“Women’s Rights Are Not Just ‘Western Values'”: A Warning Not to Learn the Wrong Lessons From Afghanistan

The lesson that we need to take from what has happened in Afghanistan is that peace and security are not possible without respect for women’s rights and human rights.

Sima Samar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, on March 31, 2015, at her office in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo / Massoud Hossaini)

In the wake of the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban, many in the international community and media have said that efforts in Afghanistan to secure women’s rights and human rights were doomed to fail because of the traditions and culture in my country. This is absolutely the wrong lesson to take away from our experience in Afghanistan. Human rights and women’s rights are not “Western values.”

They do not belong to the West. They are universal values. As laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights are universal for everyone, everywhere, regardless of nationality, race, gender, religion, locale or political system.

Over the past 20 years, despite the continued fighting in the country, the people of Afghanistan made remarkable achievements on human rights, including reforming the law according to the principles of human rights and equality. Women were represented in the Parliament, the judiciary, ministries, the army, the police, the media, business and sports. A generation of young women were able to attend school and have the freedom to work. A generation of young women and men were educated about human rights and women’s rights, and these are lessons they will not forget—even in the current situation. These achievements on human rights and women’s rights cannot be denied by anyone.

This article originally appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

The lesson that we need to take from what has happened in Afghanistan is that peace and security are not possible without respect for women’s rights and human rights. My country was plunged into 42 years of conflict beginning in 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. And throughout the decades, women’s rights have been violated. During the fighting, women and girls suffered the most as they became displaced and more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, such as forced marriage, child marriage, child smuggling and other abuses.

During the Soviet invasion, the civil war that followed and then the Taliban regime, women and girls were denied their most basic human rights in the name of religion and Afghan tradition. “Tradition” was used as an unwritten code to control women’s bodies and abilities. And families put more restrictions on female members in the name of protection, further reducing their space in society.

Taliban fighters try to stop the advance of protesters marching through the Dashti-E-Barchi neighborhood, a day after the Taliban announced their new all-male interim government with no representation for women and ethnic minority groups, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 8, 2021. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

We must end the fighting in Afghanistan, but women’s rights and human rights cannot be sacrificed in the process. One of the reasons the conflict lasted so long was the lack of women in meaningful roles in the social, economic and political facets of society. Another reason is that the international community abandoned the Afghan people after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. This cannot be allowed to happen again with the U.S. and NATO withdrawal.

Today hundreds of thousands of people are displaced, have lost their jobs and face even more hardship with the drought and COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 70 percent of the internally displaced people are women and children. They are impoverished and desperate, and live in fear of violence, of the lack of food and shelter, and of the future.

The international community must take immediate action to address the humanitarian crisis and prevent the deterioration of women’s rights and human rights. The international community must provide humanitarian aid immediately through Afghan non-governmental organizations, which can reach the people and provide job opportunities as well as direct support. Strong monitoring mechanisms must be in place to prevent corruption. Support for education and healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, also is needed.

The international community must speak with a coordinated and unified voice, led by the United Nations, which is one of the only institutions that people trust, though it needs financial and political support to strengthen its position. And the designated U.N. envoy must be supported politically to gain the confidence of the people.

Despite its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. still has leverage. Our neighbor Pakistan depends on the U.S. for aid. It must be forced to pressure the Taliban to form a more inclusive government and promote a democratic system. The U.S. also has leverage over other countries that are known as supporters of the Taliban. In addition, the U.S. must collaborate with other donors in a consolidated approach to Afghanistan. The proxy war in Afghanistan waged by members of the U.N. Security Council over the past four decades must end.

School girls look out after arriving at a gender-segregated school in Kabul on September 15, 2021. (Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images)

Women’s rights and human rights should not be negotiated away. Aid should be conditioned on women’s rights and human rights. The international community needs to encourage the Taliban to avoid revenge against people who worked with the government and in civil society. The way should be prepared for a reconciliation to stop the bloodshed while promoting accountability and access to justice for the victims of the war, including victims of sexual violence. Justice is an important ingredient of Islamic principles. Justice is not a luxury—it is a basic human right.

The international obligations of the Afghan government, particularly the international human rights instruments and agreements to which Afghanistan is a party, should be respected by the new government. These include equality between people from different ethnic religious groups and different genders. We, as Muslims, believe that all human beings are born with equal dignity. Promotion and protection of human rights is a shared and moral responsibility for us all.

The U.S. and international community must come through with their promises to secure safe passage to Afghans who want to leave the country, including women’s rights advocates, human rights defenders and members of the civil society whose lives are in jeopardy in Afghanistan. Sustainable peace will not be possible without the full and meaningful participation of women, who are half of the population. As history has shown, without peace in Afghanistan, the problem will reach other countries.

Unfortunately, recent events in Afghanistan show that history repeats itself. We should learn from our mistakes.

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Dr. Sima Samar is a physician and an outspoken advocate for women’s and human rights in Afghanistan. She previously served as Afghanistan’s deputy president and minister of women’s affairs, and she was the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She is a member of the U.N. secretary-general’s high-level advisory boards on mediation and internal displacement.