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We Must Look At Women In Afghanistan (And Everywhere) As Leaders First, Not Helpless Victims


As images from Afghanistan have blanketed our screens and wrenched on our heartstrings, it’s been hard not to feel some level of despair mixed in with a whole raft of intense emotions. Largely negative.

Since taking over control of the government of Afghanistan, the Taliban have done what we’d most feared… reverting back to their deeply regressive practices and oppressive policies. In the span of a few short weeks, they have

  • Re-established their “Ministry of Virtue and Vice” – a group notorious in the 1990’s for its brutal enforcement of female dress codes and backward edicts (like banning live music.)
  • Ordered female civil servants to stay home until further notice and announced that women cannot work in high-ranking posts in their new government
  • Banned co-education (universities reopened last week with gender segregated classes) and the participation of girls in sports. The deputy head of their cultural commission said sports for women are ‘not necessary. … They might face a situation where their face and body will not be covered. Islam does not allow women to be seen like this’.

The unfolding humanitarian crisis has rallied global support, particularly for the safety and opportunities for girls and women in Afghanistan. Despite the enormous strides made over the last twenty years, Afghan women still trailed women in most other countries according to the Women, Peace and Security Index.

It’s been gut wrenching.

Unsure what to do, but feeling compelled to do something, I reached out to Melanne Verveer, former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues and Executive Director at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security which focuses on empowering women in the prevention conflict and building a more just and peaceful world.

We discussed the many levers that must be pulled to support women and girls in Afghanistan and to level the playing field for women more widely. In Afghanistan, this included the GIWPS campaign to support at risk Afghan activists. More broadly, it extended to applying a gendered lens to recouping the ground women have lost to the Covid-19 induced She-Session of 2020.

Multiple studies have shown that the empowerment of women – social and economic – isn’t just a ‘nice’, morally virtuous thing to do, it’s a smart thing to do. A UN Women study found that increasing the female employment in OECD countries to that of Sweden could boost GDP by over USD 6 trillion. In short, supporting women to grow into their full potential, becoming fully active participants in the workforce and world, isn’t just good for women, it’s good for humanity. As Hillary Clinton once stated, “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”

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It’s why we must be careful not to paint women in Afghanistan or anywhere as helpless victims, but as capable creative change agents, capable of breaking down the very barriers and biases that have too long held women back.

In recalling a conversation with a young woman in Afghanistan, Ambassador Verveer shared a meaningful exchange that speaks to the need to relate to women as leaders, not victims.

“Stop looking at us as victims and start looking at us as the leaders that we are.”

It is when we can most easily point to reasons to treat women as victims that we must work hardest to empower them with the agency to rise above their present circumstances. This is as true in the rural communities of Afghanistan as it is in hallways of Corporate America.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Ambassador Verveer from Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security on the Live Brave Podcast.

Of course no one argues that women of every age in Afghanistan are victims of the deeply misogynist and twisted ideology embraced by the Taliban.

Yet boxing people in with labels that reinforce helplessness and encourage them to see themselves as utterly powerless victims does not serve anyone. Operating from a victim mindset only undermines the very agency we most need to encourage in girls and women, particularly in those countries where their agency is constantly and comprehensively undermined.

If you are reading this, chances are you don’t live in such a country.

If you are reading this, chances are that you have the ability to criticize people in power without fear of retribution – whether a public whipping, imprisonment or far worse.

To that end, we should look to women in Afghanistan – who are risking their lives to rally for basic human rights – to inspire us to be braver in our own efforts to affect change. We have, in the larger scheme of life’s risks, so little to lose.

Given how many millions of women long for the opportunities that women in the western world can so easily take for granted, we don’t just have the opportunity to show leadership in the spheres of influence in which we live and work, we have the moral obligation.

We exercise it by calling out double standards.

We exercise it by showing up with the courage and compassion, grace and grit, we want to see more of in those holding formal power.

We exercise it by challenging our very notions of power and embracing our unique leadership strengths, pairing taking care with taking charge.

Last of all, we exercise it by defying the doubts that would have us playing small and arguing for why we can’t versus how we can.

Based in Washington D.C., Dr Margie Warrell is the founder of Global Courage, a consultancy focused on emboldening more inclusive leaders and organizations, a bestselling author, speaker and champion for women in leadership. Linked In.

Learn more about Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and their petition to the Biden Administration.

Get involved in One Billion Rising Revolution and the Rise For And With Women Of Afghanistan events on September 25th, 2021.



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