After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Afghan public hoped that decades of conflict and tragedy were coming to an end. But change was slow to materialize, and many saw their situation get worse, not better. When the Taliban started fighting back, many civilians felt so disillusioned with the peace process that their support for the insurgency grew.
Mariam Safi is one of the few female researchers and experts from Afghanistan focusing on the role of women in post-conflict peace building and countering violent extremism. As deputy director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, she has produced research highlighting the crucial role women have played with regard to the Taliban, including convincing family members not to sign up to fight. She says the fact that women are key figures in community and family settings in Afghanistan means they are also crucial to counter-extremism work.
Women & Girls spoke to Safi about how efforts to tackle extremism should start in the home.
Women & Girls: What are we talking about when we say “violent extremism” in the Afghan context?
Mariam Safi: There are lots of active [extremist] groups, and we’re just in the process of trying to identify them and the different variations and the fine lines between them. It’s not entirely clear right now, because the research is very limited.
What we call them depends on who you’re talking to. There will be a different definition from the Afghan government to the U.N., from the U.S. to Afghan civil society. In Afghanistan, recruitment [into violent extremist groups] and radicalization don’t necessarily go hand in hand. You can be recruited and absolutely never be radicalized. A lot of people in rural Afghanistan, where there are no jobs, join the insurgency because it pays them.
Women & Girls: Why is it on the rise?
Safi: After [the U.S.-led invasion in] 2001, the Afghan public had a lot of hope. Then from 2004-2006, the Taliban transformed itself into an insurgency and came back.
At the same time, the public was becoming extremely disenfranchised. They lost hope in the Afghan government. They lost hope in the international community. There were a lot of atrocities and human rights violations taking place at the provincial level at the hands of the warlords that the international community remobilized in 2001, in order to use their militias to tackle the Taliban. That’s when the insurgency started gaining sympathy within the local population. Then the international community’s response to the resurgence of the Taliban alienated populations further. There were a lot of night raids and airstrikes in villages, and a lot of innocent people died.
Now, the public have lost their sympathy for the insurgency, but everyone is so frustrated, [asking themselves] why is it with the billions and trillions of dollars that have come into the country in the past 16 years, I’m in the exact same position I was in 2001, if not worse off? The grievances are so deep-seated now, and in recent years we’re starting to see higher instances of radicalization in madrasas and universities; not just of boys but girls as well.
Women & Girls: What’s the role that women can play in countering the rise of violent extremism?
Safi: The narratives on women’s role [in relation to] violent extremism are always predominantly looking at them as victims. In Afghanistan, the community of NGOs and research organizations working on this is moving beyond this narrative because we’re seeing that women are playing a key role in countering violent extremism, particularly within the realm of the household.
There’s an idea that in Afghanistan women are very subordinate to men, and it’s true. It’s a very patriarchal, male-dominated society, but women call the shots within the household. They dictate the roles and responsibilities of all members and they tend to have the final say in a lot of decision-making. There are scenarios where wives have threatened to leave their husbands if they don’t leave the insurgency. Mothers have played a key role in identifying the factors that were driving their sons to join the insurgency, and then making the decision to pick up and move from that area entirely to remove their son from that environment.
The Taliban are actually targeting mothers in their recruitment strategies. They tell mothers who have sons in the Afghan national security forces things like: “Your son is fighting for an unjust cause. When he dies and he goes to the hereafter, on the day of judgment, when it’s asked of him what did you die for, what will he say? A corrupt government, one that was unjust to its people?” Things like that, which are really quite powerful.
They send these [messages] through ringtones, particularly in rural areas, where they are easily downloaded. Then they also target mothers who have lost sons in the insurgency, praising them, honoring these mothers for having done the right thing.
Women & Girls: What’s the best way to empower these women to become effective agents in countering violent extremism (CVE)?
Safi: When we’re approaching the topic of CVE, we need to devise programs that build awareness and capacity but do not directly talk about CVE. The public in Afghanistan has become very suspicious in the past 16 years. So many different programs have been developed and promises made by civil society groups, the Afghan government and the international community, but a lot has not been actualized on the ground. So, we can’t approach these issues directly anymore.
In 2001, women-led community development councils were established as access points for women trying to resolve personal or family issues. A lot of the most prominent women in the village or in a district are a part of the councils and they have the trust of the women in their communities. I think these councils have a significant role to play in CVE. If we give them the tools [for countering violent extremism], they will be able to transmit those tools to those women at the household level, instead of female activists from urban settings like Kabul trying to so-called “educate” them.
We need to empower mothers with religious literacy, so they can talk to their sons and counter the powerful narratives that the Taliban is using. There’s research which shows that when women share their perspective with male members of their household, the male members tend to transmit these ideas outside of the household. So, these councils have a significant role to play in countering violent extremism.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
READ MORE STORIES IN OUR SERIES “WOMEN & JIHAD”:
- The Covert Project to Help Mothers Push Back Against the Taliban
- More Than Just Mothers: The Changing Roles of Women in Extremism
- One Woman’s Tale of Being Radicalized by ‘Utopian’ Promises
- 10 Women Leading the Way in Counter-Extremism
This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”