The mistakes by Afghans and the international community that led to the Taliban’s takeover on 15 August 2021 – and the return of gender apartheid – occurred in the context of 44 years of protracted conflict that involved both superpowers and regional actors.
Afghanistan has always been a poor country, where the majority of the people are Muslim and live within a patriarchal system.
However, we never before had the version of patriarchy and interpretation of Islamic law that Taliban has forced upon the people.
My country is now experiencing a repeat of how the Taliban abolished the basic rights of all Afghans, especially Afghan women, girls and minorities, when they were last in power in 1990s. I did not think I would see this history repeating itself in Afghanistan twice within my own lifetime.
Taliban has not changed as some have claimed. To mention all of the violations of human rights that they have committed would require books.
The Taliban did not have a strategy for governance. Instead, they issued more than three dozen decrees and statements in their first year that violate human rights and restrict women’s freedom.
Their actions erased gains for women and the institutions that made these gains possible. It is clear that the Taliban believe women are their main enemy in the country. To destroy the nation, they have made the female half of the population inferior and property of the male. This policy exacerbates inequality in the family and legitimises gender discrimination.
I want to mention a few examples of their destruction and elimination of women from public life.
Institutions That Were Affected
While the Afghan government and international community had attempted nation-building, the Taliban did the opposite, seeking to deconstruct the legal and institutional bases of the nation. First on the chopping block was the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWa).
Although MoWA could not solve all the problems of Afghan women and cross-cutting actions to promote gender equality were needed in all departments, MoWA became an important symbol of the promise of women’s equality. When the Taliban abolished MoWA, they replaced it with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue.
The second institution that the Taliban abolished was the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which played a central role in the promotion and protection of human rights generally and women’s rights specifically. The Taliban’s next step was to destroy the nation was to undermine the entire concept and value of human rights.
One of the basic tenets of Islam is that all human beings are born with equal dignity. However, the Taliban do not respect this equal dignity and view themselves as superior to all. They closed the Election Commission, Election Complaint Commission, Constitution Oversight Commission and all other institutions necessary for democracy and good governance.
Rule of Law
The Afghan government had sought to create a legal framework in compliance with the country’s international legal obligations. The new constitution ratified in 2004, guaranteed equal rights for men and women. It was the first iteration of the Afghan constitution to contain the word “women.”
The constitution also provided for religious liberty, allowing Shias in the country to exercise their personal law. Many other laws were reformed. Importantly, for the first-time domestic violence was criminalized with the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law.
The Taliban have made clear through words and actions that they do not respect any of these laws. Taliban Prime Minister publicly proclaimed that all the laws made by people are not good enough for the people, and that we need to implement the “Law of God.” Afghanistan is now the only country without a constitution.
Women in Judiciary
Access to justice is a basic human right guaranteed by conventions and treaties to which Afghanistan is a party. In the last 20 years, some reform in the judicial system has been achieved. Women were very much a part of this progress.
They served as prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and police officers, often risking their lives to do so. A special prosecutor’s office was established for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. With Taliban’s takeover, women in the system were not only removed from their positions, but that office was abolished as well.
Women in Politics
Over the past 20 years, women were ministers, deputy ministers and other high-level positions. The new constitution requires that 25 percent of the members of Parliament and provincial councils be women. Women stood for election, and they voted.
For example, during the 2004 presidential election, an 80-year-old woman in Bamyan walked through extreme cold and snow to cast her vote. This was the first time and most probably the last time in her life. Though she might have voted for a person who a male family member told her to vote for, it is still heartbreaking that people’s desire to participate in the political system is now thwarted.
Women were part of the Loya Jirga to adopt the constitution. In contrast, when the Taliban had their big gathering few months ago, no women were present. The Deputy Prime Minister said in his speech, “women are our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, we represent them. There is no need for them to be present in the Jirga.”
Women and Education
Access to quality education is a human right guaranteed by international law. Education is the strongest tool to change the mentality of a society and to build sustainable peace, reduce poverty, promote development, equality and human rights.
Although not all Afghans had access to a good quality education due to insecurity, budget constraints and corruption, more than 3 million girls attended education facilities. In August 2021, Taliban immediately closed down girls’ schools; they promised to reopen them on the 23 March 2022.
Unfortunately, when girls attempted to go to school on that date, they were sent home in tears because the school doors remained closed. Now the girls’ schools for 1-6 grades and the universities are open, but grades 7-12 are closed.
Afghanistan again has become the only country in the world who officially bans girls from attending secondary school. The Taliban claims that their education ban is Islamic.
However, the first message to the prophet Mohammad was “Iqra” (read). To terrorise the people, on 30 September 2022, a suicide attack in a Kabul training center killed 56 young Hazara girls and injured 110. In response to that it was protest in some of the cities in the country and outside of the country, Taliban dismissed the Hazara girls from the universities.
Women and Health
Women are allowed to work in the health sector. However, Afghanistan already had a shortage of female health workers. In the past year, those who could left the country. Due to the grave economic crisis, hospitals and clinics lack enough supplies. Before 9/11, Afghanistan had the second highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. In the last 20 years the mortality rate has reduced to 50 percent.
Unfortunately, since under Taliban the maternal and child mortality rates have again increased. More premature babies have been born due to stress, poor diet, anemia, increases in domestic violence, and lack of healthcare. Women lack access to reproductive health and contraception, forced them to give birth to unhealthy and more children which increases further the poverty of already poor families.
Women in Security Forces
More than 3,000 women were working as police, which facilitated women’s access to justice. About 1,700 women were members of the National Army, including as special forces, pilots and officers.
All were forced out of their jobs; some were even killed or disappeared. Those who remain in the country continue to face grave danger to them and their families.
Women and Freedom of Movement
Taliban’s decrees empowered patriarchy in the family and in the public sphere. The movement of women is now greatly restricted.
They cannot travel more than 70 km without a male relative, cannot go to the parks or eat in restaurants even with a male relative. If women do not cover their faces, the Taliban punishes male relatives.
If a taxi driver carries a female passenger who is not fully covered, the driver is punished. As a result, violence against women has increased at home and in public, including child marriage and forced marriage.
In short, women have been removed from all aspects of public life, from walking on the streets to participating in journalism, sports, or running small businesses.
(The author is an Afghan social activist and 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee. She is a former Deputy Chair and Minister for Women’s Affairs of the Afghanistan Interim Administration. She is currently a member of the United Nations Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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