Global Sisterhood: Focus on Afghan Women

by: & Wazhmah Osman , December 1, 2021

© Photo by Mohammad Rahmani

After the Taliban seized most major Afghan cities in August 2021, media-maker and scholar Wazhmah Osman met with MAI’s Aparna Sharma not only to reflect on the condition of women in the country but also on that of the female refugees. Here, they consider the most effective and useful ways to support our Afghan sisters…


Aparna Sharma: My first question: Please describe the present condition women are facing in Afghanistan as well as the conditions women refugees from Afghanistan might be facing.

Wazhmah Osman: In the current crisis moment with the Taliban takeover, the conditions for women are indeed dire, and I’ll mention some of the ways their situation has deteriorated. However, I want to place the current conditions in a broader context because times of crisis always bring worsened conditions for women.

One of the key takeaways of my work is that with the post 9/11 Interventions, especially with the influx of international development aid, the situation of Afghan women significantly improved in certain ways and places. In other ways however, women’s conditions continued to be very difficult, even before the current Taliban takeover.

War brings with it the breakdown of civil society: during times of crisis, many of the protections for women are no longer in place. Everything from rapes to kidnappings to impediments in women’s ability to work or get an education—all of these conditions surface. Also, during times of crisis, the culture tends to shift more towards the right, becoming conservative, and that is the case in Afghanistan. There, one has to remember the role of the US government when its funding supported extremists in the fight against Soviet occupation. Then many of those mujahidin, or jihadis, turned into war lords, which evolved into a bloody civil war out of which this Taliban emerged. All of those developments impacted women very negatively, which I have seen with my own eyes while living there and working as a researcher, activist, journalist, and filmmaker. I have seen how at every juncture, women and girls, more than anybody else, have suffered the most.

On top of crisis conditions that exacerbate the situation for women, there are some aspects of the culture and some traditions that are misogynistic and patriarchal to begin with, which modernisers and reformers during the pre-war times had tried to curtail. Here, I am talking about issues such as child brides, honour killings, polygamy, and baad exchange, i.e. offering girls in marriage to resolve blood feuds. These are very regressive traditional practices that were frowned upon, and, during my parents’ generation, these practices were going out of favour. Unfortunately, as a result of over forty years of wars and warlordism, those practices have now, become more entrenched than before and have come back into practice. In fact, people are currently selling their daughters to buy food and wood to survive the winter, which hadn’t happened in the past. It’s a sign of how bad things are.

AS: Thank you; thank you for sharing that with us. We should not think of just the present moment, but look at things more historically. I know you mentioned you are volunteering at the airport, translating, trying to assist the refugees coming in. What are the conditions, some of the issues, concerns and conditions, for Afghan women coming to different parts of the world as refugees?

WO: We are actually not allowed to share information about the incoming refugees. We help them fill out their forms and get medical attention. But I can say that people were in bad shape, exhausted and scared. They were arriving with virtually no belongings, as they left in haste.

I know from my family’s experience, it’s very hard to be a refugee, even more so with the xenophobia and the economic crises that we are currently facing. The refugees who are arriving at the airport keep asking what’s going to happen to them. We don’t know, we can’t answer those questions for them. Of course, it is even more dangerous and difficult for those who don’t have the legally protected status of a refugee, asylum-seeker, or human parole. I am referring to people who are fleeing without any legal recognition or protection, out of sheer desperation. People from all backgrounds are trying to evacuate but the situation is particularly dangerous for women and ethnic minorities. People don’t realise that nobody wants to leave their country and everything they know unless it’s their last recourse.

AS: In the current global order where Islam is politicised in a very specific way, especially post 9/11, what does the rise of the Taliban, the Taliban takeover, Taliban 2.0, symbolise for a wider global political order? What do you think the implications are going to be politically in a global context?

WO: ‘Taliban 2.0’—yes they are projecting themselves as new and improved. I’ll start by saying that I usually refer to the type of Islam that the Taliban practice as extremist Islam or Islamism. When I think of radical Islam, I think radical in a leftist sense. It’s an aspirational type of Islam that I would like to see one day.

AS: Sure, I am with you on that. ‘Radicalisation’ is a term that has come to be used in the European context with reference to extremist Islam.

