Tuesday, January 25th | 23 Shevat 5782

December 14, 2021 12:06 pm

Winter Presents New, Dire Challenges for Afghanistan’s Women

avatar by Phyllis Chesler


Taliban soldiers are seen in a street in Herat, Afghanistan September 10, 2021. Photo: WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

A harsh winter has descended upon Afghanistan. Everyone who is still there is now trapped, in hiding, and cold. Very cold.

One woman asked us for “a safer house due to multiple threats by the Taliban.” Another woman requests “winter clothing, blankets and food.” A third woman wants insulin for her brother, and a fourth needs “headache medication and a doctor’s visit for her father who was shot in the head by the Taliban.”

These requests have come in from all over Afghanistan via encrypted apps.

Raging war zones and humanitarian disasters tend to bring out the best in humanity, as well as the worst. Some people become involved in order to profit from the disaster, while, at the same time, positioning themselves as heroes. Others quietly do the dangerous, decent, and heroic work of rescuing, evacuating, sheltering, or feeding, the vulnerable and the targeted.

For the last five and half months I have been part of a feminist “digital Dunkirk” that has been evacuating Afghan feminists and dissidents. However, our priorities had to change.

Some of us have expanded our mission from evacuation to helping people survive. We are working with those who are delivering food, medicine, blankets, warmer winter clothing, and arranging for physician home visits.

“The Afghan Medical Corps (AMC) was built by one extremely brave Afghan physician” who himself has been targeted by the Taliban, Ryan Mauro, director of Clarion Intelligence Network and the founder of the Afghan Rescue Project, told me Wednesday. Writer Russ Pritchard, another American, has been in charge of helping to administer the AMC. He was pulled into this adventure as he was editing a manuscript for an Army Ranger who then asked him to help with an evacuation — and the rest is history.

I asked Russ: How dangerous is this work?

“We have had medical staff shot and killed by the Taliban while on medical calls,” he says. “My number one emergency is pregnant mothers. Most ceased prenatal care in August. We had some really great wins and some devastating losses with moms delivering in the fields.”

Pritchard takes calls 24 hours a day.

“At this point, both before, but especially since [the] Omicron [COVID-19 variant] began, countries will not accept Afghan refugees,” said UK-based human rights activist Mandy Sanghera, an international human rights activist with whom I work.

Our women can get into Pakistan, but rents are high, as is the cost of being led overland. Portugal may take Afghans, but the sums being quoted are also high.

This extraordinary humanitarian outreach is being powered primarily by civilians — veterans of both military forces and of NGOs, philanthropists, ordinary citizens, and by many people whom I cannot name at this time. Governments have not been able to keep up with the demand for assistance.

A Westerner cannot easily imagine how poorly Afghan women have been served in terms of health care — both traditionally, during the civil wars, and under the Taliban. Please permit me to quote from an anecdote contained in my book “An American Bride in Kabul”:

Long ago, I went to visit a hospital in Kabul. I specifically asked to see a maternity hospital. Here’s what I wrote about that shocking visit.

The corridors and courtyards of this long, low series of wooden buildings remind me of nineteenth-century Russia — a kerchiefed woman slapping a sheet to wash, a samovar in the doctor’s private waiting room. A man, wearing a turban and a long quilted coat, is pacing barefoot, back and forth.

The doctor, educated in Germany, greets us first, then turns to the man and speaks brusquely, with annoyance.

“You brought your wife here too late. The baby is already dead. Your wife, not long, maybe a few hours more.”

Turning back to us, his guests, he smiles and offers us tea.

“These provincials always come when it’s too late.”

The husband has resumed his pacing; the doctor is stirring sugar into his tea. Suddenly the husband is yelling, the doctor yelling back. Quietly Abdul-Kareem translates for me.

And where in the name of Allah did the doctor think he’d be able to get this kind of money? He had already paid for a car to transport his wife all the way from their village, which clearly was a waste of money. Why should he have to pay the doctor for killing his wife and child?

I left the hospital as quickly as I could. I didn’t want to hear the screams of women as we sipped our civilized tea. Now, on the way out, the smell of blood was unmistakable on some of the drying sheets.”

Afghanistan is still not safe for wives — or for anyone who might need medical help.

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY), and the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness, and A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killings. She is a Senior IPT Fellow, and a Fellow at MEF and ISGAP, and a version of this article was originally published at the IPT.

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