By Mfonobong Okoko
The recent Taliban retake of Afghanistan took the world by surprise. Today, even as the Taliban gains more territory in Afghanistan, there remain concerns about what this change in government would mean for individual freedoms, especially women’s rights.
The Taliban is a group mostly made up of former Afghan resistance fighters which emerged in the 1990s following the civil war. Their promise to restore peace and security and end the reign of warlords in the war-torn country garnered a following in the beginning. However, as they gained control of the country in 1996, they quickly alienated many Afghans due to their harsh rule and poor human rights record until US forces overthrew them in 2001.
During their rule, they enforced a strict interpretation of Islam which, among other concerns, was especially harsh to women. At the time, the country was still reeling from the war, and many Afghan women had actively contributed to humanitarian efforts through relief organisations. By the early 90s, it is estimated that 70% of teachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women. This changed drastically when the Taliban gained power. Women were barred from working, leaving them unable to cater for themselves independently. Their appearances and speech were policed, thus robbing them of their freedom of speech and expression; they were barred from public spaces without wearing a burqa, having a presence in mass media, using nail varnish, and even speaking loudly in public.
Afghan women had their basic rights severely restricted. They were denied access to education; the Taliban shut down education centres for women and banned studying for women and girls. Public enlightenment posters, including those with health information, were removed. Freedom of movement was not spared as women were barred from moving around without a male relative or guardian. Women and girls were so isolated and shut-in that there was a high rate of mental health problems, including suicide and depression among women. They also suffered restricted access to healthcare and medical services; male doctors could only examine a female patient if she were fully clothed, and due to the ban on work for women, there were no female doctors. The lack of adequate healthcare contributed to high mortality rates, especially during childbirth. It was reported that 16 per cent of Afghan women died during childbirth.
The repressive rule of the Taliban was laden with violence against women, including rape, brutal assault, and forced marriages. Harsh punishments accompanied the enforced restrictions for violators, including flogging, imprisonment, mutilation, and in some cases, execution.1 It also left women and girls extremely vulnerable to abuse and gender-based violence, especially by male relatives and Taliban guards.
Afghanistan has made leaps of progress on women’s rights since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. Since the group’s rapid advance and eventual takeover of the capital Last Sunday, thousands have fled the country and many others continue to live in fear of a recurrence of history. The Taliban has taken steps to put people at ease, assuring a more moderate rule this time with respect for “life, property and honour”. They also maintain that women’s rights would be protected. At a press conference on Tuesday, Zabihullah Mujahid said, “No prejudice against women will be allowed”. However, some reports indicate that this may not be the case. There seems to be a disconnect between the official statements by the Taliban leadership and the actions of Taliban officials.
The situation is tense across the country as many fear a revival of the Taliban repression. Many businesses and schools in recently Taliban-controlled areas have remained closed, with women mostly staying at home. The New York Times reported that women in some parts had been told not to leave home without a male relative. In Herat, Taliban officials barred female staff and students from entering the university campus on Tuesday. At Kabul University, female students were told they could not leave their rooms without a male guardian. In Kandahar, eyewitnesses report that some women’s healthcare centres were shut down. In Mazar-i-Sharif, women shopping alone in the city’s bazaar were told to return with male guardians. On state television, Khadija Amin, an anchor-woman, announced that the Taliban had indefinitely suspended her and other female colleagues. A Taliban official swiftly replaced her.
Despite Taliban leadership assurances, there may be a lack of consensus within their ranks. The leaders called on local commanders to rule fairly and avoid reprisals on people who worked with the ousted government and abuse of citizens. However, there have been reports of armed men seeking out former government officials in Kabul, although it is unclear if these are Taliban operatives. Furthermore, in an emergency meeting with the Security Council, António Guterres – the UN secretary-general, mentioned human rights abuses on women and girls in Afghanistan. In the face of these mounting concerns, the international community seems to be waiting and watching. Foremost aid donors to the ousted government like the US, Britain and the European Union have declared a pause on development and security aid as they contemplate boosting humanitarian aid.
Considering the gravity and implications for women’s rights in Afghanistan, the international community seems relatively slow to respond. The fear and uncertainty regarding rights already protected under international law and moral principles in itself is a human right violation. People need to be confident in the international system to not only protect human rights but that states are held accountable when there are violations. There needs to be swift action to leverage benefits to ensure individual freedoms. The Taliban takeover means that former sanctions against them may not be effective as they now control the Afghan economy. The US froze Afghan government reserves held in US bank accounts. It would be reasonable for other countries to do the same and hinge the release on concrete steps to guarantee the continuous protection of citizens’ rights, especially for women and girls.
Nagourney, E. (2021). Who are the Taliban, and what do they want? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/article/who-are-the-taliban.html
Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women. Retrieved from https://2001-2009.state.gov/g/drl/rls/6185.htm
Afghan women under old Taliban. (2021). Retrieved from https://www.indiatoday.in/world/video/afghan-women-under-old-taliban-1842886-2021-08-19
Faiez, R., Akhgar, T., Krauss, J. (2021). Afghans fear a return to brutal rule despite Taliban vows. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-taliban-13304940ec709865ca52aae2d832b963
Fassihi, F., Bilefsky, D. (2021). For Afghan Women, Taliban Stir Fears of Return to a Repressive Past. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/17/world/asia/afghanistan-women-taliban.html
Seir, A., Faiez, R., Gannon, K., Krauss, J. (2021). Taliban vow to respect women, despite a history of oppression. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-taliban-kabul-1d4b052ccef113adc8dc94f965ff23c7