Editor’s Note: Lina AbiRafeh (@LinaAbiRafeh) is a global women’s rights expert, humanitarian aid worker, and executive director of The Arab Institute for Women. She is a published author and speaker, and a member of the SheDecides guiding group, the Gender Equality Top 100 worldwide in 2018 and 2019 and a Vital Voices fellow. The opinions expressed here are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
I first landed in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, in the middle of the sweltering summer of 2002. It had taken four airplanes and more than 17 hours of flying, mostly over barren, rugged land, before the city encircled by mountains revealed itself.
I carefully adjusted my veil as, one by one, we climbed down the unsteady stairs out of the Ariana Airlines plane and onto Afghan soil. The old, bearded man in front of me kneeled and kissed the Afghan earth. Specks of dirt remained on his beard.
Despite Kabul’s saturation with international agencies and good intentions, 23 years of conflict had taken a toll. The city had barely endured it all – from Soviet occupation to fighting between Afghan factions to the takeover by the Taliban. And, after the attacks of 9/11, occupation by foreign forces and an army of aid workers.
One occupation is finally set to end. President Joe Biden plans to withdraw US troops by September 11 of this year. Following this, the Taliban could reclaim power. And Afghans feel that the US rhetoric of liberation that animated their invasion nearly 20 years ago has fallen short of its goal.
The US has spent over $780 million to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan in these last two decades. And now these rights hang in the balance. A withdrawal of US troops could mean greater human rights violations, more school closures and increased violence against women.
By the time I got to Afghanistan in 2002, I had been working on the progress and regress of Afghan women since 1996, the year the Taliban captured Kabul and the NGO Women for Women International offered me the position of country director of their nonexistent Afghanistan office. The country was under draconian rule – with girls over the age of eight banned from schools, televisions banned from homes, women banned from driving. And the women – they suffered most. Gender apartheid, we called it.
Back then I watched videos taken by Afghan women through cameras they smuggled under their burqas. It was through the lens of women that the world first saw the Taliban conduct executions in Ghazi Stadium, a venue once used for soccer. Taliban laws outlined the following punishments: thieves have limbs amputated, murderers are executed by relatives of the victim and adulterers are stoned to death. The rest receive public beatings.
The so-called Department for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice would beat Afghan women if their faces were visible, if their ankles were visible, if their socks were white, if they made noise as they walked, if they spoke to men, if they traveled without a male guardian, if they worked, if they studied. In short – if they lived at all.
At the same time, Afghan women turned their burqas into a tool for feminist activism, showing the world what was happening, and hoping the world would respond.
I got to Kabul not long after the US began its invasion to defeat the Taliban and to “liberate women.” When I ventured into the city, I saw rows of white Toyota Land Cruisers with various aid-agency acronyms shared the street with donkeys pulling carts of potatoes. On these streets, I passed one woman after another, clad in billowy burqa-blue, sitting with withered hands outstretched, begging for money.
Many were widows, with sad-faced children in tow. They squatted in the gravel on the side of the road, tattered garments wiping the ground. I saw deep crevasses in their worn hands, and dirt ground forever in their fingernails.
“I want to tell you about my tragic life,” one woman cried.
“I’ve spent days in hunger, nights in the darkness,” added another. “Maybe you know about the life of an Afghan woman, filled with that much pain and difficulty that I’m not able to express it.”
“Please help me. I have a baby that I can’t feed. There is no milk in my breasts,” a woman called out as she tried to hand me her malnourished child.
I am a child of multiple war zones – Lebanon and Palestine – and now a veteran of more than two decades of aid work. I know what war does to women, and I knew I had a lot of work to do. But I knew even then that Afghan women were not to be “beneficiaries” of “charity,” but rather strong women with agency, who, with the right kind of support, could change their own lives.
I stayed in Afghanistan for four years, going on to write my doctoral thesis and publish a book in 2009 on my experience called, “Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan.” In my book, I argued that the status of Afghan women was used as the barometer to assess social change, and that the promise of freedom had fallen short.
It’s true that the US occupation did achieve some of its goals. Some schools reopened. Women and girls once again had access to education and employment. Afghan women went to university, flew planes, joined the military, became government ministers – and more.
But gains have been patchy. Women living in Taliban-controlled areas are still restricted. Rural women remain relatively marginalized. Their lives have barely changed as opportunities for work, health care, education have not reached them.
Girls’ education in many areas ends with puberty and marriage. There’s an Afghan expression I’ll never forget: a girl should have her first period in her husband’s house, not her father’s house.
Longtime women’s rights activist Aziza Aman told me that women in her circle – activists and civil society leaders and women committed to change – are not optimistic. “They believe things will not get any better. They feel stuck in a vicious cycle. And they are afraid because of this precarious situation.”
Aman explained that aid to women’s groups and to NGOs has long dried up. “We will not achieve what we had hoped. And now we have to adapt to whatever may come in order to survive.”
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I believe that Afghan women are the face and the force of their country’s future. The research says the same; a country’s chances of peace, prosperity and progress rest not on the fiscal or legislative but on the way in which it treats its women. But Afghanistan’s women will continue to need support – resources, tools, access to opportunities – in order to build the Afghanistan that they deserve. The US might be withdrawing, but direct funding for frontline women’s groups must continue. In fact, it must increase. And women must be included in every aspect of leadership and decision-making at every level. It is the best chance Afghanistan has.
In 2006, at the end of my four years in Afghanistan, I asked a young Afghan man what he thought of our work with women. He answered: “The world thought they could bring freedom to Afghan women, but freedom is only won from the inside.”