The plight of women in Afghanistan has rarely been out of the media spotlight since the Taliban arrived back in Kabul after taking most towns and cities in their country with little or no resistance in August. Some of the reports in the West, though, have been woefully misleading; most have painted a picture of gloom and doom.
Commentators have lamented the future prospects of women and girls for those “left behind” as though the entire female population wanted to leave Afghanistan. Even now, anti-Taliban propaganda fills social media, with numerous anonymous and false accounts being set up amid acts of unprecedented censorship by the network companies.
However, thanks to a handful of journalists, stories are beginning to emerge that the anti-Taliban mafia would rather you didn’t read. Some reports have been compiled by Muslim journalists, while Anand Gopal’s lengthy feature in the New Yorker, headlined “The Other Afghan Women”, tells the story of those who came to despise the US-led occupation because of “the endless killing of civilians” by NATO forces claiming to be helping and protecting them.
Sadly, these are stories that many of my feminist sisters choose to ignore. Now I’m reading more revelations by Afghan women describing how powerful men in powerful positions forced girls and women to have sex in return for favours. It’s an all too familiar story in the West, but one which appears to have been swept under the carpet in Afghanistan.
Just as Tirana Burke ignited the Me Too Movement in 2006 in America, it appears that our Afghan sisters were having to endure the same kind of sexual harassment in their country. Quite why Afghan feminists who are now raging about the Taliban remained silent about this scandal is a mystery, because some of the abuse was quite open and blatant.
For instance, why was no one screaming about the sex-for-jobs or sex-for-promotion scandals? Many women could not progress in their careers if they refused sexual favours to their male bosses. Why was there an apparent conspiracy of silence throughout the occupation years? Even the recent stories of the dramatic escape of the Afghan women’s football team, which saw 130 young players, their coaches and families arrive in Britain, has not been entirely truthful.
Commentators in the West, projecting their ethnocentric narratives, prejudices and Islamophobia, seem happy to ignore the shortcomings and corruption of the previous governments under the US occupation while second-guessing and demonising the future actions of the Taliban. One headline that caught my attention this week was in the New York Post; it declared that the women’s football team had escaped Taliban control, as though the new regime in Kabul was the worst thing ever to have happened to the players. It wasn’t.In truth, I don’t know if the Taliban will allow girls and women to continue playing football, cricket or other sports, and I found the comments of one Taliban official really unhelpful when he told Australian broadcaster SBS that sport is not important for women. I’m planning a trip to Afghanistan soon, when I will be seeking out the deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, to discuss sport, women and Islam.
However, what I want to point out is that under the Ashraf Ghani government, some members of the Afghan women’s team were sexually exploited and abused by men from the country’s football federation, including, it is alleged, its president, Keramuddin Karim. He has yet to be held to account in court, although the world football authority FIFA has imposed a lifetime ban on him.
Perhaps the Taliban can show that when it comes to justice it will be delivered for all those women who suffered at the hands of this and other sex pests. The team’s main sponsor, Hummel, severed ties with the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) after the Danish sportswear manufacturer said it was “presented with strong allegations of severe mental, physical, sexual and equal-rights abuse of the female players by male AFF officials.”
Khalida Popal, a former head of the women’s football department at the AFF, who was forced to flee the country in 2016 and sought asylum in Denmark, joined players Shabnam Mobarez and Mina Ahmadi as well as head coach Kelly Lindsey to speak frankly to the Guardian about the players’ ordeals and the failure of the Western-installed government to protect them. According to Popal, said heard claims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, death threats and rape. “It was very difficult for us, living in the country, to talk about these things because these are very powerful guys,” she explained. “If a player from Afghanistan raises a voice they can get killed.”
After fleeing from Afghanistan, Popal organised national team training camps in Jordan, Japan and the UAE which brought together players from inside and outside Afghanistan. She also revealed that AFF staff members would tell girls that they could get them on the team list and would pay them £100 a month if they would say yes to everything.“They sent two male representatives, going under the title of ‘head of women’s football’ and ‘assistant coach’,” said Popal. “They were bullying and harassing the girls, particularly the ones from Afghanistan because they knew they wouldn’t speak up. I confronted them, told them they can’t do that and I’d make a complaint. They were pushing and forcing the girls. Coercing them.”
A former colleague of mine, Roshan Salih, who is the editor of one of the largest British Muslim news sites, 5Pillars, has just returned from Afghanistan after doing something very few male journalists do: he took the time to interview ordinary Afghan women studying at Kabul University to get their views and opinions.
Their revelations and views about the West will not endear them to anti-Taliban protestors at home or overseas. Indeed, Facebook has removed the interview. This shocking censorship is fuelled by misogyny because the net effect has been to silence women. That’s the very same accusation levelled at the Taliban, of course.
Salih’s nine-minute interview can be seen on Youtube and Twitter. It has already drawn favourable comments from another British journalist, Robert Carter, who expressed shock about the Facebook censorship and the revelations of sexual harassment, especially in Afghan ministries and government offices; even at the heart of power in the presidential office.
But it’s not just Afghan women who are being used and manipulated. During one radio interview I gave recently in an effort to promote the “other” narrative, the host declared, “It’s the LGBTQ community I feel most sorry for.” Incredulous, I pointed out that Afghanistan is not and never has been a country where homosexuals have been able to come out of the closet. Yet despite this, a great many stories tumbled out about LGBTQ people living in fear under the Taliban, disregarding the reality that such fear was just as evident under the Ashraf Ghani government during the occupation. Where was the outcry then, and pressure on Ghani from his Western sponsors?
We’ve yet to see what the Taliban means by promoting women’s rights. If the movement fails to deliver I will be at the front of the queue of its critics, but let’s not get misty-eyed about the previous, corrupt regime or those men who abused their positions of power to exploit, abuse and demean some of Afghanistan’s career women in sport and other professions.
In the meantime, let’s hear the feminists of Afghanistan demanding the arrest and trial of Keramuddin Karim. Half-hearted attempts by the Ghani government failed to bring him to justice and one bungled Afghan Special Forces raid in Panjshir province last year was reportedly met with resistance from his supporters.
Talking about women’s rights in Afghanistan is one thing; delivering them is an entirely different matter. It needs a balanced approach unblended by prejudices and injustice. As it stands, feminists have scored an own goal over Afghanistan’s “Me Too” moment. Now it’s time for them to head for the other end of the pitch and speak up on behalf of the women’s football team and every other woman and girl in Afghanistan who has suffered at the hands of powerful and unscrupulous men.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.