Two decades of gains in rights and liberties for the women of Afghanistan hang by a thread as many go into hiding
The embassy of Afghanistan occupies a handsome redbrick mansion in a serene and tree-lined Washington neighbourhood, set back from dog-walkers and joggers, as distant from the gunfire and panic of Kabul as could be imagined.
It has entered a diplomatic twilight zone, flying the flag of a government that no longer exists. Roughly 30 staff are still answering phones but have been thrust into limbo, many likely to seek asylum in the US but worrying for family back home.
Until last month, the mission was led by Roya Rahmani, a women’s activist who arrived in 2018 as Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to the US. Now two decades of gains for Afghan women dangle by a thread amid reports that many are hiding from the Taliban, and that female presenters have been barred from working on state television.
“What happens to Afghanistan can be determined by what is going to happen to the women of Afghanistan,” Rahmani, 43, said by phone on Friday. “In other words, the future of the women of Afghanistan is the future of Afghanistan. If that is going in the right direction, the country is going in the right direction. If that is compromised, oppressed, violated, then so is Afghanistan.”
Is Rahman, who has a young daughter, surprised Joe Biden has not shown more compassion and empathy for the plight of Afghan women and girls?
“I am,” she said, leaving a heavy silence as she declined to elaborate.
Does she think Biden understands the point she is making about the centrality of women to Afghanistan’s future?
“I can’t speak for him,” she said.
The president’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the month led to the collapse of its US-backed government far quicker than expected, leaving US troops to carry out a chaotic evacuation through Kabul airport.
Rahmani recalled: “I just felt paralysed looking at it thinking, ‘Oh, my God, it’s all over, again.’ And then will it be again in my lifetime that I see it change in the right direction?”
The situation has been “extremely stressful” for her family in Afghanistan, she said. “It is a sense of panic, desperation, helplessness, abandonment, disappointment, betrayal. The list goes on. Unfortunately, not too much positive.”
There are signs of the Taliban cracking down on protest and hunting perceived collaborators. Stunning allies and delighting adversaries, the 20-year war and its sudden implosion have been described as one of the biggest foreign policy debacles in American history.
Rahmani said: “I do not want to directly comment on President Biden other than to say things could have been done differently.”
Biden has claimed the US operation in Afghanistan was about counterterrorism. But Rahmani suggests nation building was an intrinsic part of that strategy and benefited millions of women.
“Although that was not the main reason why the international community went to Afghanistan, it turned out to be the achievement,” she said.