By Gulbakhor Makhkamova
Meena Keshwar Kamal once said, ‘Afghan women are like sleeping lions, when awoken, they can play a wonderful role in any social revolution.’
In 2002, I was invited as the Director of a microcredit program operated by the National Association of Business Women of Tajikistan to assist as a consultant in implementing a microcredit program for Afghan women, being operated by Mercy Corps International.
Our previous project, titled “Microcredit in Tajikistan” was an overwhelming success. We conducted business and financial literacy trainings, provided microloans, mostly to women in rural areas, engaged them in entrepreneurial activities, farming, and handicrafts. Not surprisingly, I immediately took up the offer to help our sisters in Afghanistan.
This was the time right after the fall of the Taliban, with the entry of US troops and peacekeepers, the time when new order was established, the first government institutions were set up and billions of dollars of humanitarian and grant funding were poured into the country.
The fighting in Afghanistan was over, there was no more Taliban rule, no more Bin Laden, no Mullah Omar. The world was watching with curiosity, as the country went about recovering and building a new state with the new basics of state administration.
The spirit of change was in the air, the spirit of something new, constructive, and important about everything you did. Both the locals and everyone taking part in the new state-building were inspired.
EVERYONE FELT IT WAS TIME, TIME TO BUILD!
When I arrived in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2002, I started with hiring Afghan women to the Mercy Corps microcredit offices in Kabul, Baghlan and Taloqan. Getting women back into society, to working, particularly in the financial sector, was no easy task.
We organized intensive training courses for women. Special buses were arranged that would bring them to and from the offices. It was hard for women to start working after many years under the Taliban rule. They would wear burqas in public areas, avoid using public transport (other than the company vehicles), often had to take time off due to emergency situations, which varied from a sick child to husbands not allowing them to work, or other family-related issues.
We, expat workers, had to be very patient and kind, to let the women adapt to the new reality. However, the atmosphere inside the office was completely different – women would drop their burqas, and even though they would still wear neckpieces, they were happy to open their faces, eager to work, strongly motivated to study, communicate and talk freely, and they promoted the program actively.
Making women borrow to start their trading or any other business was extremely hard, as it required overcoming the traditional complex social norms about the women’s role in the family and the society. Under the Taliban rule women were not allowed to do pretty much anything – no education, no work, no listening to music, no walking around without their husbands. Early marriages were commonplace.
But at the same time, I was extremely surprised to meet absolutely brave, free women – particularly in Kabul and Taloqan – broad-minded, fluent English speakers, highly educated journalists, doctors, teachers, international organization workers. A lot of them traveled to Pakistan, India, and even Germany to get an education. They quickly became role models, so heroic and so vivid they were a great inspiration to everyone around. The freedom granted by the new regime and the presence of these role models created an amazing environment for emancipation of the women in Afghanistan.
Independent media were booming, radio and TV broadcasting was on the rise. Many women became journalists, making documentary and feature films – one example is Sahraa Karimi, who took part in the Venice Film Festival. Women also were eager to try themselves in politics, like the 29-year-old Zarifa Ghafari, who was elected mayor of Maidan Shar and became the symbol of women returning to politics in Afghanistan. Even under the now-fallen government, she survived six assassination attempts, one of which claimed her father’s life. In her last tweet, dated August 14, she wrote: “I’m sitting here waiting for them to come. There is no one to help me or my family. And they will come for people like me and kill me.”
The Taliban promise they will preserve the few rights Afghan women had won in the last 20 years. I do not believe their promises. I have heard from many friends in Heart that they had been ordered by the new regime to stop working and go home, surrendering their jobs at the bank in favor of their husbands or other male relatives.
Of course, the Taliban will take revenge and prosecute women activists who had cooperated with the authorities and foreign organizations. They may be declaring otherwise, but their actions speak for themselves – they take away women’s mobile phones, study their social media pages searching for compromising information. The education system is getting torn down already, with the new regime announcing the return of separate education for boys and girls.
