The Afghanistan Bulletin
Updated: Sep 2
Progressive Elimination: How Women Have Been Erased from Afghan Society Under Taliban
By: Roxanne Jaramillo
The roles of gender have been contested in societies across the Middle East for many generations. Women are often seen as the backbone of family life and overall social structure, while men are seen as those who are supposed to go to work and put in time for hard labor. This notion is now considered antiquated in many cultures, as women gain more rights that are equivalent to those of men. Women have fought for decades to receive rights equal to those of men across many countries, and they continue to do so. Not only are the roles of gender solely a women’s issue, but they are also an issue of human rights in general. If some people are considered above others solely because of their gender, the basic human right to life is violated. Now that the Taliban are in power in Afghanistan, women are facing these violations. Their rights are being stripped from them every day as new policies are implemented that take away their freedoms.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been ingrained in the country’s culture for decades. Women have been encouraged to go to school throughout many generations, and Afghan people take pride in their daughters’ pursuit of education. Women are a main part of society and play a major role in both cultural and economic life. Starting in the 1920s, women’s issues were a critical part of the nation’s construction agenda. King Amanullah Khan, who began ruling in 1919, “introduced a new constitution that sought to guarantee rights for women as well as men.” Khan implemented many policies that supported the inclusion of women, and Queen Soraya became an advocate for women’s rights. Girl’s education was highly valued, and Queen Soraya opened the first girl’s school in Kabul. The first women’s organization in Afghanistan, Anjuman-I-Himayat-I-Niswan, was also formed under Khan’s rule in 1928. This organization was critical and “encouraged women to bring their complaints and injustices to the organization and to unite to contest the oppressive institutions.” Though there was backlash to Khan’s policies by his successor, Mohammed Nadir Shah, this was short lived. From 1933 to 1973 Zahir Shah ruled and reintroduced many of Khan’s initiatives. The 1970s marked a second era of change when “intense women’s reform” occurred in the nation. There was a rise in education, mass literacy programs were implemented for men and women, women assisted in drafting a new constitution “which gave them the right to vote and allowed them to seek elected office,” and in turn more women became representatives in Parliament.
Throughout the development of contemporary Afghanistan, it is clear that women played an important role and were integrated into the foundations of the country. In the midst of this new era, Afghanistan ratified two significant treaties into their constitution: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The ICESCR was ratified on January 24, 1983, and puts protections in place for every member of society. For example, in Article 6 section 1, “…the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses,” which outlines the right that everyone has to participate in the workforce. The CRC was signed on September 27, 1990 and later ratified on March 28, 1994. The CRC extends these rights to specifically include children as well, for example Article 28 section 1 (b), “Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education…make them available…to every child.” These articles ensure that the basic human rights for every member of society are detailed in a way that extends to every nation.
In the years following the ratification of these treaties, however, Afghanistan faced civil war and political instability. Without a centralized government, Taliban forces took Kabul on September 26-27, 1996. The Taliban implemented their strict interpretation of Sharia law, and reneged on the treaties signed by the previous Afghan government. By enforcing policies that ban women from the workplace and closing schools for girls, the Taliban have systematically violated women’s rights and their interpretation of Sharia has effectively erased women from society.
During the period of their rule from 1996-2001, the Taliban implemented an ultra-conservative rule that resulted in many harsh punishments. They carried out “bans on television, Western music and dancing, prohibited women from attending school, or participating in work outside the home.” Taliban officials employed methods including public execution in order to enforce these policies. Taliban engaged in systematic violence against women; “women were publicly beaten, flogged, and even killed for violating the Taliban decrees.” Women were denied basic human rights such as the right to work, to education, to healthcare, to mobility, and freedom of speech. Through these policies it is clear that the Taliban aimed to erase women from society.