WO: So while Islam is politicised in a particular way in the current moment, like other religions, it is not a monolith. For example, I come from a secular Muslim family. We do not abide by extremist Islam. My parents, aunts and uncles, the previous generations have actually been at the forefront of fighting against extremists who politicise Islam. Every time you have a situation like this one, with the re-emergence of the Taliban, in the minds of people who consume corporate media, they don’t realise that there are all types of Afghans, all types of Muslims… Islam gets conflated with the Taliban’s regressive and extremist type of Islam. There are many sects and schools of Islam such as Sufis, Hanifis, Shiites, and Sunnis. I highly recommend the scholar of Islam, Ali Olomi, and his excellent podcast, Head On History for further information. He delves into fascinating unknown aspects of Islamic thought and history ( And, not all Afghans are Muslims. When I was growing up in Kabul, we had Sikh, Jewish, and Hindu Afghans.

To your question of what the rise of the Taliban means in a global context, this situation is complicated. On the one hand, there is legislation such as the Citizenship Amendment Act in India that seems to target Muslims; then there was the Muslim ban here in the States, and the rise of Islamophobia around the world; and, that, in many ways, causes harm to Muslims including those who have nothing to do with this kind of extremist Islam that is exclusionary and anti-human rights. Everyday Muslims become victims of anti-Muslim sentiment and acts of violence. On the other hand, you have the rise of authoritarian religious populists, like the Taliban, Erdoğan in Turkey, and Khomeini before them. They capitalise on the feelings of resentment and victimhood that many Muslims feel, by projecting themselves as protectors against western Islamophobia and hegemony.

The Taliban, like other jihadi groups want Afghanistan to be a ‘theocracy.’ They want Afghanistan to be the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a melding of mosque and the state, which is something that many progressives who I know, oppose. The other big theocracy in the region is the Islamic Republic of Iran, where, 40 years after the Islamic revolution, you find many of the young people are disillusioned and protesting. That revolution was launched in part to due to resentment with the Shah’s government including his close ties with the west and western control over Iran’s oil reserves. Now the same types of authoritarianism and human rights abuses that people were fighting against have emerged in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey. I really hope that’s not the future of Afghanistan.

AS: Could you say more about what allowed the Taliban to take over so quickly?

WO: People are shocked at how quickly the Taliban took control after the US withdrawal. But if you think about it, during the last two decades of the US War in Afghanistan, civilian causalities and mismanagement of development aid was causing deaths, poverty, and inequality and therefore creating resentment with the US-led coalition and the US-backed Afghan government. The benefits of development funds from the west and from Afghanistan’s neighboring countries mainly went to urban women in Kabul, Mazar-i Sharif , Jalalabad, Herat and other big cities. Those were the places where I did most of my research and you could see a big shift, an improvement in women’s lives. Yet for women in the countryside and the provinces, which is most of Afghanistan, the development aid didn’t reach them as much and, day in and day out they were subjected to drone surveillance and aerial bombing. This is the other side of American interventions that many imperial feminists in the US refuse to reckon with. Throughout the MENASA (the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) what you see is Western development and military interventions that benefit some segments of the population and harm others. This gives rise to extremist Islamic groups like the Taliban. When I was in Afghanistan, pre-9/11, nobody knew Al Qaeda. Then there was ISIS, now there is ISIS-K. Everyday there is another extremist group.

AS: This is a vital point you are making. We have to see it, not in the polarised sense of boundaries but how histories of conflict facilitate and provoke some of the seemingly incomprehensible but very real and present scenarios such as with the Taliban. I do want to ask a very obvious question and you can be as brief about it. How do you see the manner in which the US withdrew from Afghanistan? What do you take away from this manner of withdrawal?

WO: After the Taliban takeover, Joe Biden was very harshly critiqued for prematurely ending the war with the withdrawal and the subsequent humanitarian crisis that ensued, but I think that the withdrawal needed to happen. Many of the women’s rights organisations and feminist reformers and activists I have been working with in Afghanistan believe that the war was creating more and more fallout that affected women. They did not want a war that was going be a forever-war, as its been dubbed. They also worried that the war was eroding democratic institutions and therefore disabling the possibility for building a peaceful society.

20 years is way too long and I can’t imagine it stretching for a third decade. It is estimated that 3 trillion dollars were spent on it and that there were over a 100,000 casualties on the Afghan side. These are stark numbers and some organisations put the number of casualties even higher.

AS: Thanks for giving the feminist perspective that the longer you draw out a war the more it is detrimental to women. But what do you think of the manner in which the withdrawal happened? Is the withdrawal only indicative of a lack of will, after some point?

WO: If I may put the question back to you, what do you think?

AS: I think there could have been a buffer, there could have been some transfers of power and indeed some clarity as to what is going to happen following the withdrawal. At one level, the swiftness of it seems a way to limit public discourse on an imminent withdrawal: it impeded any possibility of public debate, public consciousness-building. Let alone debate, there was limited awareness as to where things are likely to go. In those terms, there seems to have been less-than-appropriate handling of the situation.

