As our TV screens fill with desperate pictures of Afghans trying to leave Afghanistan, in particular, the crowds at Kabul airport running alongside planes trying to take off or clutching at the wheels and falling to their deaths, we are overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness.
The grim satisfaction of having been proved right that the US invasion of Afghanistan was never about rescuing the women, now that women have been left to the mercy of the Taliban once again by this hasty withdrawal, takes us nowhere.
So we look for causes to donate to, demonstrations to take part in, make demands on our governments to take in more refugees and get involved in local schemes to welcome refugees – all sticking plasters which can barely staunch the bleeding wound caused by imperialist adventures and religious fundamentalists. It’s not like we can empty Afghanistan of its people and leave the Taliban to rule the roost over a rump of loyalists.
We scour real time films of city streets to pick out Afghan women in the crowd. We are diminished when we hear of the myriad ways in which Afghan women are disappearing into their homes, deleting their social media history, being stripped of their identities even as they are buried in their burkhas.
We look for signs of hope, for evidence that the Taliban has changed, that life will be better for women this time round. We need this for our own peace of mind. We hear of women picking up guns in Ghor province and feel our pulse racing at the possibility because self-defence triumphs pacifism when the situation dictates it. But we feel deflated again when a Taliban spokesperson scornfully dismisses the idea, “Women will never pick up guns against us. They are helpless and forced by the defeated enemy. They can’t fight.”
However, it is not such a far-fetched idea. Across the Middle East, to the west of Afghanistan, along the same latitude, women in Rojava, North East Syria have been doing exactly that and have been spectacularly successful in bringing about the downfall of the ISIS caliphate, an even more malevolent force than the Taliban.
ISIS has been attempting to regroup in Afghanistan after the loss of its caliphate under the name ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), their name for the area covering two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – chillingly reminiscent of their use of the term Levant to indicate their aspirations to rule over a large chunk of the Middle East. At one point, it was one of the best organised branches of IS after Syria and Iraq. There are conflicting reports about its current strength. Although it is much diminished from its peak as a result of Taliban interventions, currently there are warnings that ISIS-K may attempt to impede the evacuation process by suicide car bombs, so alternative routes to Kabul airport are being advised to evacuees.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington DC thinktank, estimates that the group was responsible for nearly 100 attacks against civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as 250 clashes with US, Afghan and Pakistani security forces since January 2017.
Although ISIS-K and the Taliban are sworn enemies, it is hard to predict whether Taliban rule will create the kind of vacuum that existed in Syria and Iraq and create space for the growth of ISIS operations in Afghanistan. There are lessons that the Afghan women can learn from their Kurdish sisters whose self-defence units, the YPJ, focused more on ideological training, on understanding their history of patriarchal oppression, than on arms training, which emboldened them not just in the fight against ISIS but also against violence and oppression from men in their own communities. When I visited Rojava, almost all the women I spoke to reported feeling a new respect from men after they started carrying guns.
Kurdish women and men in Rojava are now resisting the occupation of Turkey, whose dictator, Erdoğan is ready for dialogue and co-operation with the Taliban whom he has praised for their moderate statements. Turkish forces guard Kabul airport and will continue to do so after the US troops leave. These convergences demonstrate the extent to which Kurdish and Afghan women find themselves in the same boat – same enemy, different masks.
Given the failure of the US and Western forces to impose women’s rights in Afghanistan and given the political implications of that attempt – that democratic ideals are a marker of Western superiority and a ‘redeeming’ feature of imperialism – it would be politically appropriate for Kurdish and Afghan women to explore the synergies between their respective struggles.
Selay Ghaffer, spokesperson for Hambastagi, Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, makes that point in a documentary, I Am the Revolution, released in 2018, that they need to learn from other revolutionary movements to resist both the occupation and fundamentalism. In a speech to Afghan women, she says that, ‘If Kurdish women can pick up guns and fight against ISIS, we should also be prepared to pick up guns and fight if the situation arises.’
Lida Ahmed of the same party but based in Germany agreed that Rojava is an inspiration and example for ‘everywhere.’ But while there are similarities between Kurdistan and Afghanistan, she said that the 40 years of war, foreign intervention and fundamentalism have weakened the democratic movement there. Activists and intellectuals have become refugees in Europe.
Immediately after the US invasion in 2001, ‘even before Rojava,’ she and her comrades were aware that nothing would change for them because change had to be fought for ‘by the people.’ Members of her party and RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) are planning to stay, go underground, organise and fight but ‘not yet with guns because that is complicated.’
Contact between the Afghan women and the Kurdish women dates back to at least 2001, according to Meral Çiçek, a Kurdish women’s activist based in Iraqi Kurdistan, a contact which intensified with the Rojava revolution. The revolution had a very big impact on Afghan women. In 2014, when Kobanî was being pounded by ISIS and in 2018, when Turkey invaded Afrin, RAWA organised demonstrations in support of Kurdish women.
It is by no means a one-way street. Kongra Star, the Kurdish-led women’s umbrella organisation issued a solidarity statement in July with the women in Ghor, ‘the images in recent weeks of women from Afghanistan taking their defense into their own hands if necessary give hope and strength.’ But Lida Ahmed tells me that this was a show of bravado organised by the Afghan government shortly before it fell.
Kurdish women based in Iran have been particularly active in showing solidarity with Afghan women because they share a common language – Farsi. Recently, the Women’s Defence Forces (YPJ) in Rojava also issued a statement urging Afghan women to organise ‘Just as we as YPJ have resisted IS and the Turkish occupiers and their gangs with the organized force of women, strengthened and increased our army, Afghan women too can become a force for freedom with their strength and organisation.’
After the Yazidi women were abducted during the Sinjar (Iraqi Kurdistan/Bashur) siege, brutalised and enslaved by ISIS, the Kurdish women trained them to set up their own defence units, YJE, which took part in the liberation of Raqqa and liberated their Yazidi sisters who were still enslaved by ISIS. The YPG provide three months of ideological training to new recruits, so they “know who they are, what they are doing, what it is to be equal. It’s easy to teach them to shoot, but psychologically your face is on the ground, you feel the pain.” It is the will that needs to be strengthened, more than the muscle, in the fight against patriarchy. The Kurdish women have always emphasised that.
It should be sisters doing it for themselves. The connections are there; we just need to flick the switch to get the current flowing.