The stories illustrated throughout We are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope are not only those of the women and girls mentioned within the bounds of its covers. Instead, they are the stories of millions of women around the world who are forced to fight for what is rightfully theirs: a free, safe, quality education; access to healthcare; marriage for love; the opportunity to pursue any profession; a life void of physical abuse; or the ability to leave one’s house without needing permission to do so. All of these ideals embody one basic word: freedom. As the women who speak openly in these pages recognize the imminent risk of doing so, they desperately beg the world to listen, and as we hear them, we are not only supporting the plight of Afghan women, but also that of women around the world.
In 1996, the Taliban emerged following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Given many Afghan people were quite wary of the subsequent infighting of the mujahideen, the Taliban were generally welcomed, as they vowed to restore peace and security throughout the country. However, as the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, their principles, drawn from an austere version of Sharia, or Islamic Law, resulted in countless violations of human rights. A primary pillar of their rule was the imposition of gender apartheid, a hallmark of which was the cruel and brutal repression of women. The Taliban’s religious police patrolled the streets, beating or even publicly executing women who ventured without a male guardian, women who dared to laugh out loud, or women who wore walking shoes considered too noisy. Girls had their fingernails ripped out of their sockets for the “sin” of wearing nail polish. Male drivers would have their rearview mirrors removed so that they would not have to “bear the indignity” of inadvertently glancing at a female. Women were stripped of their identities to a point at which, as a woman who lived through these days said, “I would no longer think of myself as a human”.
Women throughout Afghanistan have struggled to survive decades war, from the Afghan Civil War and the insurgency against communist rule, to the U.S. war in Afghanistan that continues today. Throughout these conflicts, Afghan women have discovered their power in fighting their own battle against a war that is innominate, as it permeates an elusive violence and lacks tangible mobilization, yet remains the most pervasive war of all: the war against women. The Afghan women who fronted the imminent threats and risks in a courageous battle for equality, resulting in the tremendous strides witnessed since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, deserve recognition. Under the Taliban’s rule, barely 5,000 girls attended school, and did so illegally, risking their lives. In Afghanistan today, more than 2.5 million girls are in school. While this figure does not come close to the estimated 8 million boys currently in school throughout Afghanistan, it represents an immense stride. Afghan women are also making gains in the workplace. More than 3,000 businesses in the nation are women-owned, and women comprise 36% of Afghanistan’s teachers. As Laura Bush writes, “These successes have a ripple effect across the larger community. Decades of research shows that women reinvest 90 percent of their income in three key areas: educating their children, accessing healthcare for their family, and growing their local economy.”
Despite these hopeful advances on the road to parity, Afghanistan today is still ranked “the worst place in the world to be a woman,” as the dangers of being a woman reveal themselves at the time of birth. Many women in Afghanistan have no access to prenatal care, and if they do, a male must grant them permission to see a doctor. If a woman is permitted to receive medical attention while giving birth, such oversight must be provided by a female healthcare worker. These prohibitions alongside the inherent insufficient number of female healthcare workers help to explain why one in every eleven women in Afghanistan dies over the course of childbearing, and the average life expectancy for a woman hovers around fifty-two years. Healthcare is one of the many areas in which Afghanistan deeply necessitates the progress of society, namely the inclusion of women, to make a lasting difference.
Women have also suffered disproportionately during Afghanistan’s wars, as is the case in all war-torn societies. In the 1970s, before the rise of the Taliban, the Soviet Union decided to invade Afghanistan for its rich mineral resources, and women’s advances was one of the greatest casualties of this conflict. Roughly fifty years later, there is a looming risk that history will repeat itself in that regard. In February of 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal, which in many ways signaled a turning point in the ongoing, eighteen-year war. The agreement prescribes four key pillars, namely: cease-fire, withdrawal of foreign forces, Intra-Afghan negotiations, and counterterrorism assurances. While these topics each possess the potential to pave the way for a peace that Afghans desperately seek, they are simply not enough, as one fundamental, yet absent element is that of the preservation of rights of women’s and minorities’: groups that comprise far more than half of Afghanistan’s population. We cannot claim peace or security has been achieved when less than half of the population is protected.
Despite ongoing struggles, this book truly is one of hope. Yes, these women’s stories portray unfathomable suffering, as they endured threats and violence while remaining widely hidden from the world. However, their mighty resilience and refusal to surrender is not only inspiring, but also immensely promising for the future of women in Afghanistan and around the world. A paramount realization I reached while reading this book is precisely that these voices and the countless others they stand for are not only fighting for the end to brutal domestic and societal violence against women, but also for national peace throughout Afghanistan. As demonstrated, women are primary victims of war on a global scale, and they will therefore construct the most adept and propitious resolutions to peacebuilding. The voices in this novel alone propose ideas from economic empowerment and the modernization of long-standing customs, to secular education and the teaching of basic human rights, demonstrating the pivotal role women must play in Afghanistan’s path to peace. Societies around the world are like birds, and men and women represent their wings. If one wing is broken, the bird will not fly. It is not only necessary to include women’s voices and interests in the basic matter of peacebuilding for the sake of societies’ prosperity, but it is also the just thing to do.