In Taliban’s New Afghan Emirate, Women Are Invisible

“All the women of Afghanistan have one fear, the Taliban,” said former deputy defense minister Munera Yousufzada.

August 27,2021 (Foreign Policy)-As the Taliban consolidate control over their new Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, women have largely disappeared from public as extremists force them from their jobs and into their homes, bringing an end to 20 years of progress toward freedom and equality.

Human rights activists say they are still unsure if the Ministry of Women’s Affairs will reopen once the Taliban come to grips with the needs of running the country. In the meantime, international support for programs for women has been suspended, and sources in the sector cannot say when or if it will resume.

Almost two weeks after the fall of Kabul, little is understood of how the group intends to govern. They have talked about an “inclusive” government, and sources close to the leadership have said a 12-man council will rule. But so far, most appointments have gone to mullahs—religious men with no experience running ministries, provinces, or even hotels.

Some Afghan sources said suicide attacks at the gate of Kabul’s airport on Thursday, which killed more than 100 people, including 13 U.S. service members, were aimed at discouraging people with education from leaving the country as they will be essential once the country reopens. Although the local Islamic State branch claimed responsibility for the attacks, some Afghans suspect the Haqqani network, closely aligned with the Taliban and in control of security in Kabul, was the more likely perpetrator.

Women are being married to Taliban fighters as spoils of war.

Since Aug. 15, when the militant group took over the capital, Taliban spokespeople have attempted to placate fears of a return to the pre-2001 strictures, saying women will live according to sharia law, though without elaborating what that might mean in practice. Women have said they fear their jobs will be taken from them and they will be forced to stay at home, only leaving in the company of a male relative and then only in the all-covering burqa, as happened during the Taliban’s 1996 to 2001 regime. 

Before 2001, girls could only be educated in secret schools. Women were beaten in the streets for such minor so-called “transgressions” as wearing the wrong shoes—the only clothing visible beneath their burqas. Since the U.S.-led intervention, schooling was massively expanded and opened up to girls, with more than 9 million students attending, more than one-third of them girls.

So far, the extremists have not permitted women to return to their jobs in government; some women television news presenters have either been forced into more modest clothing or off the air altogether. A senior editor at one private TV station said the Taliban were pressuring him to remove women from presenting positions.

In some parts of the country, women are being married to Taliban fighters as spoils of war. Some activists have disappeared from their homes as the Taliban go door-to-door looking for enemies. Perhaps one of the most ominous indications of what the future holds was the Taliban announcement that women should stay indoors to be safe from abuse by their young fighters, implying a lack of discipline and the potential for violence.

“All the women of Afghanistan have one fear, the Taliban,” said Munera Yousufzada, a former Afghan deputy minister of defense. “This is a highly traditional society largely without value for human rights. So the only guarantee and pressure on this society to enable women to work and be active in society has to come from the international community. Unfortunately, now that support has gone,” she said.

This week, Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, reported a range of human rights violations committed by the Taliban since they took over the country, including summary executions of civilians and members of the security forces. But she said how the Taliban treat women will be the most important gauge of what sort of a country Afghanistan becomes.

“A fundamental red line will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls and respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression, and employment, guided by international human rights norms. In particular, ensuring access to quality secondary education for girls will be an essential indicator of commitment to human rights,” Bachelet said, addressing the U.N.’s Human Rights Council on the Afghanistan crisis. It was not clear how the United Nations aims to hold the Taliban accountable.

“If the international community completely withdraws from Afghanistan, the country—and its women—will once again disappear, forgotten,” Yousufzada said. “Although these days, few women can complain. The Taliban are just fooling the international community to get recognition. Once they have that recognition, they will establish their dictatorship, and that will be the time that they show their real face and we will return to a repeat of the dark past.”

Some women, however, have complained, holding small public protests calling on the Taliban to respect the gains they have made in the past two decades. Women’s equality and protection from violence is guaranteed by the post-2001 constitution, and female representation in parliament is mandated to be at least 68 out of 249 seats. But holding onto these concessions and ensuring they are enforced and upheld have not been easy over the past two decades—and won’t be any easier now.

A decade ago, there was a bitter (but ultimately unsuccessful) effort to trim the number of mandated parliamentary seats for women. In 2015, a mob killed Farkhunda Malikzada after she was falsely accused of burning pages of the Quran, a harsh reminder that attitudes to women remained largely unchanged even after 15 years of Western oversight and billions of dollars in aid for programs focused specifically on women.

“Women in Afghanistan feel abandoned, hopeless, uncertain about the future, and betrayed.”

The World Bank has suspended funding for “self help groups” that enable women in Afghanistan to set up small businesses and access financing, said an international nongovernmental organization worker who administered the program. “It is now considered a robust institutional platform for empowering women across the world; all this effort will go to waste if we don’t continue to build on the successes of this critical project by channeling funds directly to these groups,” the worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Axana Soltan, who runs a small nonprofit supporting Afghan women from the United States, said some of her relatives seemed to believe death was preferable to life under the Taliban.

“Women in Afghanistan feel abandoned, hopeless, uncertain about the future, and betrayed. I spoke to several of my female cousins, and they told me they are hopeless about the future of Afghan women. One of my cousins described her condition as ‘living inside a black hole of hopelessness,’” Soltan said.

“Another female cousin, who is 15 years old, said: ‘I had dreams of becoming a doctor. Now I am questioning if I will be alive tomorrow and worried if my family will be alive,’” she said.