Stop Betraying the Women of Afghanistan

A woman in the Khwaja Koza Gar area in Herat on Feb. 4, 2022. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images)

Six months ago, President Joe Biden closed the door on two decades of war in Afghanistan. In the ensuing days, and now months, Afghan women saw the doors of opportunity—hard-fought gains for their rights—slammed in their faces as the Taliban took control of the country. What began as initial terror for many Afghan women and girls trying to flee their homeland is now a frightening reality where they are blocked from their workplaces, schools, health clinics and even their homes.  

While world leaders—including President Biden—pledged that withdrawal of troops and diplomatic missions would not equal an abandonment of women and girls, the ensuing failure to support them and the woefully inadequate humanitarian response have proved otherwise.  

The marginalization of women is nothing new, certainly not for Afghan women. While touting its support for women’s rights in Afghanistan, the U.S. negotiated Afghanistan’s future with the all-male Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar, in 2020. Seeing no conditions for women’s rights reflected in the final agreement, Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan politician and delegate at these peace talks, wrote, “I am morally obliged to warn that peace with the Taliban cannot come at the cost of basic human rights, particularly for Afghan women.”

Since the Taliban stole their country six months ago, Afghan women have refused to stand quietly by. Despite public harassment and disappearances, they are protesting in the streets, bravely reporting the news, showing up to clinics and shelters where their skills are needed. These are acts of defiance against a system ruled by those who would happily isolate them in their homes and deny them their independence and rights. These are also acts of survival—their country is starving to death while world leaders freeze their resources, plunging them into a humanitarian nightmare. 

I am morally obliged to warn that peace with the Taliban cannot come at the cost of basic human rights, particularly for Afghan women.

Fawzia Koofi

This month, President Biden announced that funds rightfully owned by the people of Afghanistan would be diverted to pay the debts of the Taliban’s terrorism. This pronouncement was stunning against the backdrop of an Afghan economy teetering on the verge of collapse, with inflation driving up the cost of food and medication to the point that over half of Afghan children under five years old are acutely malnourished and a staggering 10 maternal deaths are expected per day. The U.S. had frozen these Afghan assets after Kabul was seized so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Taliban, yet with this announcement, America relayed to Afghan women that their country and its resources do not, in fact, belong to them. 

Whether it is including their voices in peace talks, preserving their ability to feed themselves and their children, or upholding their basic rights to walk freely in their own streets, Afghan women’s rights have always been at best a bargaining chip for world leaders and, at worst, an afterthought. 

One prominent Afghan activist shared with me and with U.S. government officials earlier this month her prediction that the Taliban would eventually concede to letting girls back into schools, knowing that this would likely appease the West and check the box for “progress” on women’s rights. The world could then go on turning a blind eye to the rise in gender-based violence and child marriage, the exclusion of women from government, and ongoing harassment and restrictions on their movement and economic rights.  

Regardless of whether President Biden inherited the mess in Afghanistan or perpetuated it himself is secondary to what choices the United States will make to fix the situation we are in now. It is past time for the U.S. to live up to the commitments it has made to Afghan women and girls—the U.S. has the power to ensure that Afghan women are equal partners in retaining their rights and lifting their own country from crisis. The U.S. must include Afghan women leaders in decisions about peace, security and humanitarian aid. And the U.S. must not take Afghan assets out of the pockets of private citizens who desperately need those funds to survive and restore their lives. 

Afghan women are fed up with being held hostage to politics and power plays. Their warnings about the consequences of renewed Taliban rule have come to fruition and their anger against the U.S. failure toward their country is palpable. Rightfully so. As Mary Akrami, an Afghan women’s rights activist noted, “We Afghan women will not allow anyone [to] play with Afghanistan anymore. … Enough is enough for us.”  

Afghan women’s rights cannot be boiled down to a Washington talking point—their views, experiences and voices must be at the center when it comes to Afghanistan’s future, if Afghanistan is to have a future. 

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Gayatri Patel is vice president of external relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission. With nearly 20 years of experience in women’s rights and gender equality, Gayatri oversees the organization’s policy advocacy and communications. Gayatri previously served as the director of gender advocacy at CARE USA, where she led US government advocacy on women’s economic empowerment, gender-based violence, and gender in humanitarian emergencies. Additionally, she chaired various gender-focused advocacy coalitions to push for strong policies and resources to advance gender equality globally.