What is Australia’s role in Afghanistan as women are again put at risk?

By Virginia Haussegger

Friday June 11, 2021

Marise Payne
Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne. (Hannah McKay/Pool Photo via AP)

What happens next to Afghanistan’s women is something we cannot walk away from. Australia has already invested way too much, writes Virginia Haussegger.

“Why should I be the only woman in the room?” asked Habiba Sarabi. A fair question. Many senior women in Australian leadership have no doubt asked themselves the same thing on several occasions over the past decade. But none have had to stare down some of the most hateful misogynists in the world, as Sarabi did in March this year.

As the only woman on the Afghan government’s 16-person negotiating team in peace talks with the Taliban, Sarabi was a lone voice, there to represent the interests of half the population of Afghanistan.

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When she took her seat in the fancy five-star resort in Moscow, to eyeball the peace delegates, there were 25 others at the head table. All men. For the women and girls of Afghanistan, this sends an ominous message of things to come.

Right now it is not just Afghan interpreters who may be in need of emergency visas out of Afghanistan and into Australia, or any place of sanctuary. Outspoken women’s rights agitators, politicians like Sarabi, and the countless women leaders and feminist activists who have helped drag Afghanistan into the 21st century are facing the fight of their lives. Like the interpreters who worked for Australia, some of those women also have targets on their back. Taliban targets.

With no women on their ‘peace negotiating’ team, the Taliban delegates couldn’t bring themselves to directly address Sarabi or look her in the eye. It’s not Taliban practice to speak business, politics or indeed peace with a woman. These are men who despise women who dare to speak. For the Taliban, women are but god’s breeders and domestic furniture. The good ones remain silent, fully hidden under black cloth. Bad women don’t.

The intra-Afghan peace negotiations have come about following an historic agreement signed by the US and the Taliban at a meeting in Doha, back in February 2020. That deal laid out key details for a US exit, including security agreements, prisoner-exchange arrangements and a timeline for intra-Afghan peace negotiations. But, alarmingly, and most critically, the deal, spanning four pages of agreement and compromise, did not mention the word ‘women’. Not once. It was a pointed and deliberate exclusion.

To many observers, the US-Taliban deal represents a form of Western capitulation and Taliban victory. Since then, Taliban leaders have had good reason to arrogantly strut before global TV cameras with relish. They’re proudly flaunting the mantle of a newfound, western sanctioned, respectability.

Afghanistan Peace Talks
A Taliban delegation arrives to attend the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. (AP Photo/ Hussein Sayed, File)

How this happened is a deep, historical story awash with blood, and certainly beyond Australia’s control or influence. However what happens next to those with most to lose — the women and girls of Afghanistan — is something we cannot walk away from. Australia has invested way too much: not only in the lives of the 41 Australians tragically killed, and the billions of dollars spent, but in the enduring ties of friendship, support and hope we have extended to the women of Afghanistan.

From the outset, this war was supposedly about eradicating the Taliban, who were harbouring Al-Qaeda, and about ‘liberating’ the women of Afghanistan.

Indeed the status and plight of women became one of the loudest battle cries from George W. Bush, back in 2001. He spoke so passionately about the ‘brutalisation’ of women under Taliban rule that some Republicans feared he’d suffered some kind of ‘sudden feminist conversion.’ He hadn’t. It was just such a good story, with a powerful emotional hook.

Until late 2001, Afghan women had been effectively under house arrest throughout the Taliban’s five-year reign. They were banned from showing their face in public, from having a job or owning cash, from attending school or getting any form of education, from walking alone, from singing, dancing and laughing out loud. Even the US First Lady, Laura Bush, went on TV to talk about horrific public executions of women for alleged immorality, and the chopping off of their limbs for wearing nail varnish.

The US President banged the drum with gusto, as women’s rights and liberty were used as a moral imperative to go to war in the first place. World leaders echoed the cry, as did Australia’s then Prime Minister John Howard. When the Taliban fled Kabul in November 2001, Bush was quick to declare “Today women are free!”. And, for several years afterwards he regularly held Rose Garden press conferences detailing the advances in Afghan women’s empowerment and the improvement in girls’ lives and futures.

But now, as Australia closes its Kabul embassy and follows the US exit from Afghanistan, we have to ask was the battle cry about saving and supporting women just a convenient PR ruse, a palatable ‘cause celebre’ to distract voters from the billions of dollars we were to spend, or trillions in the case of the US? Or did we all really mean it?

If we turn our back on the women of Afghanistan now, and don’t try and exert some form of diplomatic pressure on our allies and within multilateral forums, to ensure women’s rights and freedoms are included as a critical and central element of any peace deal, well, the answer is probably no.

Australia has been generous and targeted in our direct support of Afghans. More than $1.5 billion has been spent on aid and development, with DFAT ensuring a solid cut of that money focused specifically on women and girls. Indeed, Australia has been the single biggest national donor of funds for a program to eliminate violence against women — while also doing the smart thing and funding a program to educate religious teachers about women’s rights. A total of 120 men did the course. Yes, just a ripple, but an important ripple.

Nevertheless, as the Taliban cleverly resumes strategic control of the beleaguered and battle-torn nation, its systematic abuse and enslavement of women has been … sidelined. For now. Too hot an issue to use as a bargaining chip, as the world prepares to turn away from Afghanistan, and shake our sorry heads.

Women’s role in peace efforts so far has been largely symbolic. Habiba Sarabi and the three or four women who have now joined the Afghan peace negotiating team have what seems an impossible and dangerous task ahead of them.

Already the Taliban has stepped up the targeted killing of women journalists and women politicians. Last month a bomb blast at a girl’s school in Kabul killed 85 young girls. In March, the Education Ministry tested the public’s mood for a crackdown on females by banning girls over 12 years old from singing. Fortunately a rapid social media protest made the ministry withdraw that ban. For now.

But women are asking, what next? And how to prevent what is now looming as a brutal backlash? Clearly escape is not the answer for a whole nation of females, but there will be truckloads of women leaders, MPs and young women activists whose lives will inevitably be at risk. Australia and its allies in this failed war must consider granting protection visas for women activists — when the call inevitably comes.


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