In the three months since President Joe Biden announced a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, most American forces have left. And as the Taliban advances in the countryside, many Afghan government soldiers have also quit. Yet amid this mass retreat, a new set of fighters has emerged. According to news reports, hundreds of Afghan women have taken up arms – or at least brandished them – to prevent a return of the Taliban and its harsh Islamic rule.

“There were some women who just wanted to inspire security forces, just symbolic, but many more [are] ready to go to the battlefields,” Halima Parastish, the head of the women’s directorate in Ghor province, told The Guardian.

Other women, less prone to violence, have taken another tactic. Many are making efforts for a cease-fire, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Still others are providing moral support. According to a new survey by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), rural women are very concerned about retaining the civic rights that they have gained since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban two decades ago.

The survey challenges the notion that women in rural areas might accept the norms of the Taliban. “Almost every woman we spoke to, regardless of the political stance and level of conservatism that could be gleaned from the answers, expressed a longing for greater freedom of movement, education for their children (and sometimes themselves) and a greater role in their families and wider social circles,” according to AAN. Nationwide, more than half of Afghan girls now attend school.

The sudden activism by Afghan women comes with some irony for America’s longest war. To help justify the war, many U.S. officials cited the “plight of Afghan women.” Now it is Afghan women who are actively rejecting their plight in case the Taliban takes power.

“The struggle for fairer gender relations and therefore a more just and peaceful society is certainly here to stay in one manifestation or another,” states an article about Afghan women in AAN.

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The Taliban may be able to outgun the Afghan Army, but for many women, civic rights now have what legal scholars call “positive vitality.” In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine, President Ashraf Ghani put it this way, “I assure you, the women will no longer give up their rights here.” He added that 30% of government workers are women.

This optimism is reflected by many foreign observers. “The Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of 20 years ago. It has moved on. The role of women is now irreversible,” says Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

A country with some 27 million smartphones and a population in which 70% of people are under the age of 25 is unlikely to go back to the dark ages of Taliban rule in the 1990s. The group will be forced to adjust or, as many Afghan women now contend with arms or activism, it cannot take power. Civic rights are too firmly planted for Taliban guns to keep them from blossoming.

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