‘Afghan women’s struggle wont end with NATO pullout’

Orzala Ashraf Nemat is a civil society activist from Afghanistan. Under the Taliban regime, she launched underground literacy and health education programmes for women and girls. She holds a PhD in Development Studies, also from SOAS. In an interview with Farooq Sulheria, she discusses the conflict in Afghanistan and its implication for Afghan women.

Farooq Sulheria: How is the general situation in Afghanistan? The impression one gets is: Taliban are about to storm the Presidential Palace. Is that true?

Orzala Ashraf Nemat: No doubt, the situation both in terms of political instability as well as security has not been as bad as this since 2001.

This descent into further chaos has two dimensions. Firstly, the weakness of governance which issues from the lack of political legitimacy suffered by the present government. The previous presidential elections in 2014 were a total fiasco, giving birth to a unity government that was an imposed solution by the foreigners. The lack of legitimacy and absence of unity at the centre has led to a governance failure at the sub-national level. The other dimension of present chaotic situation is dwindling security.

This worsening situation is interpreted differently by different people, regionally and internationally. Proponents of the Taliban and those viewing Afghanistan through the Taliban lens argue that the Taliban are about to storm the Presidential Palace. No.

This situation is highly problematic nonetheless.

For instance, Kunduz province was taken over by the Taliban last autumn. An absolute failure of the provincial governance allowed the Taliban not merely to emerge in Kunduz but to takeover. However, Special Forces were able to recover Kunduz in two weeks’ time and dismantle Taliban control.

Secondly, the Taliban are not a united force. This fragmentation of their forces is yet another factor discouraging their return to Kabul. The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan is also a factor going against the Taliban.

FS: The other suggestion that is made in the main stream media is that women rights will suffer when foreign troops will withdraw.

OAN: The struggle for women rights did not begin with the US invasion of Afghanistan. It will not end with the NATO pullout.

The fact of the matter is: since the time of Afghan ruler, Amir Abdur Rahman, when the process of modern state-building was initiated, by the late 19th century, the question of women rights has been on agenda. Legislations such as the abolition of the tribal custom which  forced widows to marry their deceased husband’s brother, raising the age  at which marriage could take place, giving women the right to divorce under specific conditions, and women’s rights to inheritance were introduced. Ever since, discourses and struggle for women rights have existed in Afghanistan.

Amir Amanullah Khan, who won Afghan independence from the British, expanded these reforms. Fast forward to the 1980s: Afghan women kept struggling for their rights and wellbeing. They organised themselves and helped their fellow women in countless ways. This history is important because the way the question of Afghan women rights has been framed since 2001 is highly problematic.

The line of argument that the troops’ pullout would imply a return of the 1990s era — imposed burkas, closure of jobs and education opportunities and confinement in homes — is indeed questionable.

Since 2001, billions of dollars have poured into the country in the name of women mobilisation. These programmes indeed brought a renewed awareness among wide sections of Afghan women about their public role and individual rights. They won’t sit idle…

FS: Most of the projects you have spoken about were run by foreign-funded NGOs. Don’t you think the NGOisation of women movement is a problem?

OAN: Regarding NGOisation, you are right. However, aid dependency is a deeper phenomenon. The entire country is aid dependent. NGOisation has inflicted a significant damage. It shapes a mindset whereby activities are designed with financial priorities. However, the women’s’ movement will not cease to exist when the funds will dry. Funds-driven activities most likely will scale down. The fight for rights will go on.

Regarding troops’ pullout, I am often asked this question. It will be dishonest to say that there will be no impact. Simply because with troops, came financial support and resources. But the women’s’ movement will not collapse in the absence of these resources, I am certain about this.

My view is that the damage of NGOisation can be fixed gradually. Let us wait. Out of the present situation, there will be a realignment of forces and a more mature women movement will emerge.

FS: The Taliban have been characterised as ‘nationalists’ as well as ‘anti-imperialists’ by some analysts. How do the Afghan women view the Taliban resistance?

OAN: First of all, there is no such thing as Afghan women’s viewpoint to answer questions of this nature. Women and their position with regards to such political questions are as diverse as views of Afghans in general.

Though at times the ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘nationalist’ rhetoric have been invoked by the Taliban themselves, their practices of indiscriminate killings of civilians across Afghanistan contradict any sense of nationalism and anti-imperialism. The Taliban ‘brand’ symbolises suicide bombing, target-killings of civilians and traditional leaders.

This is an edited version of an interview that first appeared in The News on Sunday on August 14: http://tns.thenews.com.pk/afghan-womens-nato-pullout/#.V7HUs5h97IU

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