In most parts of the world, women’s rights have moved forward over the past 50 years, even if at an incremental pace. And then there’s Afghanistan.
Females had been making strides over the past two decades — becoming high-ranking police officers and regional governors, forming cricket teams — in cities like Kabul and Bamiyan. But now, with the Taliban in charge, that’s all gone, as women flee for their lives, hide in their homes or die at the hands of the new government.
For those old enough to remember, it is a heartbreaking callback to a half-century ago, when Afghan women started to come out from under the veil — only to have their dreams crushed.
French photographer Laurence Brun Lacombe lived in Afghanistan, with her husband, from 1971 to 1972, and snapped many pictures of women throughout the country. On the one hand, much of what she saw looked as it had for centuries.
“Outside of Kabul, every woman wore the chador [burkha],” Lacombe recalled. “I went in the country in the houses of the peasants, to Nuristan and Jalalabad. [As a woman,] I could not travel alone.”
But in Kabul, in the new town, women were exploring new freedoms — attending mixed classes with men and pursuing careers as nurses, professors and government officials. “Most women wore the veil and … a few schoolgirls went with just [a head scarf].”
That required a certain bravery.
“Some women were fighting for their rights but the traditions were very strong so it was not so easy,” Lacombe said.
One day, she came across a group of young women in miniskirts. “I was puzzled,” the photographer recalled. “I didn’t believe what I was seeing … They were very young students and naïve.
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“It was a tiny percent of girls and students who would wear wearing short skirts and it was dangerous for them. They could get acid [splashed] on their legs.”
In 1973, it seemed like there was real hope for women in Afghanistan: King Zahir Shah was overthrown in 1973 by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, a pro-Soviet general who proposed a new constitution and gave women new rights and freedoms.
But the modernizations were too controversial and the general was killed five years later. In 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States cut ties with the country’s government and, along with Britain and China, started funding the anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters — who, eventually, formed the Taliban.
In the midst of all the fighting, any small, hard-won gains by women in the country disappeared — much as they are again today.
Lacombe, for one, will always have a place for Afghanistan in her heart: “Everybody I know who has been there can’t forget this country.” But, she added, “It is so sad what is happening now.”