The Odyssey of Afghan Women

Afghanistan is once again the center of the world’s attention, and for all the wrong reasons. The Taliban, freshly emboldened by the announcement from President Joe Biden that US and NATO troops would soon withdraw from Afghanistan, began intensifying their offensive to take provincial capitals and eventually Kabul. At the time of writing, Taliban forces have entered Kabul and the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani has fled to Tajikistan. This was the culmination of a long campaign by the Taliban to re-take the country after years of fighting insurgency against the Afghan Army and US troops.

The Taliban promised that they would take the capital “peacefully,’ and is “assuring all the banks, businesses, money exchange shops that they will be safe and protected under the Taliban and nobody would touch or bother anyone in Kabul” (CNN, 2021). They also promised to welcome back those who had fought against them, stating that “the people who work for the Kabul government, in the military or other offices, they will all be forgiven and they’re all our brothers.” 

US diplomats and other Western embassies hastily evacuated the capital. In a moment reminiscent of the US withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, a Chinook helicopter flew from the Embassy, taking with it the American presence in Afghanistan and the hopes and dreams of many Afghans wishing for a better life.

Panic ensued in the capital, with thousands of Kabul citizens trying to escape the country. Many Kabulis hastily withdrew cash and scrambled to get passports and visas to get out of the country. Chaotic scenes ensued at Hamid Karzai Airport, with people desperate to get out of the country. One flight bound for Istanbul could not leave the gate, as people were desperately trying to get onto an already crowded airplane. Harrowing scenes included parents carrying their children around aimlessly at the airport, and people clinging onto an American C17 on the runway. Tragically some Afghans fell to their deaths after falling from that airplane, which dominated the news and social media. It was perhaps the most visceral expression of  the level of fear and desperation of everyday Afghans now in the shadow of the Taliban.

The Afghan people are once again faced with the horrors of living under the Taliban. One Kabul resident reported to the NBC that with a Taliban government looming over them, it is “the end of all my hopes, dreams and ambitions” (Smith, 2021). 

The Taliban may claim that they intend to take the city peacefully and welcome those who fought against them, but many Afghans do not trust them. An Afghan student said to NBC that “If someone comes with guns, there is no trust. It’s all force” (Smith, 2021). Afghan citizens are not entirely convinced that the Taliban had changed its ways. In what’s may be in store for Afghanistan as a whole, in the town of Kunduz, in Northern Afghanistan, the Taliban-appointed mayor began to employ harsh rhetoric in an attempt to force the cities’ civil workers to go back to work. They employed real threats, putting notices that if civil workers go against the wishes of the Taliban, they would “face punishment from the Taliban” (Goldbaum & Rahim, 2021).

Much can be said about American nation-building in Afghanistan, but it is easily disputed whether  the US presence there created a sufficiently stable environment to enable the Afghan government (with help from the UN) to rebuild their country after decades of war. 

The Afghan government tried to improve Afghan society with their 2004 constitution, in which basic freedoms (such as those of expression and assembly) are guaranteed. Despite its extended stay, the US and NATO security structure in Afghanistan played a role in contributing to the progress made, especially for women and girls. Since the international community continues to work on these issues (while being constantly threatened by Taliban attacks, and against the backdrop of what still is a conservative society), this huge, yet fragile progress is still a remarkable achievement. That fragile, yet impactful progress is what Afghanistan stands instantly to lose, now that the Taliban has stepped into Kabul.

The chaotic timeline of Afghan history also makes the potential loss of this progress and hard work more painful to watch and to endure. Afghan society has gone through what seems a never-ending stream of pain, suffering, destruction and death. Following the 1979 coup, most Afghans have never experienced a stable, functioning society. 

The civil war that followed the victory against the Soviets in 1989 led to the creation of the Taliban in 1996, and the beginning of a period where Afghans lived under  what the Washington Post described as “a strict interpretation of sharia law.” This turned the country into a “profoundly violent, repressive and unstable nation” that quickly became a safe haven for international terrorist groups (Sieff, 2021). The Taliban set up what the Post described as “morality police” from an agency called “Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice” (Sieff, 2021). Those agents went around Kabul in pickup trucks, with the intent of publicly shaming Afghans they saw as violating their moral code (Addario, 2021). They   required men to grow beards, and they enforced a ban on all music other than religious chants, and on entertainment such as movies and soccer.

