Dr Farooq Yousaf grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, and is currently based in Basel (Switzerland) working as a Senior Researcher at Swisspeace (Basel). He focuses on Postcolonialism and Gender, Peace, and Security in South Asia. He has previously completed his PhD in Politics from the University of Newcastle in Australia, and his book Pakistan, Regional Security and Conflict Resolution: The Pashtun ‘Tribal’ Areas examines peace and conflict resolution on Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He is also one of the co-editors of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Masculinities, Conflict and Peacebuilding (2024).
Hareer Hashim coordinates WILPF Afghanistan’s Countering Militarised Masculinities initiative, building alliances between women peacebuilders and men who work for gender equality. Hareer recently left Afghanistan in August 2021. Her work now focuses on advocating for the rights and protection of human and women rights defenders, whose lives are at stake, especially with the new political regime in Afghanistan.
The situation for women’s rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover has only deteriorated. The fundamental rights of women and young girls are in jeopardy. The right to education, right to mobility, right to freedom of speech, and right to professional career opportunities are some examples of rights that are currently at stake. Afghan women inside Afghanistan are not only facing a humanitarian crisis, but they are also witnessing first-hand infringement of their social, political, and economic rights.
Dear Farooq and Hareer, we are pleased to speak with you today. The article you wrote along with Hareer Hashim, Making Visible the Afghan Men Who Are Working for Women’s Rights and a Gender-Just Society (click here to read it) made an impression on us. It highlights the key role of feminist men in Afghanistan in promoting women’s rights and the importance of making their actions known.
Farooq Yousaf (FY): The article is based on the Afghan Men as Allies in a Feminist Struggle project by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Even though I originally work with swisspeace (Basel) as a senior researcher focusing on Gender, Peace and Security in South Asia, I had the privilege of consulting WILPF on this project. The project seeks to present a counter-narrative about men in Afghanistan, who are allies in a feminist struggle, which can be used for advocacy purposes. The project follows the transformation of several Afghan men and showcases their role in an Islamic feminist struggle for women’s equality and gender equality. The article was the first output from the project which briefly highlights the struggles of male allies for gender equality in Afghanistan and also discusses the barriers they currently face in pursuing their mission under the Taliban regime. These men have grown up in the shadow of war, and have also witnessed the US and coalition presence in the country. Some of them saw how women within their households – their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives – were isolated and marginalised during the first Taliban regime (1996-2001). This marginalisation, therefore, left a lasting impression on their minds and encouraged them to become allies for gender equality in Afghanistan. The article also explains the “mixed feelings” that these allies in terms of the Taliban’s takeover.
Hareer Hashim (HH): This article is an attempt to present a different perspective of men inside of Afghanistan than the stereotype. Our male alliance are a beacon of hope in upholding feminist peace for the women and people of Afghanistan, especially at a time when the rights of Afghan women and men are in jeopardy. This piece is a strong advocacy tool in showcasing some exemplary role models of men whose lives are at a standstill and in jeopardy with the presence of the new militarised regime, and how regardless, they still find ways to continue their struggle to ensure equality for all.
FY: Due to the ongoing political climate in Afghanistan, and the fact that the interviewees are based in Afghanistan, I may not be able to share too many details. However, our interviewees are male allies of Feminist peace in Afghanistan, who have worked throughout their adult lives to promote gender equality and girls’ education in Afghanistan. The methodology that we used was based on conflict sensitivity analysis and ensured that the anonymity of those who wished to remain anonymous was kept intact. In terms of methods, we used different means and mediums to conduct multi-lingual text, audio and audio interviews. Moreover, the traditional and cultural values of both the country and respondents were also kept into consideration while conducting these interviews. Finally, the Afghan interviewers, while conducting the interviews ensured that their questions did not trigger the interviewees keeping in view the different circumstances the male allies are facing under the Taliban regime.
HH: The methodology that was used for selecting the interviewees was based on the preference and interest of male allies that were open to sharing their work. We (WILPF) have a network of 6000 male ulema that are in a coalition named Nadhat Ulema Afghanistan (NUA) who are well-versed in moderate perspectives of Islam and 80 male allies from different walks of life. I have personally met them both in person and virtually and have a personal relationship with them. We continue our foundational work even from abroad to ensure that our progress and accomplishments are not wasted, especially at a time when it is needed the most. So we had consent and willingness from those who wanted to be a part of this piece as an advocacy tool highlighting the challenges of male allies working in the current political climate of Afghanistan to ensure their safety and hopefully evacuation.
