“The US put 38 million people on a silver platter and delivered it to the Taliban,” Fahima Gaheez told me angrily, as horrific scenes from Kabul airport flashed round the world. Fahima is the head of the Afghan Women’s Fund, a small NGO that works in rural Afghanistan—building girls’ schools, delivering school supplies and other material aid, teaching women how to read and skills to earn a living. I’ve been a supporter for many years and count Fahima as a friend.
Fahima never supported the war. Nor did I, for which I was attacked by Andrew Sullivan on NPR, in those hyper-patriotic days, as being like someone who refuses to help a rape victim lying in the mud. It’s a canard to paint feminists as cheering the invasion of Afghanistan just because a few high-profile leaders and politicians did. The feminist movement has always had a strong anti-war wing. Why is Laura Bush, of all people, more representative than Code Pink? Indeed, back in 2001, feminists were accused of betraying their Afghan sisters by not supporting the invasion.
“Yes, we wanted the US to get out,” Fahima said, “but with responsibility.” Not this chaos and panic, the looting, assault, and murder happening now.
The AWF’s most recent project was building a girl’s school in Achin District, near the border with Pakistan. Fundraising was a struggle—Afghan women have not been the humanitarian flavor of the month for quite some time. But the school is finished, and it’s beautiful. The opening, scheduled for August 18, didn’t happen, but Fahima is hopeful. Village elders talked to the local Taliban, who said they would not interfere as long as nothing “anti-Islamic” went on. That’s in accord with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s promise of peace and reconciliation, with rights for women “within the limits of Islam”—unlike last time, when women were banned from work and education, leaving the house without a male guardian, or appearing in public without a burka when they did. Whether this new stance is just talk to win international acceptance remains to be seen. I have to say I’m skeptical. In the parts of Afghanistan already under Taliban control, its rule has been brutal.
Fahima is skeptical of Taliban promises too. She writes in an e-mail to supporters, “Throughout the country, women and children are being displaced, losing their homes, experiencing rape, torture, and murder, and fleeing violence.” Last July, one of her workers was kidnapped by the Taliban and tortured. More recently, the daughter of one of her aid workers was killed.
That doesn’t sound very peaceful or conciliatory. For years now, the Taliban has been threatening and sometimes assassinating women journalists, politicians, teachers, and aid workers, forcing the closure of schools for girls. Now that the eyes of the world are on them, they have an incentive to look like they’ve disowned their past, to win formal recognition from the UN and aid from wealthy nations. It’s in their own self-interest to look more moderate, at least in Kabul, where the international media is concentrated, and at least until the world’s attention wanders, as it surely will, because, after all, it’s just women.
“None of the women activists are surprised,” says Yifat Susskind, the head of the international women’s rights organization MADRE, noting that “the Taliban has moved like water into every place vacated by US and NATO forces.” I was particularly eager to talk to Susskind because of the optimism she expressed in a recent Nation article, in which she called on the administration to “reinvest” funding for the war into “supporting Afghan civil society and women’s human rights.” Given that the Taliban now controls the country, how is that supposed to happen? I’m not sure I got a solid answer.
Right now, Susskind’s focus is on the immediate crisis: “It’s clear that there are many more people who want to get out of the country than there is political will in the US or EU to help them. But most women activists do not want to leave the country—partly because emergency visas are designed for men, not women, because they are only for one person who can just get on an airplane and go. Most women are mothers, and they’re not going to leave their children behind.”
MADRE’s focus is to get “high-profile” women out, but also to build a network of safe houses in small towns and in some of the bigger cities. And then? “The media makes it sound like women are wringing their hands and waiting for rescue—but no, they are organizing. They’ve done it before.”
Susskind understandably didn’t want to go into details, but she thinks it will be possible to get money to feminist and other human rights groups despite the Taliban, and also hopes that the “Elders”—a group of global public figures, including Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, that advises the UN on urgent policy matters—will “put pressure on the international community.” Indeed, the Elders have issued a statement calling on the UN Security Council to take the lead in peacemaking, humanitarian aid, and protecting human rights. Am I too cynical for thinking this statement will count for little, unless it coincides with the national interests of member nations?
“Our focus right now is keeping our people alive,” Sunita Viswanath, head of the NGO Women for Afghan Women, told me. “We’re not making political statements.” She’s preoccupied with getting 500 of her people out of the country. Right now, they’re hunkered down in Kabul, the only place from which it’s possible to get out of Afghanistan—the borders are closed. I asked her if she believed the Taliban’s promises. “I don’t know,” she said, mentioning that so far none of the WAW staff had been threatened, and that a Taliban spokesman was recently interviewed by a woman on Afghan TV. “That’s unheard of!”
For someone frantically worried that her staff is at serious risk of death, Viswanath manages to project calm and pragmatism. “We’ve always worked within an Islamic context, respectful to the culture. If the Taliban says girls can go to school, but not with boys, we can work with that. I hope and pray we aren’t going back to the darkest days before 9/11.”
That’s the optimistic take. NGO workers who asked not to be identified spoke of the possibility of civil war, and soon. One young American, who asked that she and her organization remain nameless to protect its Afghan staff, put the situation like this: “Afghanistan was like a creaky wooden house, and we tried to prop it up for a while and then decided to set it on fire and leave, locking the door behind us.”