The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan is older than Lynne O’Donnell suggests (‘Will courage be enough?’ October/November). It goes back far earlier than the 2001 US-led military intervention that toppled the Taliban regime. The first modern school for girls was opened in Kabul by Queen Soraya, the wife of King Amanullah Khan, in January 1921. The King’s reforms – giving women the right to choose their husbands, banning child marriages and requiring men to obtain judicial permission for polygamy – may have proved too radical for tribal and rural elders at the time, but they provide a point of reference.
The presence of the international community since 2001 has led to the emergence, perhaps unintentionally, of a class of ‘elite’ actors in women’s rights issues who are largely based in Kabul and have very limited or no representation at grassroots levels in provinces; in most cases, they work within the structures of local or international NGOs. The creation of these Kabulbased ‘elites’ has led to the politicization of women’s issues by all parties and stakeholders, to the detriment of Afghan women in general. One disadvantage has been the rise of a simplistic media narrative through which the Taliban are seen as the only threat to women and their struggle for equal rights; this ignores other significant impediments such as corruption, denial of access to justice, and the rise of armed militias. The re-emergence of warlords and their militias, inadvertently financed by Western taxpayer money, is threatening the advancement of women’s rights in many parts of Afghanistan.
It is important for the international community to reassess its engagement with local women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. While local partnerships play a crucial role in the efforts of the international community in supporting Afghan women, a higher degree of scrutiny is required to avoid promoting individuals as ‘champions’ of women’s rights whose support depends on foreign donors.