Today I woke up profoundly aware that as a white woman I live in a country that affords me extreme privilege. While baristas and hairdressers take to our front lines as ‘freedom fighters’– getting shouty about the right to not wear a mask during a global pandemic – women in Afghanistan are waking up today wondering if the last 20 years was a dream. Two decades of education and ambition are over. The Taliban are back. Back is a life where women have no agency, where they will be forced, again, to wear a burqa at all times in public, because the ‘face of a woman is a source of corruption’. This makes the push back on mask wearing look pretty shallow. Under the Taliban, it is women and children who will suffer most.
After 20 years of American intervention, the Afghan government collapsed in one night. Weirdly, I was watching the latest season of Homeland where (spoiler alert) the presidents – both Afghan and American – are killed and the Taliban take control. This was made in 2019. It was dramatic, but clearly more than two years ago Netflix writers were able to forecast the political future for Afghanistan.
Today I woke up to the news that President Ashraf Ghani has fled. The Taliban have taken Kabul and are giving interviews from the Presidential Palace. The US personnel have hightailed it to the airport to Get the Fuck Out. It’s starting to look a lot like Vietnam. Although the Americans are saying ‘This is nothing like Saigon’.
Really? Who is being left behind? What is going to happen to those who were seen to be working towards democracy with the US led forces?
I guess, unlike when the Viet Kong took Saigon, this time we have Facebook. It’s kind of surreal when a deposed president posts a message on Facebook to tell the world he had no choice but to leave: ‘In order to avoid a flood of blood, I thought it was best to get out.’ For a minute I thought I was still watching Netflix. Fact check. This is the real world. The lines are blurring.
I can only imagine the fear and the despair of women and girls in Afghanistan.
There is a whole generation of Afghan women who have entered public life as journalists, academics, teachers… who could very well end up being forced to marry Islamist militants. Women leaders and law makers who have been working to open up opportunities for later generations of women, who now have good reason to fear that the gains of the last 20 years will be lost.
‘With every city collapsing, human bodies collapse, dreams collapse, history and future collapse, art and culture collapse, life and beauty collapse, our world collapses, someone please stop this,’ Afghan photographer Rada Akbar wrote on Twitter.
While the Taliban have promised to protect women, women don’t believe them.
The first and only female prosecutor in Kandahar Province has sent 21 men to jail for beating and abusing their wives. In the lead up to the Taliban takeover she received a warning: a handwritten note, on the windshield of her family car, folded around a bullet. The New York Times reports the contents of the letter ‘From now on you are our target and we will treat you like other Western slaves’.
Perhaps it’s timely to revisit some of the rules women lived under with the Taliban: no laughing loudly (strangers are not to hear a woman’s voice), no bright clothes, no appearing on the balcony of their home, the requirement that all windows be painted over so that women can’t be seen, public stoning of women accused of infidelity, women whipped in public for showing their ankles. In fact, any non accordance with the dress code is met with a whipping and abuse. Previously, for women under Taliban rule, there was no activity outside the home without a close male relative, there was a ban on study at school, university or any other educational institution (women are banned from learning to read). There was a ban on high heels or shoes that make noise, because a man must not hear a woman’s footsteps. Women were not permitted to gather for any festive or recreational purpose. Women were not to appear in pictures in newspapers, or in books, or in pictures hung on the walls of the home.
I write this list, and I can’t help but cry. Australia needs to step up.
Afghan refugees living in Australia right now need permanent protection. We need a one-off humanitarian intake of vulnerable groups, and we need to lift the ban on family reunion immigration that currently prevents the hundreds of Afghan Australian permanent residents from being reunited with family still in Afghanistan.
After 20 years of promises to protect women and other persecuted groups, in Afghanistan, we can’t just walk away.