The Taliban Takes Afghanistan
Q&A with experts from across campus to weigh in on what the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan could mean for Afghan women, culture, and more.
From a Women and Gender Standpoint: Barb LeSavoy, Associate Professor
Barb LeSavoy, Women and Gender Studies, addresses the unfolding events in Afghanistan, offering her expertise while acknowledging her identity as CIS woman from America. LeSavoy says that instead of offering western solutions, we should use this time to listen and be careful not to overlook the organic solutions that are rising in the spaces of women in Afghanistan.
Can you explain the fears women in Afghanistan may have?
“We see evidence that they are scared, and they are scared because of the very, very, oppressive regime of the Taliban in 1996 – 2001. And during that oppressive regime women and girls were not allowed to go out without a male escort or not allowed to be in school, could not work, could not participate in public sphere life and had just a very oppressive limited existence.
It’s hard to see the Taliban come in, and not have those fears resurface.
We don’t have evidence yet, there is nothing that we have concretely from them that the regime will redeploy those same restrictions. And we’ve heard messages from the new Taliban leaders that say they’re going to support girls’ education. That they are looking to allow women to go to college. We’ve heard little snippets of that. But at the same time, we’ve heard (women) barred from going to work, doors being closed to university, the market being filled with men, and women afraid to go.”
In the news there were stories of beauty salon posters being covered, to hide images that aren’t ‘modest,’ why would this be happening?
“There was a news story that I listened to, that there was a surge in buying and selling burkas so that women can cover themselves. And they’re trying to cover themselves largely to show, presenting themselves as Islamic rather than un-Islamic, to not stir up any trouble or be a red flag.
If women choose to cover for reasons that have to do with modesty, retaining their cultural identity in the face of western assimilation for example, or choosing to cover for a variety of other reasons, if someone does that by choice that can be a space of empowerment. And we would want to really support that, as good allies would.
What we are cautious of is someone who is covered, someone who a cover is being put on them in opposition to the way they want to present themselves.
These are two very different scenarios. Going back to the example of the surge of buying burkas to put on and perform an image of being Islamic is portraying women trying to protect themselves, to not bring any negative attention to themselves out of a fear that they might be harmed.”
What was it like for girls in women from 2001 to 2021?
“I do a lot of global feminist work in my classes, and we always use feminisms in plural to understand the feminisms operating here in the west might be very different than feminisms that are operating in the east, particularly now in Afghanistan. And we try and look in and see the organic movements that are rising up in spaces that we’re studying.”
According to LeSavoy, since 2001 and the fall of Taliban rule, progress for women included increasing girls’ school enrollment from zero percent to 40 percent, an increase in life expectancy, and a decrease in infant mortality rates by about half. Additionally, women began to reenter work in government and commerce.
“In ways that are really impressive, there are women entrepreneurs, who own businesses, are part of politics and media, and fully immersed into all aspects of society. We hope this show of progress remains secure as we understand women taking the reins reengineering their own spaces and emerging in this very progressive space of empowerment.”
What can we do about it?
- Support efforts that maintain the gains made in past 20 years.
- “Women were leading and reemerging as part of the country. So, it’s tragic to see any of those rights stripped away, but how can we look at what we have done globally, not just the US but globally … to try to see what works and what doesn’t work, strategically. In any resolution, we must look to the women in Afghanistan and Afghan women who are in leadership to help inform the way.”
- Listen to voices and stories of people who live/lived there.
- Every semester, LeSavoy’s WMS 330 watch the film Osama (2003) written and produced by Afghan film director Siddiqu Barmak. “It’s a powerful film and narrative about a mother who disguises her daughter as a boy to send her out to work and to get food. You get this narrative of gender and the oppressions of the Talban from the voice of Afghans. My students are always moved by the film. It’s such a beautiful authentic, complex narrative that is now resurfacing in importance.”
- Don’t apply pressure to the women there.
“There was a protest of women in Kabul and it’s heart wrenching to watch that. There is a part of me that pulls back and thinks, ‘how much can we ask of Afghan women? How much can we put on their shoulder? How much of this responsibility that is none of their doing, can we now say that they have to carry the load to be able to fix this?’
To not strip Afghan women of their own power to make their own change … but at the same time were asking so much of a population who already are so overburdened.”
- “There was a protest of women in Kabul and it’s heart wrenching to watch that. There is a part of me that pulls back and thinks, ‘how much can we ask of Afghan women? How much can we put on their shoulder? How much of this responsibility that is none of their doing, can we now say that they have to carry the load to be able to fix this?’
See video above.
From a Political Science Standpoint: Erik French Assistant Professor
How does leaving Afghanistan impact American Foreign Policy?
“I think broadly speaking in American Foreign Policy, it speaks to questions about American credibility. And very importantly when it comes to how our allies look at our dependability,” said Erik French, assistant professor of international studies.
“I think there is a lot of concern and alarm about what this will do to American reputation. But I think the picture is a bit more mixed at this point. I think some allies will react by saying over all this is sort of a positive thing. It will allow the United States to redirect attention from Afghanistan and on to strategic competition with China. Which is a major issue especially for our allies in Asia. So, I’d connect it back to questions of credibility and partnership.”
Will this impact how the US approaches terrorism?
“There are many different models out there that we talk about in political science for how you handle terrorism and one approach is to try to stabilize potential safe havens. Places like Afghanistan who are relatively ungoverned. And the argument, in the Bush Administration early on was we needed to plug these holes. Get into these ungoverned areas and liberalize, democratize and construct a functional state. That’s the best way to confront terrorism. But I think, more and more, there is a lot of skepticism about the U.S. ability to do that in practice. Some will argue that the collapse of the afghani national army in the last few days shows that the US has been relatively unsuccessful in building a functional state in Afghanistan.
And so maybe the solution then is the light counterterrorism approach which President Biden has tended to advocate. Which involves rather than plugging the holes and stabilizing fragile states, just an enemy centric strategy. Killing, degrading, decapitating terrorist organizations using a light-presence; special operations forces, drone strikes.
I think this shift that were seeing in Afghanistan reflects a broader reorientation of the US away from stabilization efforts and toward a light counter terrorism approach.”
Did we know that this would happen?
It’s tough to say, I think there were a lot of signs that the Afghan National Army would collapse, and the state would be unable to hold back the Taliban offensive. I think the speed in which it’s happened sort of stunned everybody.”
French explains that while his focus is not narrowed to Afghanistan, his impression was they would be able to hold on for longer than it did.
“I’ve never been that optimistic about the ability of the Afghan government to hold out against the Taliban in part because it’s a historically decentralized state and it’s difficult to go in and impose upon that historically decentralized state a centralized government that’s very powerful, ready and willing to handle security for the country as a whole. I think that’s a very herculean task for the United States.
So, I wasn’t particularly optimistic that we were going to be able to leave something that would really last. But then again it happened so quickly that I think it shocked a lot of people.”
Why did America Leave?
Essentially to focus on other issues.
French explains that there was a strong strategic case for the U.S. to pivot its attention and political capital out of Afghanistan, in order to focus on competition with Russia, China or issues in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, “While there is a strategic logic, the actual operational execution of that strategy has been pretty poor,” he said.