By: Kartik Hede, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law
Edited by The Editorial Board of SAIL.
The collapse of the elected government in Kabul at the hands of the Taliban was for many, a signal, that the established geopolitical order would undergo drastic changes. While the international repercussions of the regime change are still yet to manifest completely, Afghans, or at least half of them, are already reeling under the new government. In a series of announcements, the Taliban implemented several draconian measures which effectively kept girls and women out of schools and the workplace. These actions are reminiscent of the previous Taliban administration that enforced similar measures, albeit in a more barbaric manner. This blog aims at understanding the ramifications of such measures on Afghan women and the potential long-term influence of a permanent Taliban regime.
The Taliban’s incursion into Kabul on August 15, 2021, signalled the end of the elected Afghan government. Its rapid foray into Afghanistan’s halls of power foretold a terrible resurrection of practices enforced during the Taliban’s previous stint at governance from 1996 to 2001. The U.S. invasion and subsequent defeat of the Taliban brought about a crucial change in the freedoms of the Afghans and promised a better future for Afghanistan. However, despite two decades of occupation, the gains made by the United States were unevenly distributed and concentrated in urban areas. In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that all American troops would be completely withdrawn by September 11, 2021.
In the following months, the Taliban launched its offensive, rapidly capturing key provinces like Kandahar, Helmand, and Herat, and finally toppled the government in Kabul, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing to Abu Dhabi. Thereafter, despite grand rhetoric promising fair treatment, the Taliban announced that secondary education would be open only for boys and that girls in primary education would be allowed in segregated classrooms. Many women were suspended from work, except in certain sectors, and a strict dress code was enforced. To many, this was a portent of what was yet to come; a society governed by archaic morals and religious doctrines, where women were denied basic equality and opportunity.
The First Taliban Government
The Taliban first emerged in the Afghan Civil War. Through rapid offensive attacks, it captured major provinces in Afghanistan, finally gaining control of Kabul in September 1996. In a brutal show of power, it exhibited the mutilated body of then-President Mohammad Najibullah outside the presidential palace. Taliban rule in the 1990s was characterized by a pervasive and zealous adherence to a barbaric interpretation of Islamic law. Women were not permitted to leave without a male relative under any circumstance. Women were denied opportunities for education and employment under vague threats of security. Women were prohibited from being examined by male physicians and at the same time, were banned from practising medicine as physicians or nurses, effectively curtailing accessible healthcare for women.
Under the Taliban rule, women suffered from a lack of basic rights and facilities. They were publicly flogged if they were found with a strange man or if they were deemed to violate the catalogue of restrictions set out by the Taliban. The 50,000 women who lost their husbands to war or fighting had no means to earn and provide for their children and were at the mercy of their neighbours for basic sustenance. Before the takeover by the Taliban, Afghan women enjoyed rights comparable to western nations at the time. They received the right to vote in the 1920s; gained constitutional equality in the 1960s and by 1997, made up more than 15% of the National Assembly, the highest legislative body in Afghanistan. However, the unanticipated rise of the Taliban erased all of that, until the United States of America declared war upon them.
The U.S. Occupation
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom, a leading prong of the larger Global War on Terrorism. The Operation was aimed at overthrowing the Taliban and establishing a stable government at the helm while maintaining the offensive against terror groups. In November 2001, the U.S. and allied forces regained control of Kabul and established Hamid Karzai as the interim Prime Minister.
The two-decade-long occupation oversaw a steady rise in civil rights and freedoms for the Afghan citizenry. The U.S. invested close to $780 million towards the upliftment of women’s rights. During this time, women have joined the military, become a part of the nation’s fractured politics, participated in international sporting events and earned laurels at international robotics events. These achievements underscored the importance of education and opportunity to women and serve to emphasize the fact that a war-torn nation like Afghanistan, which battled with poverty and violence, can be revived by relaxing archaic mandates and investing in all its people. However, these gains were erratic and often found in urban areas alone.
The Present Crisis
Post the withdrawal of the U.S. troops, the Taliban regrouped and launched successive offensives across Afghanistan. It swiftly took over villages, towns and provinces, with the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces withering before its onslaught. It sealed its victory with the fall of Kabul, and with the fighting over, re-established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, marking their return to governance after twenty years.
