I have been engaged in grassroots work for the rights and well-being of Afghan women for two decades. Given the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban on August 15, 2021, the question I am wrestling with—which every women’s rights activist who has worked in Afghanistan is wrestling with—is: What do we do now? Do we refuse to work in Afghanistan because this would require engaging with the Taliban, whose brutal history we know intimately and whom we fought for over two decades?
That’s the approach the US government has taken. After negotiating with and paving the path for the return of the Taliban, the United States has decided that it can no longer recognize them—or, by extension, the country they govern. Recently, Washington has even gone so far as to confiscate the assets of the Afghan central bank, blocking the Afghan people’s access to $7 billion of their own money. While this has plunged Afghanistan into a dire economic and humanitarian crisis, the world’s attention is trained on Ukraine.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Kabul as part of an eight-member American Women’s Delegation for Peace and Education. We delivered humanitarian aid, advocated the unfreezing of the Central Bank’s funds, and bore witness to the reality of Afghan women during this time of severe economic hardship. While the situation is dire, the complexity of life under the Taliban defies simple Western narratives of oppression.
We met the leader of a women’s NGO—a woman whom I am not naming for the sake of her own security and that of the shelter she runs—who chose to remain in Afghanistan after Kabul fell. Ardently opposed to the Taliban her whole life, she has had to negotiate with Taliban authorities to secure her safety and that of the women she serves. She is aware that things can change at any moment, but for now she says, “I live one day at a time, and today we are safe.” The Taliban have even brought destitute women to her NGO so that she can take care of them. “Whatever else they may be, the Taliban are Afghan,” she told us. “On August 15, they gave us back our dignity and we are no longer an occupied land. I don’t feel optimistic about the future. In fact, I am scared. But I am glad that we Afghans will finally have the fight we need to have amongst ourselves. My Islam gives me all the rights I need. Theirs takes my rights away. Which Islam will win? We will see.”
This woman sees the Taliban as her errant sons. She gets angry and scolds them. She asks if they are hungry. She shames them and demands, “Don’t you care about your sisters?” And so far, if the measure of efficacy is the fact that she and the women under her care are safe and alive, her way seems to be working—though it’s still early.
During our visit, we met Afghans who are grateful for the relative peace that has come with the Taliban takeover. They told us they can now travel to other cities without fear of bombs. We also met many teenage girls who are severely depressed that the Taliban reneged on their promise to allow all girls and boys to attend school, and who are despondent about their future. We met poor families who can’t even afford to send their boys to school, let alone the girls.
Quite a few people we met wanted us to help them leave the country, but it wasn’t because they were afraid of the Taliban: Most people told us they’d felt safer since August 15. Rather, they objected to the Taliban’s stance on girls’ access to education and other decrees, such as a requirement that men wear beards and the ban on music. And many feared the uncertainty and hardship of the economic crisis.
The reality in Afghanistan is complicated, just as the Taliban government is complicated, separated into factions with different agendas, approaches, backgrounds. Some are educated, while many are just young fighters; some are hard-line Islamists, while others are youths concerned more about their social media profiles than politics or religion.
On our trip we met representatives of several government ministries, all of whom welcomed us and thanked us for being a compassionate face of America. This may well have been a public relations script, and we listened with a healthy dose of skepticism as we insisted on women’s and human rights, particularly girls’ access to school. Still, our interactions suggested that some in the Taliban government harbor a genuine desire to serve the people of Afghanistan and engage with the world and are trying to rein in the government’s more conservative factions—even as the economy collapses and the population is thrown into excruciating poverty.
We attended the reopening of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce. Before an audience of women entrepreneurs and male and female journalists, the minister of the interior spoke about the urgent need for Afghan women to participate in the economic life of the country.
We also met with the deputy minister of education and discussed with him the recent Taliban decision to bar girls from secondary school. We argued that all girls should be able to attend school. He told us that high schools would open soon. When we asked when, he argued that it was important for the unity of the nation to bring conservative rural Afghanistan along, rather than having different rules in different regions. He was alluding to the same internal dialogue that the NGO leader spoke of: “Which Islam will win? We will see.”
Now that our delegation is back in the United States, we are urging that members of the American and Afghan governments engage in dialogue with each other. Since the Afghan people themselves are left with no choice but to accept that the Taliban is in charge, I am convinced that we must stand in solidarity with them as they have their difficult conversations and figure out together who they are, and which Islam will win. The suffering forced upon the Afghan people by sanctions will make it harder to keep the hard-liners of the Taliban in check. And for a grassroots women’s rights activist like me, it is imperative that I figure out a way to keep up my work no matter who is in power and how dire the situation is.