It would be hard to find an Afghan businesswoman more inspiring than Roya Mahboob. When she started up a software firm in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, years after the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power, the backlash from the country’s male-dominated society came swift and blunt.
Anonymous texts and emails warned her to stop working. Banks wouldn’t lend money to her, solely because she is a woman. One day, she found a letter wrapped around a rock that someone had thrown into her front yard. “You’re a bad girl,” the letter read. “When you head outside, you’d better be careful.”
Mahboob, in her 20s at the time, wasn’t fazed. She kept working and built up a thriving software enterprise. In 2013 she was named by Time magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Many other women with similar drive have carved out careers in law or medicine. Some have served in Afghanistan’s parliament.
What will happen to the women of Afghanistan now? What will happen to the girls of Afghanistan?
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has shaken the world. Images of Afghans clinging to the side of a military transport plane, only to fall to their deaths moments later as the jet ascends, have been wrenching. The swiftness with which Taliban insurgents took over city after city, and eventually the presidential palace in Kabul, clearly took the Biden administration by surprise. America and the rest of the West now wonders, will militancy and terrorism once again take root in Afghanistan, safely shielded behind Taliban rule?
For the women of Afghanistan, however, the fear of what’s to come is all too palpable. The strides made over the last two decades — millions of girls have gone to school, many women work, others run their own businesses — may vanish under the new Taliban theocracy.
It’s not just the gains that women have made that are now jeopardized. Women know firsthand the brutality and barbarism that defined Taliban governance from 1996 to 2001. Girls could not attend school. Women couldn’t work, and could only leave their homes in burkas, alongside a male relative as an escort. Transgressions as simple as a face exposed drew floggings. Death by stoning was a harrowing reality for Afghan women under Taliban rule.
Earlier this week, Taliban leaders tried to portray to the world a new, more moderate side to their movement. A Taliban spokesman agreed to be interviewed by a female Afghan news presenter. Taliban leaders are also signaling an acceptance of women taking jobs and working in government. The new Afghanistan, said Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, “doesn’t want women to be victims.”
Not surprisingly, the notion of a tamer, more inclusive Taliban has been met with deep skepticism among many Afghans. They remember the Taliban’s medieval ways, which haven’t been confined solely to the group’s pre-2001 rule. In July, Taliban leaders in two Afghan provinces ordered religious elders to draft a list of girls over 15 and widows under the age of 45, who would then be forced to marry Taliban fighters, a decree tantamount to sex slavery.
The Taliban wants to be seen by the world as reformed for the simple reason that Afghanistan is a tattered, broken country with a dysfunctional economy. Taliban leadership needs the pipeline of funds coming from the West to continue unabated. But the image of a Taliban leader interviewed by a female news presenter isn’t going to convince the world, and certainly not Afghan women, that the militant group has rehabilitated itself.
By leaving the country, the U.S. can no longer safeguard Afghan women’s rights as it did before. It still has some leverage, however. It can warn the Taliban that existing sanctions on the group will remain in place unless women’s rights are upheld. That includes allowing girls to attend school and women to work. Any aid to the Taliban regime should also be conditioned on the group’s commitment to women’s rights.
As bungled as the U.S. exit from Afghanistan has been, the Biden administration was right to pull out. To expect America to remain another year, another five years, indefinitely is wholly unrealistic — and not in U.S. national interest. At the same time, it is indeed incumbent upon America to stand up for human rights in every corner of the world. Under the Trump administration, that ideal was shoved aside, forgotten. It must be revived, and it must include the plight of women in Afghanistan.
“We refuse to leave Afghanistan to a group that still forces girls & children to live in fear and darkness because they desire a better life. They deserve better. We must give it to them.” It’s a plea the U.S. and the West cannot — and should not — ignore.