“Meet those young women. They are the same as the young women in your family and mine. … We see the risk right now of this very new generation of professional young women, not knowing whether they can survive under what comes next, and waiting to see what happens.”
—Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
As the world watches the Taliban seize and tighten their grip on power in Afghanistan, women’s lives come under greater threat each day.
The Taliban have announced their provisional government, which doesn’t include a single woman, and have already begun to intimidate and oppress women journalists, protesters and ethnic minorities. Just like in the ’90s, live music is banned throughout the country once again, and Afghan women are banned from playing sports. After being closed for months, schools have reopened in the country—but only for male students, effecting banning girls from secondary education.
What is the reality for women and girls on the ground in Afghanistan? What do Afghan women stand to lose? How are feminists fighting back?
In the conversation below, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon helps to shed light on these questions. She is an award-winning author and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of The Daughters of Kobani and Ashley’s War, and writes regularly on Afghanistan’s politics and economy, entrepreneurship in fragile states, the fight to end child marriage, and issues affecting women and girls for publications including the New York Times, Financial Times, Fast Company, Christian Science Monitor and CNN.com.
Editor’s note: This conversation was adapted from Episode 43 of “On the Issues with Michelle Goodwin.” Listen here or read on below:
Michele Goodwin: What’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan, as it relates to women and girls, given the U.S. pull out of Afghanistan?
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Right now, what you see is this moment of pause as young women who were part of a young generation of professional women, women who had been part of contributing—not women from fancy backgrounds, but women from all kinds of backgrounds—who had been deeply fearful about their role and what comes next and had been working to find another option, wait to see what happens with the Taliban. And the world waits to see how the Taliban will rule.
A group of Afghan women staged a protest near the presidential palace in Kabul demanding their rights to employment and education, as the Taliban were expected to imminently announce a new government https://t.co/87PGBn5ofM pic.twitter.com/jstqTf44Y7— Reuters (@Reuters) September 3, 2021
Goodwin: Why has there been so much attention on the transition and the status of women and girls in Afghanistan? I imagine that from some corners of the world where an education is easily accessible, in fact, expected for children, both boys and girls, that this is perhaps hard to grasp.
Can you help to set the stage for why it was so profound, that over the last 10, 15, 20 years, education became accessible for women and girls, and leadership positions?
Tzemach Lemmon: Well, think about this. The female superpower is just getting on with it, and there were women who lived under the Taliban rule.
In 1996, the Taliban swept Kabul, first meeting with NGOs put up his list. No women going to school, no women working outside the home. Women would have a chaperon when they went out, must wear a burka. That was 1996.
Cut to 2021, after two decades of an international presence in the country, women for themselves have become educated, connected, deeply hopeful and I have never been one of those people who thought that the quest for human dignity ended at the Afghanistan border.
Meet those young women. Meet those girls. They are the same as the young women in your family and mine. They have been pushing for themselves to go to school, to achieve their potential, to contribute to their families, and with lots of challenges, have made huge progress in a country that is more urbanized, more connected, and more educated by far than it was two decades ago. That is why we see the risk right now of this very new generation of professional young women, not knowing whether they can survive under what comes next, and waiting to see what happens.
Goodwin: And to your point, it would be the equivalent of taking any given city or state in the United States, where there have been girls going to school, playing soccer after school, heading to a coffee shop with friends and suddenly, there’s a new regime in town. And a new regime in town whose history has been that you don’t get educated, and here are the limitations on what you can do.
Tzemach Lemmon: That’s right. And I think there’s been an “other”-ization that’s gone on around Afghanistan that we all need to be really aware of. And I said, so certain groups of people have deep aspirations for universal human rights? No.
Let’s be quite honest with it. These young women have fought for themselves. It’s up to the world whether we continue to enjoy and benefit from their fight, to achieve their potential, and it is up to us, because but there for the grace of God go each one of us.
If you and I, Michele, were in this position, we would want people who are listening today to say, what can I do. How do I support? How do I help? And I think that is our role right now.
Goodwin: The reach of education and transformation, business ownership, and so forth—this was not contained to the elites. Because some might say: Well look, this was really just all about the elites. It’s the elites that were able to get education for their daughters. The elites who were able to ascend into parliament. The elites were able to get visas and to be able to leave.
But you’re telling a different story about women and girls. You’re telling a story about education reaching deep into farm areas and other areas. Can you unpack that just a little bit more?
Tzemach Lemmon: Sure. I think it’s a conscience easer, to say it belongs to the elites. Right? It makes us all feel better, because well, then maybe we don’t have to do so much.
I would counter that and tell you two stories.
One is the story of a young woman whose father is a coal miner, who’s studied at basically, a SAT prep center was bombed likely by ISIS-K, but we’re not sure. She ended up with no money, doesn’t even have money for basic technology, the number one scorer of 170,000 students in the college admissions test. Herat University, 51 percent female. More women at writing applications to be admitted than men. So, all of this has gone far. I don’t say it’s universal, but in terms of reaching every last place, it has sure reached a lot, and has gone well beyond Kabul, to young women who want the same things as the young men.
Goodwin: What’s so exciting about the story that you’re telling is the story that is about potential, as well, which is to say: If given the opportunity, look at what women and girls can accomplish, even in the most challenging and horrific of circumstances.
Tzemach Lemmon: It’s especially in the most horrendous of circumstances. I will say one thing, Michele, somebody said to me: I’m really sorry about what’s happening to you. And I said, no, no. It’s not about me. It’s about us. I’m sorry that it took this for folks to focus deeply on the potential that we have in front of us, but let’s step forward together. Let’s look at this group of young people, or people who may not be so young, who have been changing their societies from the inside, who need our support, not for their sake but for ours. We need their talents and potential.
“Let’s look at this group of young people, or people who may not be so young, who have been changing their societies from the inside, who need our support, not for their sake but for ours.“
Goodwin: This makes me think about infrastructure and capacity, because there’s been some that have said that with the ability of the Taliban to come back as it has, that that shows a lack of certain infrastructures being in place, corruption, etc.
On the other hand, the story that you’re telling is also a different kind of capacity building and this is the capacity building that women were doing, in terms of how they were being educated. So, here one might think about in medicine and law and across engineering, and many other areas, and also with the economy.
Can you shed a little bit of light on that?
Tzemach Lemmon: Sure. There was a young women I met whose father during the Taliban had faced the Taliban coming to his house and saying, we’re going to marry your daughter. We’re coming to take her. He fled to Kabul for safety. She became a leader in a community of professionals, and would always tell the story about her dad, who pushed her for education.
That is the generation we’re talking about. The generation of the young woman who scored the highest on the university entrance exams. These are not fancy folks. These are people who have the same dreams you and I do, who are gutting it out against nearly every obstacle to achieve them.
Goodwin: And this also says something then about the men who are adjacent in their lives, because the father who’s the coal miner, the father who’s told, ‘Your daughter’s going to get married off,’ and it doesn’t happen—so there’s also been something that’s been transformational, in terms of men and boys being able to see the power and the capacity of women and girls. That’s transformational. I’d be very curious to see where that goes and how that’s part of the future story of Afghanistan.
So, what’s the silver lining there? Is there a silver lining that we have?
Tzemach Lemmon: The silver lining is that we all can do something to help. The silver lining is that to exercise power you have to recognize your power, and I would urge all of those listening to realize that you have the power to make a difference for people who are making a difference already.