Afghan women’s rights are at risk

The growing restrictions on women’s rights debunk the myth that Taliban 2.0 is moderate or reformed

Updated - June 13, 2022 12:22 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2022 12:15 am IST

A woman in Kabul, Afghanistan.

A woman in Kabul, Afghanistan. | Photo Credit: AP

In a rare interview, broadcast by CNN on May 17, Afghanistan’s Interior Minister and head of the dreaded Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, promised “very good news” soon on the return of girls to secondary schools that have remained shut since March this year, just hours after their reopening. However, any euphoria about this could be misplaced given the number of regressive steps taken by the Taliban to curb women and girls’ freedom since they took power in August 2021.

The Taliban’s true colours

The initial shock following the Taliban’s seizure of power in Kabul is waning. The Taliban, who during the initial period of the takeover had demonstrated a modicum of moderation to gain international acceptability, funding and recognition, have now started showing their true colours. For long-term observers of Afghanistan, this is hardly surprising. Notwithstanding the U.S.-mediated 2020 peace deal, which seemed to erroneously pin hopes on a “reformed” Taliban to govern the country, many observers had issued warnings that the takeover of power by the Taliban would result in the loss of the fragile gains made in Afghanistan over the last two decades.

While there can be a debate over the gains made by the international community in Afghanistan in the last 20 years, it was unmistakable that opportunities for girls and women in education and employment had expanded vastly. Female participation in Afghanistan’s labour force had climbed from around 15% in 2009 to nearly 22% in 2019. During my frequent visits to various provinces of Afghanistan, it was always heartening to see women play important roles in the government, parliament, the media, the health and education sectors, and in civil society. They had carved space for themselves in conflict-ridden patriarchal structures and systems. Though the various interventions by the international community on women’s issues did not transform the structures, they did provide opportunities for women to be enablers of change. In parliament, and in the provincial councils of Kandahar, Nangarhar, Badakhshan, Herat, Balkh and others, young women took grave risks in political participation and mobilisation.

Today, those voices are lost. A report from the International Labour Organization in January 2022 found that Afghan women’s employment levels fell by an estimated 16% in the third quarter of 2021, compared with 6% for men. By mid-2022, women’s employment is expected to be 21% lower than before the Taliban takeover, if current conditions continue. In a rush to reach out to the Taliban during the peace processes, protection of the rights of women were hardly emphasised as a red line. As fatigue towards the war developed within and outside the country, there were barely any concerted efforts in making women rights and human rights a non-negotiable part of the negotiations. The participation of a few Afghan women representatives in the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha had raised expectations in the international community that the insurgents had reformed and would be willing to accept women’s role in Afghan society and government. These hopes were, however, shattered.

There is speculation that the Taliban are in the process of the finalising the dress code in schools for girls. Haqqani did refer to the “requirement” that education should be based on Afghan “culture” and “Islamic rules and principles”. He referred “more broadly” to the issue of women wearing the hijab. The Taliban are not just identifying dress codes for girls and women; men too have been asked to wear particular types of clothes and grow a beard, which has led to hair dressers bringing down the shutters on their business. However, with regard to women, the Taliban’s diktats have been particularly harsh.

A regressive mindset

Since the capture of power in Kabul, the Taliban have made a series of contradicting moves on the issue of return of women to public life. Initially they referred to the prevalence of chaos and insecurity and asked women to stay indoors. The Taliban’s acting Prime Minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, claimed that women would be allowed to continue working under Sharia law, but female government employees in Kabul were then told to stay at home. Only women whose jobs cannot be performed by men were allowed to work. Subsequently, the regime brought in rules which forbade women from venturing out if they were not accompanied by a male relative. On May 7, the Taliban chief, Hibatullah Akhundzada, issued a decree making an all-covering burqa mandatory for women. It is, therefore, unlikely that Haqqani’s assurance of “very good news” will reverse the group’s regressive outlook.

It is clear that Taliban 2.0 is in no way different from the Taliban that ruled the country between 1996 and 2001. The stories of a “reformed” and “moderate” Taliban, which were narrated by sections of the media, were naïve. I had conducted an interview in May 2012 with Maulvi Qalamuddin, former Deputy Minister for the General Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice of the Taliban, a post in which he oversaw the implementation of extreme Islamic laws through religious police squads who kept a close watch of the Afghan populace, at the High Peace Council in Kabul, an Afghan organisation set up by President Hamid Karzai in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban-led insurgency. When I asked him whether women’s rights would be protected if the Taliban were to come back, he responded: “The west does not understand Afghan society. I am not against women working in offices or going out in public alone. Look, you are a foreigner. If you can cover your head and respect our culture, we appreciate and expect the same from Afghan women. The present breed of Afghan women appearing on TV without head scarves is not acceptable. Women need to adhere to the Sharia laws in consonance with the Afghan culture.” His answers hardly denoted a change of heart.

The greatest impact of denial of rights for women in the workforce would be a sharp contraction in the economy. In addition to the loss of rights, many households run by women could be staring at a bleak future. As per the World Bank, in 2019, 36% of teachers in the country were women, the highest number for 20 years. But most female educators have been forced out of work by the Taliban’s ban on education for girls in March 2022. By the end of 2021, fewer than 100 of Kabul’s 700 female journalists were still working (Reporters Without Borders data).

As the war in Ukraine has grabbed and retained international attention, Afghanistan seems to have been forgotten yet again. Occasionally, the plight of Afghan women and the Taliban’s atrocities find mention in the media. The Taliban do not shy from leveraging the issue to gain international attention. The international community, therefore, needs to make a concerted and coordinated attempt to protect the rights of Afghan women and girls and ensure that Afghanistan’s de facto rulers are held accountable for their actions.

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Founder & President, Mantraya and Visiting Research Fellow, SWP, Berlin. She has conducted field research and worked with women’s groups for more than a decade in Afghanistan

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