Beyond tokenism: What if we meaningfully involved Afghan Women?

Beyond tokenism: What if we meaningfully involved Afghan Women?

Today, August 15th marks two years since the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and took control of the country. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Fearing what this could mean for my family, friends, and colleagues in Afghanistan while witnessing it in safety from Germany. The fury and anger I felt, because this came as no surprise!

Furious with the international community for withdrawing from Afghanistan in an extremely chaotic manner and abandoning the Afghan people after more than 20 years of international involvement. An involvement that was at least as much war, military action, and drone attacks – in the name of the “war on terror” – as humanitarian assistance and development cooperation.

Angry because that same international community ignored the calls and demands by Afghan women and civil society organisations, urging for meaningful involvement of women in any negotiation or peace process for years. Such demands only became louder in the months preceding August 2021

Between 2005 and 2020, researchers kept track of 67 peace talks, and women were only part of the conversation in 15 instances, or about 22% of the time. In November 2020, the US-Taliban peace talks excluded Afghan women, civil society organisations, and the government. When intra-Afghan talks began in September 2021, only four out of 21 negotiators were women. Afghan women voiced their concerns over and over that their rights, human rights might be sacrificed as a bargaining tool between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the international community. These decisions, while disappointing, only confirm global trends. The repercussions of the denial of women’s rightful place at the table are now apparent, as what Afghan women and civil society had warned for a long time about has become a reality.

Since seizing power in 2021, the Taliban have barred girls and women from high schools and universities, banned them from working with the United Nations or NGOs, banned them from visiting parks and gyms, and ordered them to cover up in public. The latest order involves the closure of thousands of beauty salons across the country run by women.

One might ask: It is only beauty salons, aren’t there more urgent things to focus on? To that, I say: the salons are yet another step on the road to erasing Afghan women from public life. If women cannot go to school, university, work, the park, gyms, and now beauty salons, what space is left for them to exchange, connect, and support each other? What reason and possibility remains for them to leave their homes in the first place?

The supposed temporary nature of these restrictions on women prompted some to argue that perhaps the Taliban have changed. The decrees were supposedly to “protect” women and maintain “morale”. Yet, none of the promises by the Taliban to reverse these bans or to develop plans to improve the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan have been fulfilled. Just one example: The Taliban promised to open schools with higher education for girls by the new school year. In March 2022, when the new school year started and girls made their way to school, the Taliban reversed their decision on the same day, leaving girls crying in front of the schools at their stolen future. With every day and every new decree, the Taliban come closer to how they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s when women were not participating in public life.

For far too long, Afghan women and Afghan civil society organisations were ignored, and their concerns and demands were neglected. The ongoing situation in Afghanistan highlights how crucial it is to meaningfully include Afghan women and civil society in shaping the country’s future in every way possible. 

Looking Back: Did Afghan women really need the white liberator?

Some readers might remember former US First Lady Laura Bush’s infamous 2001 speech, widely criticised for instrumentalising women’s rights to justify a war that did not care about women, yet perpetuating the ‘white saviour’ narrative by depicting Afghan women as powerless and needing rescue. We all remember these images, which portrayed Afghan women as “exoticised victims”, undermining their resistance and agency. 

It’s important to recognise that actors in the so-called “Global North” often oversimplify and appropriate the diverse experiences of women from the so-called “Global South”. Our CFFP Advisory Council member Chandra Talpade Mohanty sheds light on how feminism from the Global North tends to oversimplify the lives of women from the South, squeezing them into a one-size-fits-all group with a need to be rescued. She points out that the history of feminist narratives is not balanced: Western feminism is well studied, but stories of activism from global south women are often overlooked. 

We must avoid implying that every woman in Afghanistan undergoes the same life experiences and disregarding their activities and political resistance. Afghan women have a long history of resistance! For example, amid the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989), despite danger, women valiantly protested against the occupying Soviets. Throughout challenging periods like the civil war (1992-1996), Afghan women forged networks, creating safe havens, sharing skills, and circumventing conflict. And during the first Taliban rule (1996-2001), Afghan women implemented secret home schools and managed handicraft courses for women. And today, women are again protesting for their basic rights and chanting “Nan, Kar, Azadi !” – Bread, Work, Freedom – for an inclusive and equitable Afghanistan. In this vein, the agency and history of Afghan women are instrumental in transforming Afghanistan today.

The US and NATO built a narrative justifying their intervention in Afghanistan which placed significant emphasis on the notion of ”liberating Afghan women”. To help advance this narrative, collaboration with international NGOs became pivotal in executing this “liberating mission”, by working directly with Afghan women through programmes and initiatives focused on women’s “empowerment” and development. But this approach had its problems.