The September 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent military intervention by the US and NATO in Afghanistan led to the ousting of the Taliban, paving the way for a new progressive era for Afghan women’s rights. Women in Afghanistan began making progress toward gender equality, holding positions as ambassadors, ministers, governors and even becoming members of police and security forces. In 2001, over 5,000 girls were enrolled in schools in Afghanistan. This number continued to increase in the years following, assisted by policies adopted by the Afghan government. In 2021, just before the Taliban retook power, over 3.8 million girls were enrolled in Afghan schools. The Taliban’s closure of girls’ secondary schools repeals this progress made by women and girls, and strips them of basic right to education.
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was ratified by the Afghan government to promote and incorporate gender equality into domestic law in 2003. The CEDAW details what constitutes as discrimination against women and sets up an agenda to end this unjust treatment. This international treaty focuses on women’s role in all parts of societies, and countries that have ratified this treaty are legally required to put its terms into practice. Women continued to be integrated into society on a larger scale, and in 2015 Afghanistan adopted a new National Action Plan (NAP) for Women, Peace and Security. Women’s rights were a priority of the Afghan government, and it was Afghanistan’s goal to have women included in society at a level equivalent to that of men.
However, when the U.S. and larger international community withdrew troops from Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, the Taliban took control by force, overthrowing the democratically elected government in Kabul. The plans set in motion by the Afghan government were halted by Taliban officials, and the treaties that were previously signed were rendered ineffective. Under Taliban rule many policies, particularly those regarding women, that have been implemented raise concerns among the international community. Despite claims from the Taliban ensuring their desire to protect and include women in society, the policies they have initiated have reversed much of the progress made for women in Afghanistan over the last twenty years.
The Taliban have targeted women and have engaged in blatant violations of their basic rights, such as the right to education, proper healthcare, movement and transportation. The first policy implemented was the closure of all girls’ secondary schools on August 15, 2021. The Taliban promised that this was a temporary policy, and ensured that these schools would open in March 2022. However, the week leading up to schools reopening, Taliban officials reneged on their promise and affirmed that schools would remain closed. Now, a year later, these young girls are still without schooling. The Taliban have also systematically enforced efforts to remove women from the workplace, prohibiting women from returning to work in September 2021. Further, Taliban policies have implemented a stricter form of hijab, requiring women to wear the covering when entering government buildings, taxicabs, and as of May 2022, women are required to have a face covering while in public.
Women have also been segregated from men in many aspects of society: when dining men and women must be separated; the work week for academic institutions is divided into shifts for only women and only men students; amusement parks are open on different days based on gender; and there have been reports of women being banned, from attending mosques for Friday prayers. Women’s right to movement has also been limited as new requirements for travel are enforced. Women are not allowed to travel on public transportation, in airplanes, or take long-distance road trips without male accompaniment, and the regime has stopped issuing driving licenses to women. The Taliban has developed their own system of government, and no laws other than those instituted by the extremist group are in effect. Afghanistan has the highest gender gap out of 156 countries, and no other country has the same restrictions on women as the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
The Taliban intend to mimic the Emirate system of governance used in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. Contrast to the Taliban’s Afghanistan, the UAE offers an example of a Muslim-majority Emirate with women’s rights rooted into the constitution. Article 14 of the UAE Constitution states, “equality, social justice, ensuring safety and security and equality of opportunity for all citizens shall be the pillars of the Society,” which ensures the equal treatment of every individual in the country. Conversely, under the Taliban, women have no place in the laws other than those that are written to exclude them from society. Women in Afghanistan are not granted the same basic rights that women in neighboring Islamic countries enjoy, and they are no longer guaranteed access to secondary education. Though the regime’s officials have promised to implement methods for women to become part of social life, they have instead been consistent about reversing all of the gains made by women in the past two decades. Instead, the Taliban has completely stripped women of their freedoms, and their policies greatly diverge from Afghanistan’s values.
