The State of Women's Rights in Afghanistan
Updated: 6 days ago
TW: Violence, Gender-based violence
Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, at the Taliban’s first press conference following their acquisition of Afghanistan, added a pledge for the women of Afghanistan stating: “we are guaranteeing all their rights within the limits of Islam.”
What occurred in the subsequent weeks included ordinances for women to stay home, school closures, and movement restrictions. The disconnect between actions and words ultimately proved that the Taliban’s promises were empty ones - what exactly constitutes as women’s rights according to the group themselves is extremely narrow, with not only limits to women’s personal freedoms but unjust cruelty as well. Human Rights Watch notes, in their study into women’s rights in Afghanistan, noted that punishments go beyond taking away their liberty, including stoning, lashing, and amputation - all things one might be subject to if merely going for a walk without a male chaperone, or mahram (a member of one's family considered unmarriageable).
These examples of extreme and corporeal punishment have been features of Taliban authority, as Human Rights Watch’s reports in an article observing the Taliban. Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been in a precarious position very often because of the Taliban presence. However, with their recent rise to power, it is abundantly clear that the fragile conception of Afghani women’s liberty has been shattered. It is an act of injustice, afflicting a range of victims. The Taliban rule affects the freedoms of all citizens. While some are being displaced from their homes, others are experiencing extreme poverty as the economy worsens. Because of the political situation, local currency, the afghani - which was already low in value - is now worth even less. This is a plight suffered by all Afghanis. Still, it is women who suffer disproportionately.
Since the Taliban’s ascent to power, women with professional careers who financially support their families are unable to return to work. 26-year-old Zahra of Herat expressed her shock and sorrow at the Taliban’s takeover to The Associated Press. Zahra worked with local nonprofit organizations to raise awareness on women’s rights. In the weeks leading up to the Taliban’s takeover, Zahra worked remotely from home as militant forces marched towards Herat. Unfortunately, ever since Taliban fighters broke through Herat’s defenses in mid-August, she has been unable to work at all. Zahra lamented the possibility of being unable to return to her office, saying, “How can it be possible for me as a woman who has worked so hard and tried to learn and advance, to now have to hide myself and stay at home?”
There are women who have built careers for themselves, dedicating specific skill sets to their professional abilities. They are now expected to stay home and find new jobs despite all the work they have put into their ambitions. 43-year-old Noor Khatera, an accounts department employee at Azizi Bank explained this problem to Reuters. “I taught myself English and even learned how to operate a computer, but now I will have to look for a place where I can just work with more women around.”
What this ultimately represents is a regression of rights - the transitional period from Taliban rule in 1996 to 2001 gave women in urban areas of Afghanistan the rights to learn and pursue careers. Marianne O’Grady, Kabul-based CARE International deputy country director, attested that the accomplishments of women over the past 20 years have been so dramatic that going back to the way things were seems out of the question. “You can’t uneducate millions of people.” Still, there is a looming sense of dread felt by many of the women in Afghanistan. Their education, ambition, and successes can all be taken away overnight. Such an experience is devastating, especially after knowing a life without such restrictions. “I feel we are like a bird who makes a nest for a living and spends all the time building it, but then suddenly and helplessly watches others destroy it,” said Zarmina Kakar, a 26-year-old women’s rights activist in Kabul.
The education ministry announced that boys from grades 6-12 were to return to school, along with their male teachers. There was no mention of girls. This situation is acting as a major talking point on an international scale. UNESCO’s Director General Audrey Azoulay added her voice to the growing concern over the Taliban’s limitations on girls after only boys were told to go back to school. “Should this ban be maintained, it would constitute an important violation of the fundamental right to education for girls and women,” Azoulay said in a statement upon her arrival in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
The question of whether or not the Taliban have reformed their policies pertaining to women and abolished their misogyny has a clear and concise answer. Despite the gentler rhetoric used by Mujahid, it's obvious through actions like requiring a mahram when in public and suspending women from their careers and schools that there is only a little hope for women’s freedoms to be restored.
There have been overseas suggestions that, before one should be critical of the Taliban’s policies, the group should be given time to lay out a more specific and functional government. However, no evidence suggests that any of their acts of oppression will be adjusted. There is more recent evidence of the contrary.
Western Imperialism in Discussion
In Kabul, the Taliban set up the ministry for the “propagation virtue and prevention of vice” in what used to be the Women’s Affairs Ministry. These offices, as reported by the New York Times, have been repurposed for the religious morality police, who once instilled dread in Afghanistan for their suppression of women.” This feels strangely symbolic - as if the final blow to the fragile structure of women’s rights.
Another troublesome fact comes from what the new ministry represents. Such extremist ideals bar women from all facets of life under the guise that doing so is doing right by religious virtue. The foundations of Taliban thought are defined by extremist religion, which can lead to some unfortunate leaps in logic. This is something that is subject to unnecessary conflation and is worth being aware of - especially when such injustice reaches an international scope of awareness.
The religion of Islam should not be conflated with the oppression of women. What becomes oppression stems from radicalization and extremism, embodied by the Taliban.
Conversely, western culture should not be conflated with liberation. There is an egregious amount of rhetoric that suggests women in makeup and western fashions makes them far more liberated. The standard of what a “free” woman is should not be defined by her creed, religion, or how she dresses, but by the agency she is granted. The blatant exploitation of Muslim women as conduits to forward a message of white supremacy is a method that has been utilized for far too long. Western powers weaponised their image to sell a war - the burqa became a garment that represented oppression. Not only is this a terrible approach to supporting women but it is also reductive to suggest that there is only one way to be liberated, or even that there is a best way to do so.
Editors: Evie F., Sarah H., Raniyah B., Chris F.
This article was originally written in September 2021
Image Credits: Kiana Hayeri via the New York Times