Sally Armstrong is a human-rights activist, journalist and author whose books include Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan and Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women. Her latest book is Power Shift: The Longest Revolution, which was the 2019 Massey Lecture.
There were many who shuddered in disbelief last month when the United States signed a so-called peace treaty with the Taliban. While it’s hard to find any winners, the biggest losers in this backroom deal will be the women and girls of Afghanistan. The Taliban – a gang of thugs who have been conducting war on the legitimately elected government of Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan people and U.S. troops – say education will be according to “Islamic values.” Many suggest this is political speak for “girls can only go to school until the third grade and only for education about Islam.” That would mean altering the constitution, which guarantees rights for women.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has voiced his concern that the Taliban will use the peace agreement as a “Trojan horse to overthrow the government.” Many women and human-rights advocates agree. But the truly shocking part about this lopsided deal is that the U.S. government is agreeing to circumventing the legitimate institutions that exist in Afghanistan today – institutions that were developed through the blood and treasure of the more than 40 countries that rebuilt Afghanistan after the Taliban were overthrown. Although still developing, these are the government, security and civil service institutions the Afghan people are beginning to trust.
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The negotiating team needs a reminder of recent history. When the Taliban ruled over the Afghan people from September, 1996, until soon after the U.S. invasion on Oct. 7, 2001, the lives of women and girls were a living nightmare – a reversion to the Dark Ages. Remember those edicts that horrified all of us? No school for girls, no jobs for women, a woman must be covered in a burka and must never leave her home unless in the company of a husband, brother or son? She had to paint the windows of her house black lest a man see her from the outside. She could only wear shoes with a wedge heel because the Taliban didn’t like the tapping of a woman’s heels.
As the world looked the other way, the edicts got crazier. For example, a woman couldn’t wear white socks because they were considered sexually promiscuous. White socks!
The punishments for transgressions were terrifyingly severe. A gang of misfits called the Vice and Virtue Squad roamed the streets looking for women to whip – women whose ankles were showing or women who didn’t cover their hands as they reached out to pay a vendor for bread for their children. Music was forbidden, so was singing, so was laughing. But the worst of all was the stoning. When the Taliban took a woman to a soccer stadium, they tossed her to the ground, made a circle around her and threw rocks at her head until she was dead. The Taliban edict was that “you must not throw a rock so big as to kill her quickly.”
That’s where women were before the international community invaded Afghanistan after the horrific 9/11 attacks. Then, the world stood with the United States, which vowed to rid Afghanistan of these men who tortured and killed in the name of God.
Now, U.S. President Donald Trump has made his own deal with these devils. Maybe he thinks they have changed. They have not. Ask the women and girls who live (in terror) in the communities the Taliban control – the flogging and stoning and denial of government services (school and medical care, for example) go on as before. The misogyny is utterly mind-boggling.
While the Taliban haven’t changed in their short, hateful history, the women of Afghanistan have. Today they are cabinet ministers and members of parliament. They are governors and business executives. They are orchestra leaders and hang gliders, Olympians and opera singers. They are human-rights advocates and international spokespersons for justice.
And they are in danger again because the country that claims to be the home of the brave and the land of the free has decided they are expendable.
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It’s one thing for a president to fulfill his promise to the people who elected him – to quit Afghanistan, bring the troops home – so he can be re-elected. But it’s quite another to throw the women and girls of Afghanistan under the bus. Would the President honestly trade a girl’s education for a vote?
It’s a diabolical agreement that illustrates the toxic narcissism of Mr. Trump’s America First policy and of those who fail to see the people beyond the barrel of a gun or a cheap piece of electioneering.
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