I feel immense pain when I think about my friends, my sisters remaining there without help and support. They are all in lethal danger. Even those who managed to flee the country are currently under terrible tension and uncertainty, as some host countries are not very friendly to them. They are shocked as they miss their homeland, their abandoned dreams, jobs, their old way of life.
I feel pain for the girls who have never lived under the Taliban rule and are now waiting in fear and dismay for their fate to be decided, in complete uncertainty. Their lives changed drastically in a matter of days.
I keep seeing the faces of my friends, female activists, innovators in microcredit, women in the Parliament, whom we had met at numerous conferences and forums organized by the National Association of Business Women of Tajikistan, such as the First Regional Women’s Business Symposium of Central Asia and Afghanistan held in 2014.
August 15, 2021, the day when Kabul fell and the Taliban seized power, marks another black streak for this long-suffering nation, which has been living in the warzone since the 1970s. I still cannot believe, and I guess nobody could predict this, that the government and the army, in which the US alone invested more than a trillion dollars, would collapse in a matter of hours.
Given the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolds today in Afghanistan, the tragic scenes from Kabul airport, it feels particularly cynical and unscrupulous to see many country leaders greeting the Taliban leaders and trying to find points for cooperation.
There is no time to think, no time to revisit the situation. These women and girls are in distress, and we must not throw our hands up.
NOT EVERYTHING IS LOST YET
The rights women have fought so hard for in the last two decades will not disappear suddenly and without a trace, like Ashraf Ghani’s helicopter. The quote by Meena Keshwar Kamal, an Afghan feminist, women’s rights advocate and the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who was assassinated in 1987, was not accidental.
A host of strong, literate, young women has grown up in Afghanistan. They will not surrender easily. I was greatly inspired by the photos of women standing up against armed men, carrying simple slogans handwritten on pieces of paper. These women would not be stopped by the chaos, they come out one after another, setting up one-person protests, against a dark force armed to the teeth.
I feel sad and hurt. At the same time, I feel great strength and emotions from seeing these photos of heroic women, whom I view as the result of investing in women, of building their capacity, of giving them hope from the very idea of gender equality.
The women of Afghanistan are very brave and militant. They had been fighting for their rights for the last 20 years, making slow but steady steps. The freedom to study, the freedom to choose, the freedom to travel, the freedom to live without violence. The freedom to drive a car and to get a job. Equality between men and women was added to the Constitution in 2004; the law against domestic violence and discrimination was passed a short time later. These women have felt the sweet taste of freedom, respect, and human dignity.
How can they go back? There is no way for them to go back to the Middle Ages, and they will fight to preserve their hard-earned rights. The women of Afghanistan are living through a critical time now. They are facing a choice of fleeing the country, or fighting for their rights, or dying.
The chance of fleeing is diminishing; the last day for evacuation of the troops and the civilians from Afghanistan came way too quickly. Many countries have closed their borders, barricading themselves against the refugees. Some are literally building walls, others have mobilized the troops and ramped up the security at the borders, others yet stopped issuing visas under the pretense of the pandemic.
We, the entire civil society, must call for our countries to help the women of Afghanistan to stand up for their hard-earned rights and to protect them. If that is impossible, we at least could save as many Afghanistan women as possible, providing humanitarian visas to protect their lives.
THE WOMEN ACTIVISTS OF THE WORLD MUST START A MOVEMENT TO SAVE OUR SISTERS, TO SHOW OUR SISTERHOOD, OUR FEMALE SOLIDARITY, SOMETHING WE HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT FOR SO LONG AND THAT MUST BE MANIFESTED ON THE GLOBAL SCALE NOW.
Gulbakhor is the original founder, later general director, and now board chair of the National Association of Business Women of Tajikistan. NABWT works nationally in Tajikistan to promote the economic empowerment of women through education, empowerment and the improvement of the surrounding business environment.