On 15 August 2021, Arg, the Presidential Palace of Kabul, was captured by the Taliban, a fundamentalist militant force. It was a depiction of the grim reality that the Taliban were in complete control and there was a new regime prepared to rule Afghanistan, albeit not what was desired by the people of the country. There were visuals everywhere showing the Afghan people running on the Airport tarmac with the hope of boarding airplanes to escape the misery that awaited them, now that the Taliban had seized power.
The Taliban regime has had brutal misogynists that have used terror to exercise power and control. They ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the US-led invasion in 2001 and resolved to turn Afghanistan into a pure Islamic state. Taliban never recognised the Kabul government and the 2004 constitution of Afghanistan. Any remnants of western influence did not suit the agenda of the militant group. The first time when they came to power in 1996, they imposed measures which suppressed women’s rights in Afghanistan. The systemic repression of the Afghan women by the Taliban regime has been well documented. Numerous reports have acknowledged the rise of Taliban to the atrocities against the women in Afghanistan.
The suffering which comes from inhuman restrictions that the Taliban imposes on the Afghan women is beyond comprehension. In the earlier regime, women were forbidden from gaining education; they couldn’t gain employment and there was limited access to health care facilities. They could not go out of their homes unchaperoned; they were to be always accompanied by a ‘mahram’, a close male member in the family such as husband, father or brother. There was strict gender segregation in health care facilities. Women weren’t allowed to be treated by the male doctors making it difficult for an already impoverished country which hardly had any female professionals. Also, separate hospitals were allotted to them and in the absence of female physicians and nurses, women were often left to die.
The blue coloured Burqa was almost synonymous with the Afghani women during the Taliban rule. It covered their head, face and body. Women who refused to wear it were punished and sometimes beaten to death for reasons such as for showing their ankles and wearing shoes that make noise. Anything which attracted or called for male attention was deemed to be inappropriate. A woman was restricted to the confines of her home which was considered a “safe place” for her.
In the rural areas girls were not encouraged to study after the sixth grade. A Talibani, and any Afghani man adhering to that philosophy, considers women to be inferior, to be perceived solely as child bearers, and providers for the needs of the male members of the family. Most of the Taliban ground forces have been derived from rural areas who hold the patriarchal notion that well-educated and exposed women are responsible for moral corruption of men in the society and hence there is a need to control them.
The Taliban have had scant regard for rights of Afghan women and in the past instituted rules that took them centuries back. Boundaries were set to protect women’s honour, to save them from the prying eyes of men. It was a classic misogynist mindset which lay emphasis on the protection of women. Denial of political representation under the Taliban also meant marginalization and lack of equal treatment for women. The rules that were adopted reduced the public space for Afghan women.
The new Taliban has tried to portray itself as being moderate unlike the previous regime. It held its first-ever press conference with Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson. In its efforts to portray itself as a reformed unit, the Taliban spokesperson stated that women will be allowed to educate themselves and gain employment under the Shariah Law. But given their history and experiences from the past, it will be difficult to trust the Taliban when it comes to women’s rights. The previous Taliban regime also held the same opinion but what actually happened on the ground was there for the whole world to see. Twenty years since then, the Taliban have now taken to social media to put forward their “moderate” stance and are holding press conferences espousing the same, but the reality seems far from what is being depicted.
The human rights abuses that Afghans were witness to in the last regime have already begun. After its takeover in August 2021, the Taliban banned co-education in the Herat Province of Afghanistan. Mullah Farid, the Taliban head for Higher Education, announced that co- education must end and only female lecturers will be allowed to teach the female students. In Ghazni Province, music was banned and female employees working in the local radio stations were asked not to come. In Feyzabad city of Badakhshan Province, four girls were beaten for wearing unsuitable clothing. There are reports that the Taliban are seeking alliances for marriage and doing house searches and forcing families to give their daughters to Taliban forces.
The women across Afghanistan fear that they will lose the liberty that they had over the last two decades, in Taliban’s rule. Is the present generation of Afghan women and young girls ready to face what their mothers had to go through under the last Taliban regime? In the last two decades a better Afghanistan with rights and freedoms for the Afghan women was being envisioned. More number of girls, albeit largely in urban areas, were educated and women acquired professional degrees and gained employment. With the Taliban now in power women fear that the Taliban is going to strike back and be after female professionals, including journalists, women in advocacy groups, NGOs, and those who occupied high positions in the previous Afghan government.
However, in these dynamic times, the Taliban is under scrutiny now more than ever. Instead of total abandonment, it is time for the international community to build up pressure. Afghanistan is part of several covenants and treaties that it has signed as a nation and that need to be adhered to without any disregard for civil, political, cultural and human rights. There is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that was ratified by Afghanistan in 1983. Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women was also ratified in 2003. Article 7 of the Afghanistan Constitution entails that “the state shall observe the United Nations Charter, inter-state agreements, as well as international treaties to which Afghanistan has joined, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Taliban is bound to abide by all of these. But will the Taliban succumb to such pressure? Previously too, Afghanistan was part of the treaties that respected human rights however; the Taliban continued its excesses with impunity. The international community should keep a strict watch on the Taliban and not loosen the grip over it while it desperately seeks legitimacy on international platforms and avoid global sanctions.
The Taliban have traditionally known to not give voice to Muslim women to engage in public space. The Taliban avows that the limits and boundaries that it places on the Afghan women are according to the Islamic Shariah law and justifies its decision by giving it an Islamic legitimacy. However, many Muslim scholars have countered that Islam does not treat its women the way the Taliban wants the world to believe and have reprimanded the brutal practices enforced by the Taliban.
Additionally, now there is a new generation of women who have a voice, are aware of their rights and had hopes that they build before the new Taliban regime. Recently, a group of women held placards and demonstrated in front of the Taliban in Kabul that the Taliban should acknowledge the rights of the Afghan women. It would be very interesting if the women in Afghanistan are able to put a formidable challenge to the Taliban forces.
After the ill-planned US withdrawal, and the abandonment of the country by its own political leaders, the reappearance of the Taliban is not good news for the women of Afghanistan. Rights of women in Afghanistan are uncertain as it looks at the moment and is more likely to deteriorate further. How much ever the Taliban might want to rebrand itself as more tolerant than the previous regime, the reality is that the women in Afghanistan are going to see the current regime suspiciously.
BDST: 2045 HRS, SEP 14, 2021