The Fragility & Uncertainty Of Women’s Rights In Afghanistan

The Taliban has recently regained power in Afghanistan, and the popular question of “can we trust the Taliban on women’s rights?” has resurfaced.

As the Taliban steadily expanded their territory over the last decade or so, it became a common cliché to say that Afghan women and girls were facing an uncertain future. On August 16, however, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban were successful in taking most of the country entering Kabul, the capital. This uncertainty may have ended, and is now replaced with despair and fear.

Afghan women activists
A group of Afghan women activists staged a small protest in Taliban-controlled Kabul Friday calling for equal rights and full participation in political life. Instagram

The last time the Taliban held power in the late ‘90s and early 2000s; repression, especially for women and girls, was a feature of its rule. Girls could not attend school, and women could not hold jobs or leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.

Those who defied Taliban’s directives and its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were often brutally punished, with beatings or floggings.

The United States invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, put the Taliban’s worldview under microscopic scrutiny. What was interesting though, was that the war became focused on more than just terrorism, as things like the expansion of women’s rights became embedded within the United States’ mission there.

In 2001, then first lady Laura Bush said the Taliban’s retreat meant “the people of Afghanistan, especially women, are rejoicing.” Similarly, in 2010, then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton expressed to a group of female Afghan ministers that “We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always.”

Today, aside from the Taliban being more active on media, specifically Twitter, they haven’t changed much. When trying to seem presentable to the international community during negotiations in Doha in 2020, their rhetoric on women’s rights shifted, as they pledged to let girls access education and women work, but doing so with a vague caveat along the lines of “As permitted by Islam.”

Afghan women and girls again, however, now find themselves in the untenable position of looking for help to the international communities, but these countries, the United States being a prime example, are pulling out.

Illustration of an Afghan mother and her baby
Illustration of an Afghan mother and her baby. Instagram

Taliban’s “Rhetoric” on Women’s Rights

Although the Taliban leaders offered somewhat “gentler” rhetoric on women’s rights, there has still been a major disconnect between what has been said in media interviews and what the Taliban has enforced on the ground, where commanders often enforce harsh rules. Local commanders have, in recent months and years, taken actions such as closing girls’ schools entirely.

Today, as Taliban forces have surged triumphantly across the country and capital, there have been alarming reports emerging of school closures, female movement restrictions, and women forced to leave their jobs.

The Taliban spokesman has continued to pledge respect for women’s rights, but his claims seem to be more hollow than ever.

International Response

A few countries, including Sweden and Canada, both of which have played major roles in Afghanistan, have staked a claim to having a feminist foreign policy. But even these countries have been alarmingly silent as Afghan women watched the Taliban take over the country.

In 2011, the Washington Post reported on how efforts to support women’s rights were being stripped out of U.S. programs. It was further confirmed that U.S. aid funding to Afghanistan fell from $16.748 million in fiscal year 2010 to $3.120 million in fiscal year 2021.

Women's rights in Afghanistan.
Afghan protest in London, 2021. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

United States Invasion of Afghanistan and Women’s Rights

The uncertainty facing Afghan women also comes after 20 years of U.S. intervention – which by itself follows decades of foreign intervention by the Soviet Union and others – where women’s rights were packaged as another justification for the war in Afghanistan.

The struggle for gender equality did not start with the U.S. arrival in 2001, as women in Afghanistan fought for their rights long before the Taliban arrived in the 1990s, and some women activists even opposed the U.S. intervention.

Women’s rights, however, got inserted into the rallying cry for war, regardless of whether Afghan women wanted them.

Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges to women’s rights in Afghanistan was the years of war. It is hard to get girls to school when they are displaced by airstrikes or their schools are getting torn down and blown up. And the Taliban’s advance across the country in the past years and weeks, means women in positions of authority are vulnerable to the threat of violence and kidnapping.

Today, the full return of the Taliban deepens this vulnerability, and further threatens to stall or unravel the progress Afghan women have made.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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