The hashtag #womensrights has been trending on social media ever since the Taliban swept dramatically into the Afghan capital Kabul in what was an almost bloodless takeover. Aside from anything else, the transition of power was much smoother than that in Washington earlier this year, when the Trump-Biden handover saw five people killed and hundreds more injured after rioters stormed the Capitol building and laid siege to terrified US congressmen and women.
However, perhaps the biggest headline to come out of Kabul, apart from the Taliban's stunning military victory, was announced during the extraordinary press conference which followed. Known to most journalists only as a voice on the other end of a phone call, we finally got to see the face of spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. The Taliban's man spoke about women's rights, pledging that they would be respected "within the framework of Islamic law".
Not surprisingly, few in the Western media were convinced by his words and have spent every day since trying to undermine them. This was not the narrative they wanted or expected, and so they set out to find various commentators who would toe the anti-Taliban line. Some of the "experts" in TV studios morphed from talking authoritatively about Covid-19 and the pandemic to opining about what this Taliban victory means for women in Afghanistan. The analysis has been shallow and of poor quality.
Women's rights, they chorused, are doomed under the Taliban. Almost as one, they predicted the return of forced marriage, rape and sex slaves with girls losing out on education and auctioned off into a life of servitude at the age of 12. A few appeared to conflate the atrocious actions of Daesh terrorists with the Afghan Taliban movement, perhaps deliberately in some cases; but hey, why let the facts spoil a lurid story and their own distorted version of events unfolding in Afghanistan?
If such commentators knew that the sexual degradation of women by Daesh is grossly offensive to the puritanical values of the Taliban, they didn't say so. I have no doubt that any remaining Daesh elements in Afghanistan will be removed swiftly.
While it would be churlish not to acknowledge the promotion of some Afghan women since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, for most outside the main towns and cities their lives have not changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Life has still been tough; for many it's been downright miserable.
Yes, there are a few female MPs, some impressive Afghan women running NGOs and charities, and others are senior clinicians, doctors, journalists and lecturers. Overall, though, these are a tiny minority; part of a largely privileged elite who are very articulate in front of the cameras.
They have predicted an educational disaster, with girls' schools closing under the Taliban, despite repeated assurances by the movement that it is a woman's right to be educated. The decision of many of these women, including the feminists amongst them, to side with the US occupation is, I feel, a blow to feminism. During these violent twenty years, countless Afghan men have been tortured, disappeared and killed. All of them were the sons, fathers and husbands of distraught women who will not forgive or forget the actions of the occupying forces.
So in response to all the crocodile tears we've had from governments across Europe and North America about what can be done to help Afghan women, I'll say this: offer those who want to leave seats on the aircraft departing from Kabul along with those who worked for the occupation. And let those who want to help rebuild their country stay.
It is a common assumption that if you are a woman in Afghanistan then you are against the Taliban by default; that only men support the movement. This is not only an overly simplistic viewpoint, but also very wrong. There are indeed women who are happy that the Taliban has overthrown the corrupt government imposed on their country by the West. Many of us here might not understand that, but our opinions and views are really no longer relevant, if they ever were.
Ever since America withdrew its support from the Taliban in 1996 a slick demonisation process got underway fuelled by Islamophobia. By the time Washington's spin doctors had finished their Machiavellian work the Taliban were being depicted routinely as primitive savages, misogynists and paedophiles.
The net effect was to turn Afghan women into victims who needed to be rescued by men with white saviour complexes. The demonisation continued in the run up to 9/11. Western feminists like myself were targeted in particular. I fell for the toxic narrative hook, line and sinker. Little wonder that my journalist colleagues were writing my obituary after news got out that I'd been captured by the Taliban while on an assignment. The fact is that I didn't expect to survive my detention in September 2001, but I did. Only when I was released on humanitarian grounds and given time to reflect on my experience did I realise that the movement had been portrayed falsely in the West as a bunch of brutal, evil monsters.
Back in London I tried to raise this with quite a few feminists and colleagues, but my overtures were rejected. Genuinely kind women as they are, many are still in denial that they have been fed anti-Taliban propaganda which they have lapped up. They know that if they admit they were duped into believing a pack of lies then it also means that they've been giving unqualified support to the testosterone-fuelled US and NATO allies along with drone attacks against civilians and torture in support of a corrupt government in Kabul.
Only time will tell if the Taliban leaders keep their word and allow women to be educated to degree level and beyond, and then find suitable employment. If they don't, they'll never be forgiven by the women who have opted to stay and work for their country's future. A lot of this depends on whether or not the Taliban will be allowed by its Western detractors to govern in the first place. We have seen how sanctions and demonisation made it almost impossible for Hamas to run the government in occupied Palestine after winning a free and fair election in 2006. Calls for anti-Taliban sanctions have already been heard this week; the movement has its work cut out to prove the naysayers wrong. We may never know if the Taliban can govern efficiently and fairly, simply because the West won't allow it to try.
As we have seen, a major thrust of opposition to the movement revolves around women's rights and status, as if everything has been on an upward trajectory under successive governments propped up by the US and its allies. So what is the reality about the hard won "liberties and freedoms" bestowed on Afghan women by, most recently, Ashraf Ghani's government? Will he be able to reflect with pride on what he has done in his UAE bolthole where, it is reported, he has fled with hundreds of millions of dollars? Sadly, there has been more spin doctoring and whitewashing of the facts.