FY: For the Taliban and its supporters, women’s rights are defined through the prism of their own patriarchal and conservative (and often incorrect) interpretation and expectation of the role of women in Afghan society. Therefore, during the US-Taliban Doha talks for peace in Afghanistan, women were systematically excluded from the dialogue process. It was this exclusion of women and the newly gained legitimacy by the Taliban that emboldened them to side-line women from policymaking and governance positions soon after their takeover in August 2021. Shaharzad Akbar – former chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission – had then rightly predicted and warned that the extent to which women were included (or excluded) in the US-Taliban peace talks in Doha would shape the future of liberties women hold in Afghanistan. As a result, gains made by the US and EU member and associate states towards women’s rights now stand at the risk of being rolled back by the Taliban. The situation for male allies for feminist peace has also become worse. These allies and gender equality activists now find it hard to continue their advocacy under the conservative Taliban regime.
HH: The situation for women’s rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover has only deteriorated. The fundamental rights of women and young girls are in jeopardy. The right to education, right to mobility, right to freedom of speech, and right to professional career opportunities are some examples of rights that are currently at stake. Afghan women inside Afghanistan are not only facing a humanitarian crisis, but they are also witnessing first-hand infringement of their social, political, and economic rights.
FY: Discussions in the west on women’s rights in Afghanistan usually depict a clear gender binary: patriarchal men resisting aspirational women. Neglected in this analysis are the many men who have spoken up for women’s rights. The membership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Afghanistan tells an interesting and more complicated story than its name might suggest. WILPF Afghanistan has 10,000 active members. Fully 3000 of them are men. In other words, 3000 Afghan men have chosen to join an organisation that has as its very raison d’etre the advancement of women’s rights. Remarkably perhaps, given Afghanistan’s history, this is by the largest number of men in any of WILPF’s nearly fifty country sections. These members are Muslim theologians, university professors and students, members of political organisations and journalists. Some, but certainly not all, are middle class and from urban backgrounds. Many are youth. Therefore, it is the role of both the international community and opinion makers to focus on these stories. In the Global North, the stereotypical Afghan man, as I mentioned, is seen as someone who is “primitive” and “ultra-conservative”, and resists aspirational women. However, as we have discussed in our blog and also through this project, many Afghan men support progressive values, particularly equal employment and education opportunities for women. With the Taliban back in power, it is now the responsibility of the international community to ensure that any engagement with the Taliban includes representation from both women and men allies of Feminist peace. Only through such an engagement and encouragement of such men can the international community help establish durable peace and gender equality in Afghanistan. Moreover, international media outlets should also highlight stories of such men to encourage and motivate other men both in and outside Afghanistan to continue this struggle for feminist peace.
HH: This article is an advocacy tool to showcase the strong backbone of Afghan society that is left behind and what a waste of an opportunity that would be. With this article, we aspire to ensure the commitment of our international allies in support of Afghans politically, socially and economically. At this highly sensitive political time in Afghanistan, many of the deserving Afghan allies were stranded in the country and had difficulties evacuating due to logistics and lack of willingness of international countries to issue visas. We believe that the international community MUST ensure their support to Afghan HRDs, journalists, and allies whose lives are still at risk. We also believe that it is important to utilize your platforms to amplify and speak against the injustices that are taking place in Afghanistan, and hopefully to hold the Taliban accountable as they govern.
FY: As discussed previously, several binaries, even today, exist on Afghan men, many of whom are portrayed as conservative. However, most of these binaries have resulted from decades of externally imposed wars on Afghanistan since the 1970s, where stories of feminist men often go in the background and stories of war and warriors dominate the mainstream discourse. A significant portion of Afghan men have historically supported education for girls and women, and have also encouraged girls and women within their households to seek professional careers. Two major examples are the WILPF Afghanistan chapter’s Hareer Hashim and Jamila Afghani. Both Hareer and Jamila come from families with a religious background, however, both were empowered by men at home to seek education and professional careers. Countless similar examples exist in Afghanistan. Moreover, for many in the west, it may be assumed that many initiatives toward gender equality were taken by the US-led coalition between 2001 and 2021. However, Afghan women had secured many privileges and rights, under male rulers, long before US-led interventions. For instance, in 1919, the right to vote, and the right to education were given to Afghan women, whereas the first girls’ school in Afghanistan was established in 1921. However, these initiatives could not be sustained for a long time as Afghanistan was forced into wars in the 1970s.