For the people of Afghanistan, the unexpected return to a Taliban regime has evoked mixed feelings, primarily characterized by fears of losing out on the hard-earned gains of the previous decades. While the Taliban assured the people and the international community that their administration will work peacefully and afford more rights to women within the limits of Islam, they have yet to make a move in this direction. Some groups, however, welcomed the overthrow of the Ghani administration which was marred with corruption, apathy and ineptitude.
Soon after taking over, on September 17, 2021, the Taliban announced the re-opening of schools for boys. The message made no mention of girls, which families construed as a message to stay at home. While girls in the primary and university level were permitted to attend segregated classes, female students in the secondary level were disallowed. The students have to adhere to a strict Islamic dress code and can only be taught by female teachers, which severely restricts opportunities. Furthermore, denying secondary education to women renders any primary education irrelevant, since girls will not be able to pursue higher studies once the present batch of university students graduate. Even then there is no guarantee that the Taliban will approve of women working in fields other than education and healthcare.
The Taliban cited “security concerns” as the reason to deny women secondary education and to keep them out of the workplace. They used the same equivocal pretext to deny women education and employment for the full duration of their first stint as well. Despite promises of leniency and accommodation, the Taliban Cabinet is comprised of men alone. The Ministry of Women Affairs has been dissolved, and its premises have been turned over to the Ministry of Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. This Ministry acted as the enforcer for Taliban doctrines in the 1990s, using corporal punishment against women to exact obedience.
Women have suffered not only in terms of education, employment and civil rights but in terms of basic healthcare as well. The Taliban shut down several healthcare centres in Kandahar, restricting access to many in the rural parts of the province. Afghanistan had made immense gains in public health, especially due to a strong network of community clinics, doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists. This was possible due to the contribution of its women in various capacities, and the fact that women make up nearly half of Afghanistan’s community health workers, which is a major factor in the Taliban’s decision to allow women to re-join work.
Consequences of Prolonged Exclusion
Presently, the Taliban invokes security concerns as the reason to deny women education and employment. While this may serve as a delaying tactic presently, the international community might not accept an indefinite denial of basic rights and opportunities. Despite recent reports of the Taliban allowing girls to come back to school in certain provinces, these instances are hardly heartening. Several videos circulated show the girls dressed in strict accordance with Islamic law and waving Taliban flags, which suggests a pronounced attempt at favourable propaganda.
Real change can only come from the people of Afghanistan. At this moment, the Taliban lacks any kind of accountability to the citizens and maintain control by inflicting terror. In addition, patriarchy runs deep in Afghan society. The idea of independent women isn’t acceptable to all factions even after two decades worth of precedent that including women can serve a larger purpose in uplifting a society. If the Taliban are here to stay, then they must adapt their unyielding creed to suit a modern Afghanistan, one where culture and tradition co-exist with inclusivity and liberty.
The Taliban’s return to power is a definite setback for women’s rights and individual liberties in Afghanistan. The hard-won gains of the past twenty years will be lost if it does not abide by its promises and govern Afghans fairly and liberally. If it wishes to be taken seriously by the international community, the Taliban need to re-work its internal structure. There are fundamental differences between a radical jihadist group and an organization responsible for nearly 40 million Afghans, and the Taliban need to come to terms with their new responsibilities. It cannot hope to govern in a stable manner if it continues to oppress one half of its population in an anachronistic manner. For the sake of future generations and its political longevity, it must enact liberal policies in consonance with international norms, or risk facing the ire of an exasperated populace and the international community.
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3 “The Taliban & Afghan Women – Feminist Majority Foundation.” Feminist Majority Foundation. Web. 07 Oct. 2021.
4 Fassihi, Farnaz, and Dan Bilefsky. “For Afghan Women, Taliban Stir Fears Of Return To A Repressive Past.” Nytimes.com. N.p., 2021. Web. 08 Oct. 2021.
5 “Taliban Says Classes Resume For Afghan Boys, No Mention Of Girls.” Aljazeera.com. N.p., 2021. Web. 08 Oct. 2021.
6 Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Taliban Ban Girls From Secondary Education In Afghanistan.” The Guardian. N.p., 2021. Web. 07 Oct. 2021.
7 Jung, Laura et al. “Staring Into The Darkness: Women Health Workers In Afghanistan – The BMJ.” The BMJ. N.p., 2021. Web. 07 Oct. 2021.