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For Many Muslim Women, the Taliban’s Patriarchal Violence Is All Too Familiar

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A Taliban member remonstrates with protestors outside a school in Kabul this week calling for education and equal rights for women, as another Taliban tries to block the camera with his hand.
A Taliban member remonstrates with protestors outside a school in Kabul this week calling for education and equal rights for women, as another Taliban fighter blocks the camera with his handCredit: BULENT KILIC - AFP
Reem Abdellatif
Reem Abdellatif

These days, I feel every Afghan woman’s pain as if it were my own. I feel that I can relate to every Afghan woman and girl, all too well. The setbacks women and girls will face in the coming days, months and years – they’re also familiar. I see myself in every Afghan woman today who is threatened and traumatized by the Taliban takeover. 

Every woman rights advocate that I know is feeling their pain; me, too. Until the age of 26, my freedoms were suppressed by childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and harassment. 

I grew up conditioned to believe that my body didn’t really belong to me. As the first generation daughter of Egyptian-American immigrants, my body was a battlefield for control: between the religious Muslim community around me who defined me as "disobedient," and my own sense of self, deeply injured by the domestic sexual abuse I was suffering. It took me years to discover the idea and reality of bodily autonomy. 

'The Taliban’s takeover is an extreme and televised version of the kind of oppression so many Middle Eastern women face'Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

The common thread that connects women in Afghanistan, Egypt and the Gulf – where I have worked – and across the Muslim world is not just Islam, our shared experiences with religious radicalism, the repercussions of colonialism or even the color of our skin. It’s our lived reality as women living under patriarchy who have been denied bodily autonomy throughout the course of history. 

In their first period of rule, in the 1990s, the Taliban stripped women and girls of their rights to education and barred them from public life. But in the last two decades, Afghan girls went back to school, and women started running for office.

Now, the trauma of disempowerment has resurfaced to throttle their autonomy. Afghan women and girls once again are being threatened and denied basic fundamental human rights. 

Earlier this year, Afghan women attend an event to mark International Women's Day in Kabul, Afghanistan, before the Taliban takeoverCredit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Working in the Middle East, I constantly had to dodge sexual harassment from male colleagues; men who tried to sleep with me in exchange for a job or men who tried to brush up against me in public spaces. They were all predators who felt more entitled to my body than I was.

They too, along with the Taliban, don’t believe that women and girls deserve the inalienable right to bodily autonomy. 

That’s why, when State Department Spokesperson Ned Price recently stated that the U.S. expects the Taliban "to meet its commitments and obligations in Afghanistan on freedom of travel, respecting basic rights of the people, and forming an inclusive government," it sounded far too much like gaslighting.

Not only was his statement disconnected from reality, it also ignored the plight of Afghan women leaders who have been left to face the Taliban alone.  

Many Afghan leaders, including former president Ashraf Ghani, fled the country after the Taliban takeover, but numerous female leaders stayed to resist. Among those women is Zarifa Ghafari, one of Afghanistan's first woman mayors and a human rights activist.

Afghan girls walks past murals in Kabul painted before the Taliban takeover: One declares men and women have equal rights under Afghan law, the other states Islam forbids forced marriagesCredit: AP Photo/Allauddin Khan

She tweeted about the hardships that women and girls are about to face in her country, after the new government declared there would be no provision for secondary education for girls; since then, the new Chanceller of Kabul University has banned women from attending. In Ghafari's words: The "Taliban’s Education Minister’s statement is horrifying… We want the same rights for women which UAE, Pakistan & Qatar as Muslim governments are giving to their women."

On September 18, Afghanistan’s new rulers set up a ministry for the "propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice" in the building that once housed the Women’s Affairs Ministry.

In response to this degredation of womens’ humanity, at least five Afghan NGOs focused on women are urging the world not to accept a regime that denies women their fundamental rights.

Demonstrators rally in support of of Afghan women and women's rights activists outside UN headquarters during the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly last week in in New YorkCredit: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

I feel her pain, and that of all those Afghan girls and women, all too well.

During the seven years I lived in Egypt, I watched Egyptians, like Afghans, facing tremendous change, from military rule to social uprisings and police violence. While such developments agitate society as a whole, women and girls so often are most exposed to the backlash.

The Taliban insists on covering up women’s bodies to the extent of disabling their everyday life and silencing them, all in the name of protecting their virtue. But burqas don’t mean safety for women. Whether wearing "Western" clothes or burqas, women are considered fair game in any country where they are viewed as low-class citizens. 

Mural that reads in Arabic ‘No harassment’ on a wall in Cairo, in the wake of controversy over rampant sexual harassment and mob violence against women in EgyptCredit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File

As a former correspondent in the Arab world’s most populous nation, I often found myself roaming the streets as a zombie. Because I am a woman, I had to dissociate from my body to be able to do my job. In Egypt, I was groped, sexually harassed, called a "slut," an "infidel," a "sinner" and a "whore." 

My experience in Egypt was hardly unique: Around 98 percent of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives, according to the UN. Even after I left the region, to try and lead a normal life, the threats continued, for speaking about life as a women in the Middle East, and they are viciously gendered and sexualized: "Whore" is a favored epithet. 

This is why I feel the pain of every Afghan woman and girl very deeply.

Whether it be in Egypt, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, women have had to pay the price of patriarchal oppression. Women are objects to be hidden, owned, oppressed, and bartered. 

Taliban members sit and enjoy themselves in front of a mural depicting a woman behind barbed wire in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this monthCredit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Women with free agency are the biggest threat to those Middle East autocrats and religious fanatics. So a very effective way for autocratic governments to assert control is to allow men to take out some of their anger on women, to create for themselves a comforting illusion of control – like the Taliban is doing right now. 

The Taliban’s takeover is an extreme and televised version of the kind of oppression so many Middle Eastern women face. How can women even begin to think of getting an education, owning their own homes, or claiming their basic rights if so much of their energy is taken up protecting what few rights they have, protecting their own bodies, or if they’re barely surviving?

The victory of our world’s darkest patriarchal urges is not only a blow to women’s rights in Afghanistan, but also the Middle East and the world over. We cannot consider ourselves really free until all women and girls have access to the basic rights that ensure their control over their own bodies and minds.

But if recent history holds any lessons for us, it is never to underestimate the power of women themselves to regroup, rebuild, and resist. 

Reem Abdellatif is an Egyptian-American writer and former foreign correspondent who reported on the Middle East and North Africa for over a decade. Her work has been published at the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Goethe Institute among others. She is a co-director and co-founder of African Women Rights Advocates (AWRA), a women-led movement launched by survivors of gender-based violence to create safe spaces for women and girls. Twitter: @Reem_Abdellatif

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