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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