Consider this: International development programmes often sidelined the already existing local efforts and the agency of Afghan women and local civil society organisations in favour of their own programmes. They thought that development concepts like gender, civil society, and democracy might be unfamiliar to Afghan people, whereas the underlying ideas or practises they represent already existed in the local context. This preference for international initiatives resulted in local women’s NGOs relying on external funds, making their survival contingent on such funding. However, when donors withdrew, these NGOs faced challenges in sustaining themselves.

So, what exactly does it mean to ensure meaningful involvement?

It’s about inclusion, we know that [Afghan] feminist[s] and feminist organisations are experts in knowing what’s wrong, and knowing how they can fix things, so they should be at [the] forefront.”

Meaningful involvement is fundamental to ensuring inclusivity and social justice. This means actively including marginalised groups that often bear the brunt of impact or are overlooked and integrating them at every stage. Here’s the bottom line: It’s not just about asking for opinions or adding more women. This includes local development and policy approaches as well as any strategies, policies, and feminist assistance approaches pursued by the international community.

At the heart of it all, meaningful involvement is the essence of true feminist development policy!

In our CFFP Manifesto, we also talk about Feminist Development Cooperation – a feminist approach to development cooperation that focuses on achieving equality and justice for all beyond simply concentrating on reducing poverty measured in GDP. It’s about working closely with feminist civil society organisations, especially from the so-called “Global South”. The emphasis is on acknowledging and rectifying power imbalances and promoting equal partnerships, moving away from colonial influences.

And for Afghanistan?

This means that Germany’s and any other international development approach towards Afghanistan needs to be rooted in the experience and expertise of politically marginalised groups, responsive to local needs, and focused on human security.

We can do better, and we should! 

So now that we have Feminist Development Cooperation, what does this look like in practice for Afghan women? We get this question often. Let’s explore a few examples resulting from previous consultations with our CFFP Steering Committee of Afghan Women Experts:

  • Meaningful progress will not be achieved without involving the perspective and expertise of politically marginalised groups, particularly Afghan women and Afghan civil society organisations!
    This is crucial for real transformative change, and we need to go beyond that! We need to challenge and dismantle existing paternalistic structures and approaches that have traditionally dominated engagement with local partners.
  • Local Afghan feminist organisations should be given more opportunities for meaningful engagement and decision-making.
    One way to do this is through something called “Triangular cooperation”.
  • We need to support and prioritise Afghan-led initiatives in research on Afghanistan for a real Feminist Development Policy!
    Locally-led research not only captures the lived experiences and realities of marginalised groups, but it also avoids “appropriation, research fatigue, or undignified representation”.
  • The international community left Afghan Women without support and refused to involve them in crucial decision-making talks. This needs to change.
    Following the 2021 Fall of Afghanistan, global initiatives – that acknowledge this – have emerged to support Afghan women both evacuated and still within the country. Strengthening collaboration among existing networks, initiatives, and donors is key to impactful engagement. This eases Afghan women’s burden of repeating demands and emphasises the need for ongoing funding due to time limits and potential fund depletion.

These are just a few ideas for meaningfully involving Afghan Women and civil society organisations. And there are many more. How can you find out? By starting to involve Afghan Women!

A vision for Afghanistan

As today is the 15th of August and two years have changed so much for Afghanistan and Afghan women, I would like to conclude with a vision from a Member of our Steering Committee (who wishes to remain anonymous):

“I envision a future Afghanistan [with] a society characterized by peace, stability, and prosperity. However, I may not witness such an occasion, I desire Afghanistan to be a country where all citizens, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or background, have equal opportunities and rights. The government is transparent, accountable, and inclusive, ensuring the participation and representation of all Afghan voices. Economic development takes center stage, with a focus on creating sustainable jobs, reducing poverty, and fostering long-term growth. This development is carried out in a manner that respects and preserves Afghan culture, heritage, and diversity, celebrating the rich embroidery of the nation.

In this future Afghanistan, human rights, including women’s rights, are deeply respected and protected. Women have equal access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, and their contributions to society are recognized and valued. Gender equality is a fundamental principle upheld by all segments of society and justice is prevailed.

Afghanistan plays a positive and influential role in the global community, actively
promoting peace, cooperation, and mutual understanding. The country engages in
meaningful international partnerships and collaborations, contributing to regional and global initiatives that aim to address common challenges and build a more harmonious world.

Through collective efforts, I believe Afghanistan can achieve this vision of a peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous society. By working towards these goals, we can pave the way for a brighter future, not only for the people of Afghanistan but also for the global community as a whole.”

This article was written by:

Sarah Farhatiar is Junior Project Manager and leads our work on Afghanistan.

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