WO: I entirely agree with you now that you put it that way. There should have been much more dialogue and careful consideration. I think part of the problem is that Ashraf Ghani was trying to put on a performance for the Afghan people and the US backers that he had the insurgency under control and that there was no way that the Taliban was going to take over. The fact of the matter is that the Afghan National Army, contrary to what Biden said in his speeches, was trying to fight back but they were sustaining huge causalities and at a certain point, in many places they gave up, they surrendered, and so things toppled in a way that might have seemed unpredictable, but in fact it was clear from the pattern of losses and surrenders that things were headed that way.

AS: If it was indeed predicable then there could have been some foresight in terms of what balances and checks, what steps could be taken, if not to ameliorate the entire situation, at least to complicate it in a productive way.

WO: I think you are absolutely right. If they had put some mechanisms in place, at least some of the humanitarian crises that have emerged would not have happened. Absent in the political world was a consciousness and a consideration for the people there.

AS: That’s the sense I get from observing how things unfolded.

WO: That’s absolutely right. I think your analysis is integral in understanding how things could have been different. Honestly, I didn’t even think about what could’ve happened differently. I’ve been thinking about what people could do now, but how those steps could have been taken earlier. I was thinking more along the lines that: ‘Thank God! This is finally coming to an end.’ But you are right, it didn’t need to come to a tragic and chaotic end like this. Maybe, I also have seen so many foreign policy blunders in the tangled history between the US and Afghanistan that I don’t expect better. Being a refugee of war myself has perhaps coloured my perception of international cooperation and diplomacy.

AS: There is ground-level intelligence. There are channels of diplomacy, maybe even track 2 diplomacy, etc. These could have been used more forcefully, as a way to warm up towards any potential transition.

WO: The US government had been in negotiation with the Taliban so why not bring other political parties and the United Nations into the loop to facilitate a transition that would have taken into consideration the Afghan people. That’s what the US-led international community in conjunction with the United Nations did after the fall of the Taliban post 9/11; they formed a coalition transitional government in a series of conferences known as the Bonn Agreements. Before that, with the impending withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the UN in 1988 with the Geneva Accords, also tried to facilitate a smooth transition of power but that was a failure and led to the first bloody Civil War and the rise of the Taliban 1.0.

AS: You said you’ve been focusing on what could be done now. Now that the Taliban are back in power, what can be done? What’s the future going to look like?

WO: A ‘Now what?’ is the big question. At this point the US and other international partners of the US coalition are withholding aid money that was internationally allocated to Afghanistan from the Taliban. You have to keep in mind that most of Afghanistan’s economy ran on development aid. Development aid funds most of the salaries of government and civic employees, so if they don’t release the money, society and the Taliban government are going to collapse. That is not going to be a positive development for the women of Afghanistan or indeed, the people of Afghanistan who have experienced so much violence and trauma. That would lead to another bloody civil war and more displaced people and refugees.

AS: We are not sure what this could lead to eventually! The situation seems to have human rights violations written all over it.

WO: Exactly, it’s got human rights violations written all over it. And so, what I am suggesting is that the international community could leverage aid money as a way to pressure the Taliban to form a representative coalition government that includes not only hardliners like the Taliban, but also  progressives, reformers, and moderate parties and of course allowing women politicians re-entry into the public sphere. There is a spectrum of Afghan political parties from every ethnic group including a number that are led by women. So one idea for what do to now is to put political pressure on the Taliban to form an inclusive and pluralistic coalition government that serves as a transitional government until elections can be held. I think if handled right, a diplomatic solution is possible and would avoid further war and bloodshed. In my mind that would be a best case scenario for a worst case situation. It would move things towards some kind of humanitarian resolution. The tragedy is that the consequences now are likely to be exactly what you were out to contain 20 years back…  

AS: I’d like to hear more about women’s resistance, which you mentioned. I’m asking this question very specifically with an intention to unsettle the notion, the binaristic notion that women ‘have to be saved’ by this one group from men of another group. Let’s address this question about how women are being proactive. I think this is needed as a way to put the brakes on thinking about such situation as one that needs a ‘white saviour’ to come in and save the women from the men.

WO: Yes. That’s a great question. All-too-oftens the media frames it just as you say: women caught between the ‘white saviours’ and Islamist extremists.

