THE FATE OF WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN AND THEIR RIGHTS: THEN AND NOW
Updated: Feb 1
After the 9/11 attacks, American involvement in Afghanistan has been measured through different perspectives. Through the perspective of women’s rights and freedom of expression, there has been slow but steady progress. For the last two decades, women have been able to take up education, work, contest on political grounds, participate in sports, take up business roles and other activities. Besides this, women were also free to choose their dress code at home and in public places. With that being said, the speed at which the Taliban took over Afghan provinces left the entire world stunned. Amidst the humanitarian crisis going on in Afghanistan, the situation of women and their rights remain as the main concern. The collapse of the Afghan democratic government in August 2021 decimated the improvement in the rights of women during their reign. Women who had earlier tasted the freedom during the American presence in Afghanistan are now restrained to the domestic chores with the strict dress code of hijab (covering the whole body except face and hands). The rule of Sharia imposed by the Taliban weighs down on the rights of women and make them dependent on their male counterparts. For example, women are now fearing going out alone even in case of emergency, without their ‘male escorts’.
The whole world is witnessing how those women, who freely moved across the country, are now covered inside black dress and confined in their homes since the re-emergence of the Taliban. Visuals of Clarissa Ward, a famous CNN journalist, went viral when she began reporting to CNN with her head covered in a tight black head-cover. After a few days into the Taliban’s re-emergence in Afghanistan, Khalid Hosseini, a famous Afghan writer expressed his worry and sympathy towards his fellow Afghan sisters under the rule of the Taliban on Facebook. Hosseini expressed, “during the Taliban’s earlier rule, Afghanistan was the worst place on the planet to be women.” Hosseini told CNN that he was worried about women’s voice being silenced yet again under the new Taliban regime.
Drawing from the visuals of women behind barbed wires in the Kabul Airport that aired on television and on social media, one could reflect on how women desperately wanted to get out of the country in view of Taliban’s re-emergence. The visuals represented chaos; and Afghans, specifically women, jostled for a chance to climb the aircraft in the Hamid Karzai International Airport in a desperate attempt to flee the country even without fearing the risks of clinging onto aircraft wheels and wings.
Education and Employment
In the previous rule of the Taliban, girls were not allowed to pursue education after 8 years of age. According to World Bank data, in 2000, there was not a single girl enrolled in a school. Women were also banned from employment. Women were often assaulted if their burqas were short, and for polishing and growing their nails. They were not allowed to come out of their houses without a male guardian, and were stoned if they were perceived to be ‘too independent’.
With the American intervention, the government of Afghanistan was able to provide education to millions of women. It can be noted that saving Afghan women from the repressive rule of the Taliban helped America to justify their extended presence in Afghanistan.
In April 2017, an official of the Ministry of Education told Human Rights Watch that out of 9.3 million children in school, only 39 percent were girls.
Although the U.S. intervention brought attention to the issues faced by Afghan women and secured humanitarian aid to improve their plight, it must be noted that only women in major cities such as Kabul were beneficiaries of the humanitarian aid. It must also be acknowledged that high levels of corruption in Afghanistan played a role in undermining women’s success in the country. Despite these factors, women were able to achieve success in improving their conditions under the democratic regime.Afghan women were also able to take up employment in various fields. They stepped into military, government and judicial services. For instance, in November 2019, 26-year-old Zarifa Ghafari became the youngest female mayor in the country’s history. Women also took up jobs in journalism, television hosting and became entrepreneurs. It is to be noted that Afghan women actively participated in sports and took immense interest in science and technology.
With the re-emergence of the Taliban, women fear the return of their repressive rule. Muhibullah Muhib, a police spokesperson of Farah Province in Afghanistan reported that two girls’ schools were set ablaze and four schools were attacked by the Taliban during the Doha Peace Talks in 2019, that led to the runup of the US-Taliban Peace Deal. Taking into account that these acts were carried out even before Taliban’s re-emergence in Afghanistan, one cannot help but fear the possibility of the re-emergence of their repressive rule.
In many regions, reports have revealed the severity of restrictions imposed on women’s education, music, outdoor activities, movement and clothing. According to the Human Rights Watch, very few Taliban officials in these regions allow girls to continue their schooling post puberty. The Taliban has also ordered the Afghans to remove images of women from billboards and hoardings of shops and salons. Moreover, three women from Kandahar narrated that after the Taliban took over the southern city of Kandahar in July, the Taliban fighters ordered nine women working in Azizi Bank to leave; instructing their male relatives to occupy their position.
Since the withdrawal of the United States and NATO and the re-emergence of the Taliban, Afghan women are fearing to reveal their identities and display their educational qualification. Women who worked as judges, journalists, and professors are now trying to find ways to destroy their work records; fearing to be stoned and persecuted by the radical Taliban. For instance, Shabana Basij Rasikh, a social entrepreneur and founder of an All Girls Boarding School, tweeted that she was burning the educational records of her students to protect them from the Taliban. Unfortunately, women literacy and their educational qualification hold no relevance in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Healthcare, Forced Marriage and Rise in violence
In the previous Taliban rule, women were given rudimentary access to medical health care. Since women were barred from any form of employment, there were only male doctors in the hospital for diagnosis. The norm dictated these male physicians to examine women only if they were fully clothed. This jeopardized the diagnosis of health-related complications in women; thereby, resulting in higher mortality rates of women. Women were asked to remain inside closed doors and not to step outside; further leading to the rise in mental health issues amongst women. Taliban also made it mandatory for women to cover themselves with a burqa. Although wearing burqa amongst Muslims is a common practice in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world, however, in Afghanistan, the Taliban enforced the wearing of the burqa with threats, fines, and on-the-spot beatings. Even the accidental display of feet or ankles was severely punished. The Taliban fighters also provided ‘wives’ to Afghan men in order to lure them to join the Taliban force. The term ‘wives’ is ambiguous here. This is not marriage but sexual enslavement of women; forcing them into sexual slavery.
