By Eleanor Smeal
Feminists have succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to the fact that women have been the first victims of the Taliban. We now must make it clear to the world that Afghan women are an essential part of the solution for a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan.
The defeat of the Taliban means the liberation of women from the regime’s draconian decrees. As I write, we are hearing reports of women in Mazar-E-Sharif, Kabul, and other cities going into the streets without male relatives and discarding their burqas – actions for which they would have been brutally punished under the Taliban.
But the international community must now act to make sure that women’s rights are restored fully and permanently and to re-establish a constitutional democracy in Afghanistan, representative of women and of ethnic minorities. We cannot allow women to be marginalized at the same time that they are close to gaining freedom.
Women must play a key role in reconstituting civil society in Afghanistan at every stage, in the planning of the post-Taliban Afghanistan, in the reconstruction of the country, and in its future government.
Afghanistan first adopted a constitution in 1964 that included universal suffrage, equal rights for women, and separation of powers with an independent judiciary. Afghan women were members of the judiciary, parliament, and cabinet, and were 30% of Afghanistan’s civil service workers. Today, they must now be allowed to assume political leadership.
Women are essential to reshaping Afghanistan’s infrastructure, which the Taliban collapsed when they banned women’s education, work, and mobility. If the education system is to rebuilt it needs women, who were 70% of the country’s teachers. If the health system is to be rebuilt, it needs women who were 40% of doctors and the majority of health care workers.
A massive infusion of both immediate and long-term humanitarian aid is also necessary to save the lives and futures of Afghan women and girls. We realized after World War II that necessary in breaking the back of fascism was re-establishing constitutional democracies in Germany and Italy, establishing one in Japan, providing rights for women, and providing reconstruction and economic development assistance.
The United States would be repeating a tragic mistake if we again turned to another set of extremists as we did to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or choose a dictatorship as the most expedient strategy to replace the Taliban.
The first act of terrorism of the Taliban was its horrific treatment of Afghan women, and was a warning sign. In fact, long before September 11, the Feminist Majority requested that the United States designate the Taliban a terrorist organization. To this day, this designation has not been made despite the indisputable connections between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
To break the back of terrorism, women’s rights and democracy must be restored in Afghanistan. And, from the beginning, Afghan women must be at the decision-making tables. We cannot put women or the world at risk again.