Women under Taliban: “From Jihadi Jane to victims of exploitation” – Part 1

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November 1996. Kabul Women in Burqas, the Taliban are now in authority in Kabul

 Throughout the “tyrannical” rule of the Taliban, women were the most victimised, exploited while sold as “commodities” in Afghanistan. Often considered as “voiceless in war”, women were severely compromised with massive violence and unspeakable acts of horror, only to be liberated by the interference of NATO forces and their allies. Hiding in “plain sight”, most of the media completely changed their attention to the “Taliban-centric” conflict further diminishing the chances of “justice and hope” for Afghani women as they lay “vulnerable” from severe and repetitive exploitation from the Taliban. International aid agencies has “widely” ignored this issue, particularly when it comes to human rights violations, and focussed on re-construction communities, in a time when the communities to be proved to be “incomplete” without women.

It is important to understand that, not much research has been done to identify the “role” of women in Afghan customs and traditions, however, in the light of recent events particularly with respect to “jihadi attacks” points towards an increasingly “active” participation of women in militant attacks. Limited cultural and social participation of women in “conservative” societies along with naïve theology of women being less vulnerable to men in war, gives another excuse for terror organizations to deploy women “suicide” bombers.

In the past, female suicide bombers have proved to be vital for many terror organizations, as they have the ability to penetrate in “dense” areas, which makes them more “lethal” and “highly effective”. Many militant organizations be it, Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) or the notorious Chechen rebels, on numerous occasions, recruited female suicide bombers. Although, women are “ready deployable” explosive units. Both the LTTE and the PKK had large “contingents” of female fighters when broken into small units, women would fight alongside men. Furthermore, designating female operatives to act as recruiters in an effort to further grow their organization, irrespective of men or women have become a benchmark for terror faction such as al Qaeda where women lured men/women using social media in joining jihad. While in Palestine, mothers raised their sons “dreaming” for their children to join jihad, as it is “honourable”, believing in the “myths” of martyrdom. Notorious “White Widow”, an alias for Samantha Lewthwaite, was responsible for the attack on the mall in Kenya along with an “alleged” mastermind of the 7/7 London bombings during which, her husband, a jihadi blew himself, has made it to the ranks of Interpol’s most wanted terrorists. Moreover, the arrest of “the first lady of al Qaeda” in 2010, a notorious terrorist charged with weapons trafficking clearly states the “credibility” women enjoyed even in the ranks of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.

During such a time, when women have proved their loyalty even in terror factions, the previous decades has seen a phenomenal increase in the rise of women recruitment in terrorist’s organizations. Moreover, many international terror experts and counter terrorism agencies have also emphasised on inviting women participation in “countering” such massive enrolment.

This “analysis” has raised numerous questions pertaining to “effects” of violence on women, especially during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. Now the question is, how can women assist in countering violent extremism in Afghanistan? By addressing some key elements, it is important for policy makers to first understand the role of women in Afghan society, then relate with the “possibility” or “probability” of Afghan women in countering the effects of extreme violence. Policy makers must understand that, there has never been credible research conducted on role of Afghan women, in active participation or their resistance towards violence in Afghanistan. Hence, it is imperative for policy makers to carefully understand the “social” structure in Afghanistan before concluding the role of women in countering extreme violence, while creating a counter-terrorism tactics and inviting women to become an active player in eliminating “political-violence” in future.

Women as spies

On numerous accounts, socio-economic experts have “explicitly” written on socio-economic hardship of Afghan women during the “tyranny” of Taliban. Very few experts have written on contribution of women in strengthening Taliban. According to a research conducted by Ahmed Rashid, Taliban had its own intelligence units, which employed over 30,000 spies while creating a nexus of over 100,000 “on-payment” locals, a majority of them were women. However, the process of recruitment remained unknown along with the “ways” by which Taliban recruited, but many security experts does not deny of a presence of “women” supporters to Taliban’s ideology. Women were continued to stay home and were allowed to perform regular “household” duties. Taliban, too had established “women brigades” to ensure that the rules are being followed by women at home.

These “women brigades” would then report their findings to their male commanders. However, there are little evidences that support the fact that, these “women brigades”, did visit “compounds” in the absence of a male, however, their roles and tasked assign to them remains a mystery. However, intelligence agencies, on numerous accounts have cited the presence of small units during “interrogation”, confirming the existence of such units. Additionally, no men were allowed to touch a woman not related to him, during the reign of Taliban, particularly the women prisoners. They were under the custody of “women” prisoners. The horrific execution of Zarmeena in the early 1999, was itself a witness of presence of large force of women Taliban police officials, where in the video Zarmeena was escorted by two Taliban police women.

The presence of active participation of women in strengthening Taliban is clear from the interviews conducted by journalist Terese Christianson. While speaking to some Taliban women, particularly those who expressed the safety of Afghanistan only in the hands of Taliban. Nonetheless, many intelligence agencies have recovered the documents citing the participation of women in Taliban, especially under the influence of their husbands. They not only believed in Taliban’s ideology, but also carried out commands such as “hiding weapons under clothes”, delivering messages and giving safe passage to wounded Taliban fighters. They were not only trained in weaponry, they were also tasked to defend their home, in case of an intrusion. Women, however, never participated actively in combat. However, many experts didn’t find it “odd” for women to support their men in any means possible. Nonetheless, there were no women commanders in the Taliban inner circle.

Additionally, the Afghan Taliban did actively used “suicide” bombers, intelligence agencies did not find any evidence that supports a woman “bomber” used by Taliban. In the midst of NATO invasion of Afghanistan, there were only a “handful” of incidents involving women “suicide” bombers. Moreover, the identity of these women remains inconclusive to determine their ethnicity. Also, intelligence agencies could not find a link between these attacks with Taliban, although MI-6, in its memo to the then Home Secretary had cited “other” militant organizations besides Taliban. In the light of “handful” suicide bombers involving women, it becomes clear that, Taliban was quite “hesitant” in employing women “suicide” bombers as compared to other militant factions.