HH: I believe it is a big disservice to the men who were and continue to be in support of their female counterparts when we generalize all Afghan men; I have witnessed firsthand men that stand as hindrances in the path of women’s rights and men that are active supporters of women’s rights, but what is crucial is to draw the line between the diverse group of men in Afghanistan. In my experience, I have seen some of my biggest allies that were men, and they have been great believers in our project. Our project Confronting Militarized Masculinities in the context of Afghanistan is a great example of a project that celebrates men who are allies and aspires to educate those that are not. An example would be the following: WILPF-Afghanistan has a section reserved for women ulema (scholars). During one of the conferences, some men questioned the knowledge of our women ulema, and it was our male ulema, who stood as their strongest supporters and vouched for their knowledge. That was highly impactful as those same men came afterwards and apologized to the women ulema. This showcases how significant the role of a male ally can be in support of the empowerment of Afghan women. Our male allies’ main role is to allow a safe room for women to co-exist and to excel and to be their supporters, regardless of circumstances, and that is the kind of exemplary men we have in our alliance.
FY: Since the Taliban’s takeover the situation has drastically changed. Even though there were major issues during the coalition presence and human rights activists working for international NGOs were targeted by the Taliban, in the current situation any “activity” in this regard has nearly stopped. Therefore, our allies are trying their best to work under a certain framework that does not put their lives and their families’ lives at risk. There are still other allies who have continued their work under the framework of Islam, where they use Islamic teachings to debate the Taliban and convince them on reopening girls’ schools and colleges. In sum, however, the situation remains both difficult and challenging.
HH: We are facing many hindrances to our work, whether that is funding, open advocacy, or freedom of speech and media, but our work has continued since last August. Our strategy has been the only thing that has changed during this time, but we are continuing our efforts from both inside and outside of Afghanistan. Currently, we are relying more on our male ulema network to be most active inside of Afghanistan for more precise discussion with the Taliban. However, our male alliance outside of Afghanistan are also utilizing every opportunity available to them through social media, such as Twitter Spaces, discussions held in Georgetown spaces, meeting online with us, or any other network to continue amplifying the needs and wants of Afghans inside and outside of Afghanistan. They are the ones that are the ones that are most relevant in the current context.
FY: In August 2021, after the sudden fall of Kabul, the US made a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. This felt nothing less than a betrayal of the values so dear to the coalition. The US, along with the predominantly male Taliban, signed a so-called ‘peace deal’ mediated by external parties including Qatar and Pakistan among others. But the deal came at the cost and exclusion of internal stakeholders such as the democratic government, civil society, and Afghan women. Recent protests by Afghan women demanding equal rights reveal the extent to which the peace deal failed them. Under the Taliban regime, the Ministry for Women has also been replaced with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. This also suggests that the regime put women’s rights on the backburner in terms of their priority agenda. The international community, therefore, while engaging with the Taliban regime can make their engagement conditional on the inclusion of Afghan women and feminist men working for gender equality in the negotiation and dialogue process.
HH: I believe that the international community must hold their end of the bargain and be actively involved in each political discussion. Holding the Taliban directly accountable for whatever happens is crucial and therefore the international community should give their conditional support (financially, opportunity wise, the opportunity for visas, etc)
FY: Supporters of the Taliban and Doha Talks believe that peace has already been achieved in Afghanistan, as the US/coalition forces, seen as invaders by many, have left the country. However, this is negative peace, or, in simple terms, the absence of violence. Foundations of this negative peace, in recent days, have been challenged after successive attacks by the IS-K (Islamic State Khorasan) in various parts of the country and specifically on the Hazara minority community. Therefore, those hoping for the absence of violence in Afghanistan fear that the country may head into the same spiral of violence if groups like IS-K are not controlled. These complications suggest that sustainable and positive peace in Afghanistan, at the moment, is an elusive dream in the short term. For durable peace in the country, international partners engaging with the Taliban regime need to make their support conditional on initiatives taken towards gender equality, girls’ education, and freedom of speech. At the moment, expecting the regime to agree to a democratic setup would not practically be possible. Therefore, in the short term, international partners and aid agencies can at least work toward preserving the gains towards gender equality made in the last two decades. Moreover, Afghanistan, being a multi-ethnic society, is currently very polarised. To find common ground, international partners, especially the EU, can follow the Bonn Conference template and ensure that all major ethnic groups get their due representation in negotiations concerning Afghanistan. This representation should also consist of Afghan women, and not only men.
HH: I believe that we can only ensure peace if human rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights are preserved. Afghan people cannot live their entire lives in fear of this regime. More effort should be made to ensure the betterment and security of the Afghan people, and the Taliban must gain the trust of the people of Afghanistan and must be accountable to the international community allies. I think the international community must push for a humane form of governance that upholds democracy and human rights.
© Une Afghane discute avec un taliban lors d’une manifestation pour les droits des femmes à Hérat (Afghanistan), le 2 septembre 2021. afp.com/-