I was a defiant little girl. One afternoon, I came home with my nails painted — a grave sin. My mother took one look and told me to get the filth off of my nails before she chopped off each finger.
My mother could be fierce and she punished me frequently, but even then I knew that her threat was bluster. She might smack me, but she wasn’t going to take off any digits.
Empty threats are used as leverage to entice certain behaviour. But what if the threats are real? For the girls living under Taliban control in Afghanistan, threats are not theatre: they are promises. Even for transgressions as small as painting their fingernails, they face real consequences.
Saturday marks 20 years since the fall of the World Trade Center, a day that brought unimaginable devastation, heartbreak and loss to America. But if there was one glimmer of hope that came from that tragic moment, it was for the women and girls of Afghanistan. After 9/11, and the conflict that followed, a level of freedom unknown to previous generations came to their country.
I remember watching the planes crash on television. I was at work in the Netherlands at the time, and sat, horrified, with my colleagues. As we watched, we wondered how the world’s superpower would respond to such an evil attack on the American homeland. They certainly had the power, resources and reason to go and obliterate their newfound enemy. Sitting there, we could never have guessed that this tragedy would end up bringing more rights and freedoms to women in Afghanistan.
The United States could have gone into Afghanistan, taken its revenge and left. President Biden’s continual defence over the past weeks has been that he was following the original plan. “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.”
But this is not where the legacy of 9/11 ends. It was not all necessary revenge and retaliation. Instead, we offered to help rebuild and provide hope to those who had not had it before. Together with our Afghan allies, we built a more inclusive society for women and girls, in the belief that precisely this kind of modernisation would reduce the danger of a Taliban restoration.
As Adam Tooze explains in his brilliant Substack, from 2003 to 2018, the number of women enrolled in university rose from 7,200 to 49,000. Female life expectancy increased by almost 10 years from 2001-2019. “Whereas in 2000,” Tooze explains, “Afghan men lived longer than women, now Afghanistan has the normal pattern of women outliving their menfolk.” Rates of literacy among females more than doubled between 2000-2018.
A generation of girls was raised without knowing life under Taliban control. And they soared. In 2017, an all-girls robotics team was founded, known as the Afghan Dreamers, who went on to win the Entrepreneurial Challenge at the Robotex festival in Estonia. In 2008, Afghanistan saw its first female mayor, Azra Jafari, in the town of Nili. And she was just the first of many females to hold political positions, including Salima Mazari, Zarifa Ghanfari, and Fawzia Koofi. Women made up 40% of the most recent class of graduates from the American University of Afghanistan. They have their own all-female orchestra. Female entrepreneurs invested $77 million over 18 years, resulting in 77,000 jobs. Their rights were promoted by the 2004 Afghanistan Constitution in Article 44, stating that “the state shall devise and implement effective programs to create and foster balanced education for women”.
Their successes were awe-inspiring. They were also a source of pride for Americans. They were, in part, America’s girls — girls raised to know a certain level of freedom, with their rights secure and protected, thanks to the U.S.-led intervention prompted by 9/11.
In 2002, the United Nations Development Programme produced the Arab Human Development Report, aimed at providing a path for growth and opportunity in the Arab world. The report concluded that three factors contribute to the constraints of human development in the Arab world: “freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge”. Individuals needed to be educated beyond religious ideology, their human rights respected and women’s rights expanded. And for the last 20 years, the United States has supported women and these goals through the US Agency for International Development and State Department-funded programmes, as well as encouraging women’s participation in government and the private sector.
But now women’s rights are being ripped away. Biden’s betrayal reverberates sharply across the country. He offered a false dichotomy to the American people: either pull all troops out or go back to fighting an “endless war”. Pulling out the remaining US troops initiated the swift collapse of the Afghan government, will result in Afghanistan returning to a terrorist safe haven and removed the shield protecting women’s rights in the country. Surely this is not the legacy that Americans want to leave behind on the 20th anniversary of 9/11?
The effects of Taliban control are already being felt by women. The Taliban have announced that women must cover their faces to attend university and genders must segregate, both in class and while entering and exiting the building. They are banned from sports, considered by the Taliban’s cultural commission as “neither appropriate nor necessary” for women. Women can no longer hold ministerial positions. There are no women included in the new administration. Some are being told not to go to work, allegedly a temporary change while the Taliban draw up new “women related procedures”. They face real violence if they disobey. Those speaking out against the Taliban are being deemed “agents of America” and accused of “not being true Muslims”. They are being erased from the public square. And the Taliban haven’t been in control for a full month yet.
What will happen to America’s Afghan girls? The ones born and raised since 2001. The girls inspired by the allure of freedom, liberalism, and chasing their own dreams. Those who have, until now, not known the crushing burdens and barriers of life under the Taliban. What will become of the defiant girls, who speak up for their rights? The ones who question the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban?
Many will suffer severe punishments. Violence will be unleashed against them in a magnitude that those in the West do not comprehend. Body parts will be chopped off. Sexual harassment, rapes, honour violence and murders will become the norm.
But, unlike before, this time is different. The women of Afghanistan will fight back. They’ve already begun. Protests are erupting across the country. Women of all ages are standing firm against the Taliban. In Kabul, women attempted to march to the presidential palace, “demanding the right to work and to be included in government”. They were attacked for it, with videos and photos revealing the bloody violence they faced at the hands of the Taliban. At a subsequent protest in Kabul, one woman stated: “We don’t care if they beat us or even shoot us. We want to defend our rights. We will continue our protests even if we get killed.”
At another protest in Herat, calling for girls’ education, one of the organisers, Basira Taheri, explained: “The women of this land are informed and educated. We are not afraid, we are united.” Pashtana Durrani, the Executive Director of Learn Afghanistan, a bulwark for Afghan women’s rights, said; “We are going to make sure [girls] get to go to school, they get to go to work. If not on the terms that we want in public, we’re going to make it happen anyways.”
As the saying, often attributed to Thomas Carlyle, goes: “Once the mind has been expanded by a big idea, it will never go back to its original state.” The Taliban cannot undo the last 20 years. These women and girls are refusing to submit to a new Dark Age. That glimmer of hope, sparked after 9/11, has not been extinguished. Even with the Taliban in control, America’s girls aren’t going to give up.
And now the world is watching. Before 9/11, the atrocities committed by the Taliban on the women of Afghanistan received very little coverage in the West. Now, everyone knows names like Malala and Bibi Aisha. And we will come to know more names, like Basira Taheri’s, as we cheer them on. Two decades on, these women may be the most enduring achievement of the American intervention that followed 9/11.
They are defiant. And, as a former defiant girl, I can say with conviction that they can’t beat or cut that defiance out of you.