AS: The white man will save the brown women from the brown men, the brown barbarians, as it were…

WO: Exactly. That is Gayatri Spivak’s often quoted expression, right there. Political pundits and media commentators often frame Afghan women as helpless victims stuck in between these two polar opposites—the white and the brown men. In this black and white narrative, the west is automatically associated with progress and human rights, the east is cast as its opposite, plagued by human rights violations and backwardness. What is also problematic is the monolithic notion of ‘Afghan women.’ But the reality is that Afghan women and the Afghan women’s rights movement are not monolithic or singular entities. There are many different groups that range from communist to secular to moderately religious to more religious. The ones I’ve worked with most closely in Afghanistan are feminist activist and media rights groups who are more on the left-of-centre. I don’t know if there’s a similar term in Hindi, but we use roshan fikr, i.e., the more enlightened-thinking people. I think the connotation would be progressives. And then, on the other side, you have the Islamist feminist groups which have their own range of thinking and interpretation. It is the Islamist feminists that are harder for white, liberal feminists to accept or to understand.

AS: Talk a little bit about the agenda of the Islamist feminists.

WO: I think their agenda is similar to what the late Saba Mahmood describes in her groundbreaking book, the Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. She was one of the first people to conduct in-depth research with Islamic women’s organisations, in particular in Egypt. In such Islamic activist organisations, women believe that working within the framework of Islam offers them the best way forward to attaining their rights. The women who I have been in touch with and am working with, including my research subjects, do not espouse that kind of mentality and find that to be limiting.

AS: I am totally with you that this notion of the Afghan women as only victims, in need of rescue, is very limiting and actually a very damaging way of thinking about the situation. While such a take has the power to awaken consciousness of people removed from that context, in the long-term, it is extremely damaging because it is undermining the sense of selfhood of a whole range of persons; flattening out their differences and the disparities that may exist among people. I appreciate you pointing things out in this way.

WO: But I want to underscore the fact that while the ‘saving the Muslim/brown’ women trope is an exhausting and dangerous western narrative often used to justify imperial interventions, Afghan women desperately need help now. There is a big difference between a top-down saviour discourse and genuine transnational feminist solidarity that centres the voices of Afghan women. While around 135,000 Afghans were lucky enough to be evacuated, most people are stuck, living under Taliban rule, trying to do their best to survive the harsh conditions. Women in households without men are suffering acutely as the Taliban is only allowing women to work in some sectors and under specific criteria. Thus many women have lost their jobs.  Approximately 50 percent of civil society jobs were previously held by women. So as feminists who have more privilege, who are in the global north and the global west, we have a responsibility to support women in dire circumstances in the Global South and East. there are food shortages, there’s inflation. Society, in many respects, is collapsing especially because the Taliban don’t have the necessary money or infrastructure. So getting money and resources directly into the hands of these women to help them survive, until hopefully the situation improves, is very critical right now.

AS: So where is the resistance happening? I want you to give us an overview of how women have been organising, resisting, reacting.

WO: There are many women and men who are trying to protest and demand their rights. They are incredibly brave to do that and, it’s important to acknowledge that there was an underground women’s resistance movement during the first Taliban rule. I documented that resistance in a film entitled, Buried Alive: Women of Afghanistan under Taliban. At present, I feel women are even more courageous because they’re resisting in public. They are publicly challenging the Taliban and not accepting their doctrine or dictates. During the first Taliban rule, the situation was such that women could only do so through covert resistance operations and organisations. We must acknowledge this because recognising the active role women play in resistance serves in contesting the saviour narratives that circulate, particularly in western societies.

AS: Tell us some efforts, some platforms that the readers can learn about and towards which they can direct their energies and resources as a way to support the women in Afghanistan right now. We really need to use this platform for some kind of advocacy and organising to support Afghan women in the spirit of some kind of global sisterhood.

WO: Yes absolutely! One is called the Afghan Women’s Network run by a woman called Mehbouba Seraj. It is based in Kabul and is one of the organisations that has very deliberately tried to stay and help people. We also have Razia’s Ray Of Hope that works on women’s education. Razia Jan has good relationships with community elders and male leaders in the towns and villages where her schools are.  She and her large staff who are based in Afghanistan are working and trying to keep many of the girls’ schools open. I would also recommend International Orphan Care. They’ve been working in Afghanistan since 1993 to help those in need, particularly children. Unlike many organisations who are focusing on evacuations and the evacuees, these organisations are trying to get money and resources to people who have not been able to evacuate and don’t have the resources to do so.. What you’re doing with your journal in terms of contextualising the situation, is really important too. Then there are also a number of programs for scholars at risk, and they are bringing journalists, media-makers and scholars who are displaced to the US and giving them institutional support through one-year fellowships or visiting fellowships so that they can get back on their feet. Whether people are in a position to give money or help in another way, sharing these voices is really important now.

AS: Thank you so much for your perspectives and time! Could you share some links to organisations and projects for our readers who may wish to extend their support.



This interview has been transcribed by Anupa Lahkar Goswami, Gauhati University.

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