I could not read it again. I promise I tried. I would take a deep breath and try to ignore the prickling sensation behind my eye. But the pages would feel as heavy as boulders. So I stopped trying to read and flipped over to random pages to search for the sentences that would help the readers understand the reason behind my failure to reread one of my favourite books; A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. You will find those sentences italicised as you progress through this article. I cannot sum up the despair that the women in Afghanistan might be feeling at the moment, in a thousand or so words, but I hope I can give you an inkling of what they are to face in the coming months.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, this heart-achingly beautiful book can be interpreted in different ways. When I read it for the first time at 15, it was a love story between Tariq and Laila. When I read it for the second time at 17, it was a story about fate and sisterhood. Now that I wish to reread it at 21, it is a warning. A foreboding tale of what is to become of the women and children in Afghanistan.
“The freedoms and opportunities that women had enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now --- Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, ‘It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila’.” (Hosseini, K. A Thousand Splendid Suns)
The book is based amidst the Taliban's rule from 1996-2001. While not free from the Taliban’s terror, women in Afghanistan had enjoyed relative freedom according to reports during the twenty long years of the US army’s presence. They were allowed to go to school, university and work. The US army’s presence was the distraction that turned the Taliban’s focus from oppressing individual liberty to battling the US forces. However, now with the withdrawal of the US troops, there is nothing to prevent the Taliban from shifting back to oppressing the women and children of Afghanistan.
“It was the raids, the reason why they were in the yard digging. Sometimes monthly raids, sometimes weekly. Of late, almost daily. Mostly, the Taliban confiscated stuff, gave a kick to someone's rear, whacked the back of a head or two. But sometimes there were public beatings, lashings of soles and palms.” (Hosseini, K. A Thousand Splendid Suns )
While the US has chosen to negotiate with terrorists (The Haqqani network is a recognised terrorist organisation, which was also responsible for the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008), the rest of the world is wary of openly condemning US leadership’s haste in withdrawal and blatant disregard of the plight faced by the people in Afghanistan. The United States President Joe Biden had tweeted “our goal was never nation-building”; a statement that effortlessly pulled the curtain over their overt and aggressive involvement in Afghanistan and puppeteering of the Afghanistan Government. It makes one wonder whether their willingness to pretend that all will be well and their trust in the Taliban’s promises, stems from their guilt.
The Taliban's promises for women's safety and leniency are being considered a positive sign by many. However, their promises of freedom of choice for women are an illusion. Is it freedom if the bounds are determined and restricted by the men toting guns and firing at any sign of dissent? Many may have adopted blind optimism and faith in the Taliban’s words, however, trusting an organisation that has a history of broken promises doesn’t seem to be a smart move.
Broken promises aside, the Taliban poses a huge threat to women’s education. A Human Rights Watch article reported that as of 2017, only “37 per cent of adolescent girls were literate, compared to 66 per cent of adolescent boys.” (Afghanistan: Girls Struggle for an Education, Human Rights Watch). UNICEF had reported in 2016 that “an estimated 3.7 million children are out-of-school in Afghanistan-60% of them are girls.” (Education. UNICEF Afghanistan)
The pre-Taliban statistics were attributed to constant conflict in the region, violence, lack of government support and infrastructure, and backward traditional practices and outdated ideas of women’s role in society. However, there was still hope that women’s education would be prioritised because the government was willing to let international organisations and NGOs take the lead in the education sector. The Taliban, however, has made no such proposals, and if their past actions are considered, they would not be open to any such interference. The Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan will only uphold the backward traditional practices and the medieval ideologies about women’s role in society. This will lead to equal rights for women and their proper education being a distant dream in a country with over 14.2 million female population.
Another frightening statistic would be the data on different forms of violence used against women. The global database on violence against women reports that at least 51% of women have experienced Lifetime Physical and/or Sexual Intimate Partner Violence, whereas it reported 35% of women reported being coerced into marriage before the age of 18 (UNICEF global databases 2018). These numbers present a devastating picture and yet there exists the possibility that the data might be understated. A country like Afghanistan which was ranked 154 on the Gender Inequality Index Rank in 2015, with the ascent of the Taliban regime, is likely to fall lower.
Now, the Taliban wishes to form a government. And it would seem that even this organisation is not immune to the scrutiny of social media. It is a fact that the Taliban does not have a good reputation. Whether it is because of their terror activities in other nations or human rights violations in their own nation, it cannot be determined. However, it no longer wishes to be seen as just a terrorist organisation. Consequently, we have read reports of the Taliban claiming to have changed. They promise that no longer they shall shut women up in homes or publicly flog them for not wearing a burqa. They have promised that this time they would rule differently. Women may even be allowed to work and study. There would not be prejudice or violence against women, and they would be allowed to participate in society “within the bounds of Islamic Law”.
“They want us to operate in a burqa” the doctor explained….to the nurse at the door. “She keeps (a) watch. She sees them coming; I cover” She said this in a pragmatic, almost indifferent tone, and Mariam understood that this is a woman far past outrage. Here is a woman, she thought, who had understood that she was lucky to be even working, that there was always something, someone else, that they could take away”. (Hosseini, K. A Thousand Splendid Suns)
Is this how it will be from now on? Should the women of Afghanistan be grateful that they may be allowed the liberties that should have been their birthright? Should they beg and settle for scraps that the Taliban tosses at them to appease the guilty conscience of the global superpowers and the world watching from the safety of their screens abroad? Women will be the biggest victims in this transition.
The Laila and Mariam of the book may have found an escape but millions of Laila and Mariam of this world will disproportionately suffer for decisions they did not make, and the world will turn a blind eye.
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