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Kathy Sheridan: Across the world, the patriarchy is fighting back

After 20 years of living their lives as autonomous human beings, few Afghan women anticipated being abandoned to the mercies of the Taliban again

For a while there Liz Cheney could have been mistaken for Hillary Clinton. Speaking at the Ronald Reagan presidential library – iconic for less deranged Republicans – Cheney said how moved she had been by all the young Americans approaching her about her role on the January 6th committee hearings.

“I will tell you that it is especially the young women, young women who seem instinctively to understand the peril of this moment for our democracy,” she said, referring to witnesses such as 26-year-old Cassidy Hutchinson. Men much older and in mightier positions have “hidden behind executive privilege, anonymity and intimidation... Let me also say this to all the little girls and young women who are watching tonight. These days, for the most part, men are running the world, and it is really not going well.”

A bold message from a conservative. Another sent to the same young girls and women only days earlier told a radically different story. That one signalled her pleasure at the overturning of the constitutional right to abortion – a decision in which four of the five assenting judges were men, the fifth being a right-wing Catholic woman specifically appointed for that task by Donald Trump.

Back here the shock troops were emboldened again. Speaking at a Mass in advance of an anti-abortion rally in Dublin last Saturday, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin – the head of an exclusively male priesthood – described recent developments in the US as “hopeful and encouraging... Often you face setbacks, because the pro-life message is countercultural, and is falsely portrayed as negative, ‘anti-women’, ‘anti-choice’, or lacking in compassion...“

The archbishop and supporters are entitled to their views, of course.

It’s only a few decades since even the lowliest male clerics considered themselves the supreme arbiters of female sexuality and male-female segregation, so women have learned to be hyper-vigilant.

Have a look at Poland where a decision by constitutional judges – dominated by the ruling Catholic right-wing Law and Justice party – to further restrict abortion rights has resulted in weeks of protests and strikes. Read that sentence again and remember that around two out of three Poles favour liberalisation.

The figure is about the same in the US, which is probably why after 50 years of settled law few American women anticipated the Supreme Court U-turn.

But this much we know: there will always be a backlash. After 20 years of living their lives as autonomous human beings, few Afghan women anticipated being abandoned to the mercies of the Taliban again. Who now remembers when the US and allies were scared off and we could speak of little else for oh, several weeks? That was less than a year ago. Public attention swiftly moved on to other male power freaks with even more shock and awe at their disposal.

But what happened next for Afghan women? In a catastrophically failed state wholly reliant on foreign aid, women-owned and operated businesses were shut down, able qualified women were dismissed from government jobs, and many had to flee the country. A woman with a background in world banking now works in a restaurant kitchen in Canada.

Women are not permitted to travel alone without a male “guardian”. They must wear clothing that obliterates them as individuals. In a remote area last week a woman with broken bones was unable to get assistance because a) there were no female medics nearby, and b) the Taliban insisted she couldn’t be moved without a male guardian in attendance.

Anyone holding out hope for the future might note that girls of secondary school age are barred from education. It was “only a technical issue on the form of school uniform for girls”, explained the Taliban’s acting permanent ambassador to the UN when girls were turned away in March.

Yet over the weekend an outfit apparently incapable of designing a school uniform could organise a 4,500-strong assembly of Islamic clerics and elders from 34 provinces for three days with 1,200 security bodies to protect them. No women were allowed. The acting deputy prime minister said men would speak for women “because we respect them a lot”.

It was that kind of conference. One imam warned that “whoever commits the smallest act against our Islamic government should be beheaded”.

Just two participants called for the reopening of secondary schools for girls, the Tolo television channel reported. The Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader made no mention of women or girls at all in an hour-long speech, lashing out instead at foreigners questioning the leadership: “They say ‘why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?’ Why does the world interfere in our affairs?”

If there is a positive note in all this it is that not a single country has recognised this government as legitimate. The downside of that falls to the people of Afghanistan now living through a dire humanitarian crisis. What vaguely moral entity will willingly send billions in aid direct to such malignant rulers? In sweeping exemptions announced by the US in February, sanctions were eased to permit humanitarian aid and assistance even to Afghan ministries run by sanctioned individuals. Nobody noticed – probably because another power-crazed brute was invading Ukraine.

The Taliban will find ways of evading the rules, of course. Threatened by insurgencies and proxy wars, they will find a route to channel aid dollars to the military, as many Afghans fear.

A lust for power and control, combined with arrogance and inhumanity, will do what it always do in such cowardly, misogynistic bubbles. The systemic oppression of women and girls will be sidelined as a matter of “politics” or “culture” or whining western feminists.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.