But the biggest previous impact of the Taliban on Afghan civil society was the essential segregation of women in the society. Women and girls in Afghanistan now stand to lose every bit of their hard-fought rights and development over the last twenty years. Under the previous Taliban regime, women were excluded from public life and denied an education and employment. They were forced to wear burqas, and were not allowed to leave their homes without a male guardian. Women in Afghanistan were basically confined to homes and kitchens, and not allowed their hopes and dreams. Women who lost their husbands in the war had no way of living or putting food on their tables. Even widows were unable to work, and the only way they had to make a living was by begging (Addario, 2021). 

It is through sheer determination and perseverance, coupled with the hope for a better future, that kept many Afghan women persevering through such repressive rule. Then when the Taliban collapsed in 2001, the UN started its reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan — with women’s rights at the center of the effort. Then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “there cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women”. The new constitution of Afghanistan in 2004 guaranteed women’s rights, finally granting Afghan women the right to higher education, employment and freedom from male guardianship. The constitution also guarantees room for women in the Afghan parliament, with 27% of the seats reserved for female MPs (Mohamed, 2018). Women are finally firmly represented in Afghanistan’s judiciary, military and the law enforcement. 

Brave female journalists in Afghanistan also found their voices, bringing attention to women’s rights and the issues of many disadvantaged Afghans. Afghan women competed in both the Olympics and in a robotics competition. These activities were all unimaginable under Taliban rule. Afghanistan has also pledged to protect women from domestic violence by implementing Elimination of Violence Against Women laws.

Freed from the shackles that had previously chained them, these strong and brave Afghan women set out to help make lasting change for Afghanistan. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an American author who covered women’s issues in the Middle East, remarked how Afghan women have been active in fighting for the future of their countries. Afghan women are “inextricably bound up with the fight for security and stability and against terrorism” (Tzemach Lemmon, 2020). They have been actively pursuing peace since President Hamid Karzai’s 2010 Peace Jirga, bringing together Afghan women from various backgrounds to discuss how future peace deals should take into account Afghan women’s needs and concerns. Afghan women even tried reaching out to the Taliban to stop the bloodshed.

While the changes in fortune for women in Afghanistan over the last 20 years have brought  welcome opportunities  into many women’s lives, challenges persisted, even before the Taliban takeover, that threatened the immense progress made by Afghan women. Afghanistan is still by nature a patriarchal, conservative society that places a premium on maintaining cultural values. The majority of Afghan women live in rural areas outside of major cities like Kabul and Kandahar, which poses a challenge as to how to extend women’s empowerment in Afghanistan. The women in rural areas have seen their urban sisters  enjoy economic, social and political empowerment, while women in rural areas who wanted a better life still faced family disapproval, resistance towards societal change, or even targeted killings by the Taliban.  Women were also often caught in the crosshairs of fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces, which waged in many parts of Afghanistan.

These circumstances contributed to the differing attitudes of Afghan  women  of different social classes as to how best to achieve peace in the country. This presents a challenge to women’s groups presenting a united position in future peace talks with the Taliban. Two Brookings Institution analysts, John R. Allen and Vanda Felbab-Brown, noted the differences between women’s attitudes towards achieving peace in Afghanistan. Urban, educated women wanted Afghanistan to be rid of the Taliban completely, demanding that the Taliban be splintered into thousands of pieces that renders them weak and no longer a threat to peace and security in the country (R. Allen & Brown-Felbab, 2020). Rural women, on the other hand, displayed a more pragmatic approach. They want peace, even if peace is made by terms dictated by the Taliban (R. Allen & Brown-Felbab, 2020). Women in rural areas argued that they’ve already lived in Taliban controlled areas for a long period of time, some even mentioning that sexual crimes were reduced sharply in Taliban-controlled areas. There is also growing sentiment from Afghan men that women have too many rights.

