As an Afghan-Australian woman, the last few days have been far from easy. While watching the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan from afar, I’ve been overwhelmed with fear for the future of women, outraged by the Islamophobia on social media, and traumatised as I watch the millions of Afghans flee the country to become another generation of refugees.
It’s taken me right back to the moment I learnt of the September 11 attacks in 2001. As a child in primary school at the time, I witnessed my parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and other family members desperately glued to their television screens, watching the news unfold.
I remember my father’s tears as he was overcome with grief while watching the mountain plains of Afghanistan get bombed live on screen. I listened to his late-night phone calls, desperately trying to get in contact with family and friends in Afghanistan to ask who was alive, where they were, and if they were safe.
I remember these scenes very clearly but what I didn’t entirely grasp at the time was the heft of the emotional burden my family carried. Twenty years later, as the Coalition forces made a hasty retreat out of Afghanistan, I watched as the Taliban invaded Afghanistan and President Ashraf Ghani set off into the sunset, abandoning the country he promised to lead and leaving its citizens to fend for themselves.
But this time I understand the emotional weight of this political shift. I stayed up all night hitting refresh on my tabs, watching live streams of Al-Jazeera and TOLO (one of the main Afghan television stations) before finally falling asleep at 4 am due to sheer exhaustion. I woke up at 7 am to resume my day in a daze, with my head banging and my eyeballs aching in sheer agony. This is the heavy burden of being an Afghan-Australian. This is the burden of being a refugee and watching a country on the other side of the world, where one half of me is connected to, collapse.
But I'm not just an Afghan-Australian Muslim woman in my thirties. I'm also an intersectional feminist and a proud one at that. I'm deeply connected to my cultural and religious background like so many Afghan women and girls across the diaspora, and do not believe our cultural and religious ties are at odds with the liberation of women.
And what lingers in the back of my mind is that 20 years ago, politicians, journalists and commentators asked, “What about the girls and women?” as justification for invading Afghanistan in the first place. Now with that hasty retreat as we watch the Taliban rise to power once more, I watch the politicians, journalists and commentators once more ask, “What about the girls and women?”.
Women are not free until all women are free all over the world. And so, if in the land of the supposedly free we want to be known for equality, truth and justice, now is our chance to collectively stand firm and united against the atrocities in which we Australians are not free from blame, to support those women and girls that are not free to stand and defend themselves.
The harsh reality is this isn’t any ordinary political takeover. This is an invasion by a militia group that has reigned terror in the hearts and minds of Afghans before. What more evidence do we need than watching thousands of Afghans flee as fast as they could out of their country? As we watch Afghan bodies fall from the skies as they couldn't hold onto American airplanes any longer? This is a militia group that vehemently believes in the over-sexualisation of women, and the solution to this problem is to ensure that all women are invisible so as to not incite men. This is a militia group that demands women cover everything from head to toe — even their eyes should be hidden behind a veil. This is a militia group that demands women remain at home and not be allowed out of the house unless they are accompanied by a male relative, or carry written permission as evidence before leaving the house. This is a militia group that believes girls and women should not seek education or employment. This is a militia group that demands the windows of Afghan homes be covered in black paint. This is a militia group that fundamentally believes in the free labour of women, their reproductive ability and the need to keep women in subjugated positions. This is a militia group that publicly beats, maims and executes anyone that does not meet these demands. And to add insult to injury, this is a militia group that stands firm in believing that these demands are from God, and they're here to create a moral pathway to heaven.
I spoke to my sister, who told me that our cousins had fled the main city and returned to the village where they hoped things would be calmer. Both girls and boys had dropped out of university but the boys had gone on to re-enrol in the local university near the village, while the girls remained at home. She told me they have begun upgrades on the old house in the village to bring new water and gas piping into the house — so the girls would not have to leave the house unless absolutely necessary. One of my cousins shared in a broken voice that she didn't even own the clothing the Taliban expected her to wear, and that she is physically and emotionally unprepared for this sudden turn of events.
Simultaneously, my social media feeds have become saturated with Islamophobic stereotypes and the necessity to 'liberate' Afghan women and girls from the barbarity of Muslim men, personified as the Taliban. It’s profoundly triggering watching women on the internet say “What do you expect from a country that still believes in women covering themselves?”. “Islam and Shariah is the problem, not the Taliban. Look at women in Saudi Arabia. It isn't just Afghanistan,” says another.
It sets me off to watch the world erase the history of Muslims to a singular moment of time in Afghanistan, and reduce the conflict in Afghanistan down to a singluar problem — Islam. While the collective Western world gave women the right to seek education in the early 1800s, one of the oldest universities in the world was founded by a Muslim woman Fatima al-Fihri in 859, where both men and women sought education. How does one convince people that this isn’t Islam? This is barbarity and nothing more.
Many of us have watched the television series The Handmaid’s Tale and Afghanistan’s Taliban are probably the closest we’re ever going to get to that television series playing out in real life. Watching the men on the series justify their actions under the disguise of religion with phrases like “under his eye” and “may the Lord open”, we now watch the Taliban justify their actions under the disguise of religion and so the need to save Afghan women from a Handmaiden’s fate is as urgent as that television series makes us feel it is.
The most troubling reality in this dark chapter in humanity is the bleak truth that women in Afghanistan have just stumbled back into the first century with no real power. There is no system that supports them to stand in unison and fight for their basic rights. That onus falls on every freedom-loving, human rights advocate of the world to shoulder this burden on their behalf and do the frontline fighting for them.
But when so many women with the skills and capability to do this work in lands far away from those women in Afghanistan, will that work be done? I know that people will have these conversations in the short term. But in the long term, like so many other times throughout history, I fear that the women of Afghanistan will sadly be forgotten and the burden of the fight will become theirs to bear alone once again.
If we really care about women and girls like we say we do, let’s stop caring about them only when it serves a political purpose or boldens our political narratives. Let’s not disregard the millions of women and girls that have reached this place because of the political actions we began and chose not to finish. And when those women and children we've been so worried about seek refuge, let’s not turn our backs on them.