The overall situation of women improved with the new government when the U.S.A. invaded Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan passed several laws that elevated the situation of women. They passed laws on the Elimination of Violence Against Women which outlawed 22 abuses against women including rape and forced marriage, and established special courts with female judges to provide to facilitate fast-track judgments vis-à-vis violence against women. The government also protected the sexual and reproductive rights of women, permitted women to travel and drive on their own, to name a few. It must be noted that although the implementation of these acts remains patchy, it improved the overall status of women in Afghan society. With the recent collapse of the Afghan government with the withdrawal of U.S-backed NATO forces, whatever little freedom women managed to muster was also nullified.
With the return of the Taliban, terrifying incidents of the past have already started repeating. The Taliban, this time, have also made it mandatory for women to wear burqas. In many districts, flyers were circulated demanding women to wear burqas. In an open letter, Afghan filmmaker Sahraa Karimi provided detailed insights into the murders and massacres just as the Taliban took over the state; describing how they bought child brides for the militants and killed women wearing western clothes. In July 2021, Taliban officials asked local religious leaders to provide them with the names of girls over the age of fifteen and widows under the age of forty-five to be married to the fighters. The return of the Taliban clearly indicates the increase in sexual violence against Afghan women.
Taliban’s stance on women
To get international as well as domestic recognition, the Taliban are now promising to uphold the rights of women such as the right to education, freedom to work, and so on. During the Taliban’s first news conference, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stated that women would be free to work and attain education but went on to add that all Afghan nationals were required to live within ‘the framework of Islam’ without providing any explanation.
The Taliban has promised the inclusion of women in the government along with the provision of education and employment opportunities; but the actual implementation remains sceptical. With the Taliban still being involved in sabotaging educational institutions for women and girls and selling them as sex slaves to their fighters, the terrorist outfit’s promise seems more and more unrealistic. The hypocrisy in one of Taliban’s promises to allow the representation of women in the government was exposed when the leaders were caught laughing hysterically when asked to comment about it; steadily severing their credibility.
If the ideas of the Taliban had really been reformed as they claim to be, it would mean leaving behind their chauvinistic and misogynistic ideas of women. With that being said, Taliban’s activities over the months has not managed to give away this picture to the Afghans as well as the international community. In fact, Many Afghans are frustrated by the return of the Taliban and blame it on the haphazard withdrawal of the western forces from Afghanistan without taking precautions to thwart the power-hungry Taliban from assuming power.
Recently, many countries around the world deployed troops in Kabul to evacuate their citizens and overseas staff from the country in the wake of the Taliban re-emergence. Amidst the evacuation chaos, the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban was overshadowed by other concerns. The United States, that justified their invasion of Afghanistan on the pretext securing the rights of women, left the country with a void that is threatening the future of the Afghans, especially women. While Article 27 of the Geneva Convention calls for protecting women from sexual violence, it is distressing to observe that no country in the international community has taken serious interest towards addressing the plight of women under the Taliban as much as securing their own geostrategic and economic interests. In fact, even India, has also adopted the policy of ‘wait and watch’.
The current need of Taliban is the recognition of its rule. The countries of the world must ensure that they recognise the Taliban rule only if Taliban promises to protect women’s safety. These countries should threaten to end trade deals with Afghanistan unless the Taliban decides to protect women’s dignity and rights. These nations must set a criteria for the treatment of women and if the Taliban is not able to meet the expectation, the countries should refuse to recognise Taliban and engage in any relations with Afghanistan.
The international community must support local and international stakeholders involved in ensuring the protection of women and their rights and ensure that Afghan women are provided with opportunities to negotiate and advocate for their rights before it is too late.
Countries must also threaten to stop aid to Afghanistan unless the Taliban promises rights and freedom to women. About 80% of Afghan government’s budget comes from donors and about 40% of GDP came from international aid. Thus, the foreign aid given to Afghanistan must be regulated if not stopped. At the same time, a balance between humanitarian aid and target sanction needs to be made. The international community must also ensure that the people of Afghanistan do not suffer in the process.
The international community is required to strike a balance between their national interests and the interest of protecting Afghan women. Clearly, the horrors and atrocities committed by the Taliban before 2001 are being repeated by the re-emerged Taliban. The legal and reproductive rights of women along with their freedom of movement, education, and employment that were initially granted by the Government of Afghanistan have ceased to exist. Under the Taliban, women are facing increasing threats of rapes, domestic violence, forced marriages, etc.
It is vital to note that without the sustained efforts of the international community, the Afghan society will completely return to the oppressive Taliban rule of Sharia; and all the efforts and struggles of women to secure rights and freedom will be in vain. The world needs to act swiftly and decisively as the repercussions of what happens within Afghanistan extend well beyond its borders.
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Cover Image: Army Amber / Pixabay
About the author: Liza Gupta is a master's student pursuing Diplomacy, Law and Business. She is passionate about research in politics, international studies, women's issues and peace studies.