These monumental challenges indicate that women in Afghanistan still have a long way to go in achieving a society that accepts them, empowers them, and allows them to live out their best possible lives. But in many ways, Afghan women are  much better positioned now compared to where they were in 2001. They’re no longer confined in their homes. They have access to education, can participate in the political process, start a business and get a quality education. At least, those are the rights they obtained prior to the return this week of the Taliban.

When the Afghan government met with the Taliban in Doha on September 2020 to discuss peace, Afghan women were represented by four women members of the government who bore a heavy burden. The progress and hard-fought rights of women in Afghanistan laid squarely on their shoulders. Women in Afghanistan have held the Afghan society together and raised a new generation of Afghans, and we’ve seen how determined these brave women are at fighting for a peaceful future for the country. 

Sadly, nothing substantial came out of those talks.

Then on April 13th, 2021, President Joe Biden announced the complete withdrawal of all remaining US forces by September 11th, 2021. Emboldened by the fact that the Afghan Army could not sufficiently operate without US support, Taliban insurgents started gaining ground. They captured Kandahar on August 12th, on the road to Kabul.

The initial reaction of women was the fear that the Taliban would reverse the massive progress that women have made over the last twenty years. Gayle Lemmon described the fear of Afghan women of being “bombed and assassinated into the return of the past” (Tzemach Lemmon, 2020). Fawzia Koofi, in an interview with NBC news, grimly described women in Afghanistan as an “at-risk population” and its future “dark” (Cobiella, Bill, Mengli, & Da Silva, 2021).

The women of Afghanistan are currently experiencing a shock right now, given the Taliban having returned to power so much more quickly than anticipated. The botched withdrawal of US forces from the country, and the chaotic scenes at Kabul Airport the last few days, added to the stress, fear and the feeling of hopelessness for many Afghan women. They are concerned that their hard work and sacrifices over the last twenty years could all be lost in a couple of days.

While many Afghan women seem to feel directionless and uncertain of what may  happen next, we’ve already seen how determined and brave these women are. There are already videos circulating on Twitter of many women demanding social and political rights from the Taliban. After twenty years of fighting for their rights, women in Afghanistan will not bow down quietly. They’ve persevered and brought change for Afghanistan in the face of heavy opposition. Younger generation of Afghan women who were born after the Taliban fell also learned from their parents the value of fighting for a good cause. Younger Afghan women are full of hopes and dreams, unwavering when faced with oppression.

The Taliban may have taken control of the country, but they will not easily  control Afghan hearts and minds. The Afghan people have already had a brief taste of a functioning civil society, more developed than ever before after years of conflict.

For Afghan women, the fight goes on. The Taliban may want to limit their role in society, but they can not take away for long their hard-fought education, empowerment, and taste of freedom. And they should never bet against their determination, courage and perseverance. There’s an old saying in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s principal languages, that translates roughly as:  “There is a road to the top of even the highest mountain.” This is what the Afghan people must now find.


Addario, L. (2021, August 16). THE TALIBAN’S RETURN IS CATASTROPHIC FOR WOMEN. Retrieved from The Atlantic:

CNN. (2021, August 15th). Taliban circling in on Kabul, says it wants to take the capital peacefully. Retrieved from CNN:

Cobiella, K., Bill, O., Mengli, A., & Da Silva, C. (2021, August 15th). Afghan women fear ‘dark’ future, loss of rights as Taliban seize control. Retrieved from NBC News:

Goldbaum, C., & Rahim, N. (2021, August 16). The Taliban took over Kunduz a week ago and soon began spreading terror. Retrieved from The New York Times:

Mohamed, H. (2018, October 16th). ‘It is time’: Afghanistan’s female candidates promise change. Retrieved from Al Jazeera:

R. Allen, J., & Brown-Felbab, V. (2020, September). The fate of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Retrieved from Brookings Institution:

Sieff, K. (2021, August 16). The Taliban has retaken control of Afghanistan. Here’s what that looked like last time. Retrieved from The Washington Post:

Smith, S. (2021, August 16). As Taliban enter Kabul, the worst is happening for many capital residents. Retrieved from NBC News:

Tzemach Lemmon, G. (2020, October 21). Trump’s Afghanistan troop pullout plan leaves Afghan women scared for their rights, and their lives. Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations:


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