Until last August, life for most Afghan girls and women was stable and safe, as it had been for the better part of two decades. On a given morning, a female judge reviewed her docket for the day, reading carefully the cases to come. A member of parliament met with her staff, their colorful silk scarves layered over sleek suits. A mother headed out to the market for flour, her hair shimmering in the sunlight as her daughter skipped ahead of her toward school.
It all came to a grinding halt.
When the Taliban overran Kabul and the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, the gains Afghans enjoyed for two decades devolved. In the year since, hard-fought opportunities for women, girls, and minority groups have dramatically shrunk.
Last October, teenage girls watched their brothers collect their pencils and bookbags and head off to school. The Taliban promised it would be the girls’ turn in March. That didn’t happen. Meanwhile, behind the walls in which females were confined, child marriage and domestic violence were on the rise.
A shop owner who sold party clothes left the country after struggling, she said, to find customers. Bedazzled attire is a thing of the past. On the streets of Kabul, hair salons disappeared overnight. The Taliban ordered women to cover their faces and stay home.
In the evacuation witnessed by the world, thousands of women leaders fled for their lives. Others were able to stay.
On top of everything else — including a disastrous earthquake and widespread hunger — women in Afghanistan have labored fiercely. They have found ways to keep vital services running. Shockingly, they have also refused to be silenced. In January, when the Taliban dismissed all women public servants, women protested in the streets. Two months later, when girls were denied their return to secondary school, women returned to the streets. Defying threats of violence, they persisted. What they are doing is heroic.
A formidable iconic face of this work is Mahbouba Seraj, who resolutely chose to stay in Afghanistan. She’s the board chair of the 3,000-member Afghan Women’s Network and has founded 27 shelters for battered women. Only one remains open; without Seraj, it too would have closed. “I’m not a very brave person,” she told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria a year ago. But by doing what she believes is simply her duty, she keeps hope alive and inspires the next generation of Afghan activists.
Around the world, even as the global gaze has shifted, so has international support. Meanwhile, in the newly expanded diaspora, exiles have been caring for their families while forming new and larger networks. Now scattered to the wind, they connect in cyberspace. WhatsApp has replaced conference tables in coffee shops in Kabul and Kandahar. They share draft documents and craft united messages on myriad policy issues, then send recommendations to officials in the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and elsewhere.
They also share burdens and triumphs: “Two students got out! They’re in the U.S. and were accepted to university. Where can they look for funding? How can we help them pay for school?” The response is a mix of exaltation and down-to-earth troubleshooting.
One of the disgraces of the recent past has been the exclusion of Afghan women from peace talks and other policy tables. But at last there are new signs of international engagement.
For example, the United States announced an initiative to transfer women’s wisdom from chatrooms into “the room where it happens.” They’ll be advising policymakers on matters from education to humanitarian aid to Afghanistan’s crippled economy.
For years, these women have transformed hardship into expertise. Like their counterparts in conflict zones worldwide, they are essential untapped resources to create inclusive security. A stable Afghanistan is vital to the region and — as we know from history — to our own security. Their leadership isn’t just in their interest. It’s in ours as well.
Swanee Hunt is the founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University. Through her Institute for Inclusive Security, she has worked with scores of delegations of Afghan women leaders since 1998 during the first Taliban reign. Mary Akrami is the executive director of the Afghan Women’s Network.