Here’s how to ensure Afghan women are protected after the U.S. withdrawal

Opinion by Jeanne Shaheen and Angelina Jolie

The Washington Post
May 13, 2021
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Fatima Khalil was an Afghan girl, born in Pakistan. After the U.S. intervention in 2001, she returned to Afghanistan, went to school in Kabul and ultimately graduated with a double major in anthropology and human rights. She could have worked abroad. Instead, she took a job at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. She was assassinated in a bomb attack on her way to work last year. She was 24.

Fatima’s story tells us a great deal about the fate of Afghanistan, and of Afghan women, over the past 20 years. There are women who are now able to choose careers previously unavailable to them. Girls who are able to leave the house freely to go to school or college. This bright new generation doesn’t know a different Afghanistan, and they shouldn’t have to.

U.S. and NATO allies have decided to withdraw from Afghanistan. We accept that we must now work with this decision. One of the most pressing needs is a strategy to protect the progress made to ensure that women can live openly and freely in civil society as they have for nearly two decades.

Great strides have been made since the Taliban last held power, but that has not removed threats on women’s lives. Women are still gunned down in the streets while going to work or school. Last week, the world saw another horrific example of this violence when more than 85 people, mostly girls attending Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in Kabul, were killed in a bombing.

According to a U.S. intelligence report, 80 percent of women over the age of 18 are illiterate. And, according to the same report, as of 2017, only 16 percent of eligible women are employed. Although there is much more progress to be made, we cannot afford to lose two decades of hard-won gains.

There are some in the West who question whether the Taliban of 2021 is different from the Taliban of 2001, whether the intervening decades have moderated its extremism.

To answer this, we point to those who have suffered the worst of recent violence: to Fatima; to Malalai Maiwand, a television reporter who was murdered in December, five years after her mother, an activist, was killed; to Freshta Kohistani, a 29-year-old women’s rights and democracy activist, who was assassinated near her home last year; to Zakia Herawi and Qadria Yasini, judges on the Afghan Supreme Court, who were murdered while they drove to work in January; to Basira, 20, Semin 24, and Negina, 24, who were shot and killed in March, while administering polio vaccines to children, and to the many other women — government employees, journalists, policewomen, doctors and nurses — who have been murdered for daring to build a better Afghanistan.

This is violence that the Taliban conducted or condoned. Women must not be dragged back to the horror and oppression that they previously endured at the hands of the Taliban. But that is exactly what we fear will happen after the United States’ abrupt departure.

The Taliban tells the world that it believes in rights for women as they align with sharia. But the Taliban’s definition of Islamic law also sanctioned the shuttering of women’s schools and universities, public beatings, restricted access to medical care, the brutal enforcement of a restrictive dress code and death by stoning.

To prevent a return to this violence, the international community and all those who care about a free and stable Afghanistan must develop a strategy for preserving and promoting the rights of Afghan women.

First, the international community — led by the United States, as it was when we entered Afghanistan in 2001 — must use all available tools to ensure that women’s rights continue to be protected. In negotiations, we must prioritize the inclusion of Afghan women and amplify their voices.

Third, there must be a major and coordinated diplomatic effort, transcending partisan differences, to bring together all countries in favor of a stable Afghanistan. Together, we need to make sure the Taliban cannot reinstate the oppression that once ruled the lives of Afghan women.

We all have a stake in the rights of women in Afghanistan. A country that oppresses half its people will never know stability. If we want to secure long-term regional security, we cannot allow rights and freedoms to be abandoned.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, represents New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate. Angelina Jolie is a humanitarian and filmmaker.

Here’s how to ensure Afghan women are protected after the U.S. withdrawal