The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has set the country's women's rights back 20 years. This is why we should care.
“All I could see around me were the fearful and scared faces of women and ugly faces of men who hate women, who do not like women to get educated, work and have freedom. Most devastating to me were the ones who looked happy and made fun of women.” – The Guardian, 15 August 2021.
A Rude Awakening
These words, by a female teacher at an English-language education centre in Kabul, and other similar stories were what jolted the world as Kabul fell to the Taliban two Sundays ago in its lightning and bloodless re-taking of Pakistan. When the US flew out its last plane-load of people, panicked Afghans clung onto the aircraft’s fuselage. Body parts were even discovered in the wheel well of one plane upon landing, a mute testament to the fear that the return of militant Islamist overlords has engendered.
Afghanistan may be far removed – both territorially and in day-to-day relevance – from the lives of Singaporeans, but what is happening there should resonate with us at a human level.
“Everything, everything that I dreamed of, everything that I ever worked for. My dignity, my pride, even my existence as a girl, my life – they are all in danger. Who knows how long it would take them to come and search house-by-house and take girls – probably rape them. I may have to kill myself when they come to my home. I’ve been talking to my friends, this is what all of us, all of us, are planning to do. Death is better than being taken by them. We are all scared and we are scared to our bones.” – The BBC, 19 August 2021, quoting a young female Kabul University student.
The Taliban, which controlled the country between 1996 and 2001, subjected Afghan women to strict rules. They had to be covered from head to toe in a Burqa that hid even their eyes. They could leave home only when accompanied by a man. Girls aged over 10 could not attend school. In the last 20 years, all that changed. Women went to university, held jobs, took public transport, and did frivolous things like having pedicures in gaily decorated nail salons.
For the 19 million women in Afghanistan, becoming politicians, doctors and teachers became possible.
The recent developments are even more heartbreaking when you consider that two-thirds of Afghans are below the age of 25, and would have scant memory of their country under Taliban control. A girl born in 2001, the year the US invaded, would be graduating from university now. Instead of contemplating a career ahead of her, she is rushing home on foot – because no taxi driver would dare to be seen transporting a woman travelling alone – to delete photographs of her soccer-playing from her hard drive, and don an all-covering Burqa for the first time in her life.
That should shake us all to the core
I am a lawyer and a professional woman. The events in Afghanistan affect me on both fronts.
Commentators have said that every country should be governed by its own people, and the Taliban are Afghans. The US peddle democracy, but that is not a form of rule that suits everyone; nations should have the right to choose their own way. I agree. But I have also been brought up on the principle of universal suffrage. A government whose power comes from stamping out the voices and rights of half its population lacks legitimacy.
I am also a woman who has had the privilege to be educated and make an independent living. The past two decades have seen Afghan women enjoying those opportunities. To have all that progress rolled back, to where women are subjugated to men and deprived of what we consider basic human freedoms, is unimaginable.
The road to equality
Each country must carve its own path to equality.
The US has its bra-burning history, and the more recent #MeToo movement. In India, the horrific rise in crimes against women, especially since the gang rape in New Delhi in 2012, has led to widespread protests and demands for change. The Philippines sends more women than men abroad for work and many of these workers, employed as housekeepers, are college degree holders.
The gender equality Singapore enjoys was not forged through military conflict. Our freedoms were born of poverty. Thrown out of Malaysia, and needing to stand on our own to survive, Singapore required both sexes to work. Those challenges helped install women as economic equals.
The stories of female empowerment in my family make for strange lore.
My grandmother lost her husband during the World War 2, while she was pregnant with my mother. He was taken away by the occupying Japanese army and never heard from again. After my mother was born, food was scarce. My grandmother, who was English-educated and had a job, would walk home – a 40-minute round trip – at lunchtime to breastfeed her. She also told me stories of other remarkable women in our family. Her great aunt was apparently Singapore’s foremost Mamasan, a brothel owner. “The most beautiful young girls, fresh off the boat from China, would vie to work for her,” she recalled.
In such times, it was survival that was the ultimate show of strength.
Since then, our nation’s progress has been implacable. Today, more than half the cohort entering university are women. We have a female Head of State and until recently, a woman ran our sovereign wealth fund. 2021 is the Singapore Year of Celebrating Women. There is no dream we cannot encourage our daughters to dream.
Afghanistan’s troubles are ours too
Afghanistan had, in some ways, surpassed us. Despite its strict Islamic tradition, it made history this February, when Kam Air, a Kabul-based airline, operated its first flight with an all-female crew, including the two pilots.
The last 10 days have brought all that crashing down. While the Taliban have said that women’s rights will be respected “within the framework of Islamic law” and that they will be free to work, stories still continue to emerge about women being slaughtered because of the way they dressed, and of young women being forcibly betrothed to Taliban fighters.
Afghanistan is not a country that has ever been successfully conquered by a foreign army. It is hard to imagine the US doing anything other than withdraw. As the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew predicted of US efforts, “nobody has succeeded” because “to remake societies is beyond the capacity of any nation”. The war in Afghanistan was truly a “distraction” (his word) that the US could not afford.
But as a woman blessed with opportunity and freedom, my heart aches for my shackled Afghan sisters. I mourn the knowledge, the innovation, the art and culture that will never be created if their women are denied education. I feel, in equal parts, helpless to do anything, and guilty that the equality of opportunity and basic freedoms that I take for granted have been so violently stripped from them.
Afghanistan may be far removed from us, and it is tempting to set aside the recent developments as events happening to “someone else”, not least because there is little we can do. But the battle for women to be treated as equals to men is a universal and continuing one. Even if you are a man, if you have a daughter, a sister, a wife, this is your struggle too.
We don’t have to give a damn about the politics of Afghanistan, but it is our duty to care what happens to their women and their girls.