Over the past two decades, Pakistan has given sanctuary and support to the Taliban in their fight against the Afghan government and its Western backers. However, compared to Taliban’s Afghanistan, Pakistan represents a country in which women’s rights are protected in the constitution. The country’s Constitution states in Section 34 that, “Steps shall be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life.” This highlights the foundation of women’s rights that lie in the country’s laws. Though many women still face social, religious, economic and political obstacles, the policies implemented by the government are not as restrictive as the Taliban’s Afghanistan, as this group has implemented their own interpretation of Sharia law that represents a fringe ideology.
The Taliban’s policies have followed the same trend as what was implemented during their first regime in 1996.
As they have taken control once again, they have implemented the same policies and have gone to even further extents. According to Amnesty International, “In less than a year, the Taliban have decimated the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. Soon after they took control of the country’s government, the Taliban said they were committed to upholding the rights of women and girls. Yet they have violated women’s and girls’ rights to education, work and free movement; demolished the system of protection and support for women and girls fleeing domestic violence; arbitrarily detained women and girls for infractions of the Taliban’s discriminatory rules; and contributed to a surge in the rates of child, early and forced marriage in Afghanistan. Women who peacefully protested against these restrictions and policies have been harassed, threatened, arrested, forcibly disappeared, detained and tortured.” This describes the dire situation for women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
The role that Afghan women play is extremely important; without their participation in decision-making there would not be peace, economic security, or political stability. Women are crucial to these processes, and we cannot forget about half of the Afghan population. The situation in Afghanistan is extremely complex, and it is in urgent need of attention by the international community. It is important that the UN and all of its member states continue to provide support to local aid organizations in Afghanistan. Focusing on enhancing local markets and having international organizations act in a supporting role will create an environment in which Afghans can help each other. It is also necessary to view girls’ education as a priority. Initiating temporary learning spaces, privately run programs, and online education curriculums are only some methods that can help Afghan girls restart their path of education. The policies under the Taliban repeal many of the gains that women have made over the past twenty years, and they promote an environment in which violence against women is acceptable in order to enforce their elimination from society.
It is critical to maintain all economic sanctions against the Taliban regime, however this poses a dilemma for the international community. If sanctions are maintained, the larger Afghan community is harmed due to a lack of funding during a humanitarian crisis; if the sanctions are lifted, the Taliban has the opportunity to take control of this money and keep it for themselves. In order to mitigate this issue, assets should be frozen, all sanctions should be maintained on the regime, and international organizations should continue work with trusted partners on the ground to cope with the ongoing humanitarian disaster. By working with these trusted partners, international organizations can ensure a direct distribution of aid to those who need it. This direct support will allow local organizations to get the assistance they need in order to help the Afghan community, and eliminates the opportunity for the Taliban to redirect this funding. All 183 Taliban leaderships must remain on the UN black-list, and be denied from seating representatives at the UN Assembly. Suspending the travel ban for Taliban officials has allowed the opportunity to pursue the diplomatic recognition they crave. Thus, it is critical to reinstate a total travel ban on all Taliban leaders in order to prevent any further pursuit.
No other country has policies that are as restrictive as the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Their administration represents an anomaly, not only in the region but across the world, as their interpretation of Sharia law is extremely harsh and ultraconservative. It is necessary to recognize and understand that the progressive elimination of women from Afghan society is detrimental to Afghanistan’s future, and in order to prevent women’s complete erasure the international community must take action in their provision of aid and further communication with local human rights organizations, particularly those run by women. The international community must demand the full rights of Afghan women and girls as a non-negotiable starting point for all other negotiations. The Taliban are not changing their behavior and it is critical to respond in a way that punishes the regime for the human rights atrocities they have committed. Opening a dialogue among groups that represent the real Afghanistan is integral to the process of assisting the country in a time of dire need. As women’s rights continue to be violated by the Taliban, they are progressively eliminated from society. It is up to the international community to protect women’s rights and ensure that women are not erased from Afghan society.
Note: See the PDF file below for sources/endnotes to this writing.