According to the Central Statistics Organisation, 84 per cent of Afghan women are illiterate and only two per cent of women have access to higher education. When Western politicians try to justify the 20-year occupation and war by citing the great advancements made by Afghan women, especially in education, they're not being entirely truthful.
According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), around 3,000 Afghan citizens attempt suicide every year. This figure is thought to be an underestimate as many families don't want to admit that such an issue exists; it is a taboo, one of many in the conservative country.
Globally, there are more male than female suicides, but that is not the case in Afghanistan, where a staggering 80 per cent of suicide attempts are made by women. The Herat province accounts for more than half of all cases nationwide. The statistics make grim reading and reveal some very unhappy girls and women.
As Afghanistan became more unstable last year it is thought that around ten million children missed out on regular school attendance, with 3.7 million deprived of an education altogether. This is the reality on the ground which can be verified easily should any journalist wish to fact check the anti-Taliban rhetoric.
After twenty years of alleged nation building and boasts about schools re-opening, the literacy programmes have largely failed. Educational success is still apparently the preserve of the select few. There's absolutely no excuse for this. If a rogue like Zimbabwe's late Robert Mugabe — another figure reviled by the West — could preside over enormous investment in education which saw women achieve the highest literacy rates in Africa, why has Afghanistan under occupation been unable to do something similar? Within two decades of Mugabe coming to power, 89 per cent of the adult population of Zimbabwe was literate, according to the World Bank. That was a success story. Afghanistan's literacy programme has been an unmitigated disaster in comparison.
Indeed, the only success stories credited to the US and its NATO allies is that a tiny number of privileged Afghans seized the opportunities presented by the West to enrich themselves. Not for nothing is the government presided over by Ashraf Ghani decried as one of the most corrupt in the world. Until last weekend he was protected by Western firepower and neoliberals who pushed the myth of fantastic improvements in women's rights and girls' education in Afghanistan.
The neoliberal narrative skips over violence against women, including murder, assault and gang rape, all of them crimes projected onto the Taliban by their critics. Many assaults are swept under the carpet by family members, conveniently so for this "onwards and upwards" narrative. In the rural areas of Afghanistan there are very few services available to women seeking to escape domestic violence, with the result that anti-women violence doesn't really make the headlines.
How many of us know about the shocking case of Lal Bibi, for example? The 17-year-old girl was beaten, tortured and burned by her father-in-law and husband. Even when police arrested the two men, local warlords secured their release and allowed them to flee to a Taliban-controlled area. The movement now has the opportunity to provide justice for Lal Bibi. It must do so if it is to live up to its promises about women's rights.
Last year human rights organisations reiterated their calls for a ban on so-called virginity tests, abusive procedures that are a routine part of criminal proceedings in Afghanistan even though they have no scientific validity. Where has all the Western angst about women's rights been over that particular procedure? The Afghan penal code requires a court order and the consent of the woman for the tests, but in more than 90 per cent of cases the women's rights were ignored, despite laws enacted by Ghani's government.
The mainstream media did not pick up on this scandal. Why? We can be sure that they'll be writing, talking and broadcasting about it soon if the Taliban is not savvy enough to remove this vile piece of legislation from the statute book. As one media observer has said, the mainstream appears to be on a "full blown crusade" to provoke an uprising against the Taliban: "These people don't care about Afghanistan, they just want to get revenge for the Western defeat."
Scratch the surface and the truth is that the bar set for women's rights in Afghanistan is deplorably low. The education system is in tatters and literacy rates do not match the proud boasts of what has been achieved by the US, British and NATO occupation.
America spent $2 trillion dollars fuelling its war in Afghanistan while pouring nearly $90 billion into establishing, arming and training a 300,000-strong Afghan National Army and police force, which simply melted away ahead of the Taliban's arrival in Kabul. Billions more was thrown at the US military, private security contractors and arms manufacturers who gorged on a seemingly bottomless trough of cash. Pork barrel politics at its very worst.
Why weren't these vast sums invested in Afghanistan's health, welfare and education sectors instead? That is what nation building is about. Instead, US tax dollars have fuelled occupation and an unwinnable war, which tells us all we need to know about George W Bush's intentions back in 2001. He wanted revenge for 9/11 — which the Taliban had nothing whatsoever to do with, remember — no matter what the cost. The US has treated Afghanistan abominably, like a high maintenance military playground, and its people have suffered as a result. President Joe Biden has now cussed the Afghans for being ungrateful and not fighting for it.
It was refreshing to hear the Taliban leaders talk about peace, women's rights and education. Now they must put words into action, and show those who've occupied their land for two decades how it should have been done. Afghans have suffered for decades from foreign colonial interference, the violence of criminal warlords, famine, civil war, the Taliban in the 1990s and the US military and their corrupt local proxies since 2001.
Do the women of Afghanistan really believe that they are now going to be propelled backwards into a dark, medieval state of ignorance? I don't think so. They have endured unimaginable hardships in wars and refugee camps; under communism and George W Bush's "War on Terror". The Taliban is undoubtedly misogynistic, but if it is true to its word, the movement is offering Afghanistan — and its women especially — hope, peace and stability, all of which have been absent for the past five decades. Give peace a chance, as John Lennon once sang. The people of Afghanistan deserve nothing less.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.