Gender Apartheid: Afghan Women Under The Taliban
On November 14th, Taliban Supreme Leader Zabihullah Mujahid ordered the universal implementation of Sharia law punishments. Last time the Taliban were in power, these included public lashings, beatings, amputations, stonings and executions. These punishments will be used to enforce the Taliban’s brutal laws which restrict everything from playing music to trimming beards. But this is especially concerning for women, who have seen the most restrictions placed on them including the closure of all girls secondary schools for over a year.
Afghani women in Kabul. Source: Foreign Policy
A brief glimmer of hope came in March when the Taliban announced that girls schools would reopen, but the group backtracked on that promise at the last minute. Millions of girls showed up on what was supposed to be the first day of school only to find the schools’ doors shut. Some girls even made it all the way to their first classes before they were informed of the reversal. Girls cried as they were forced to pack up their supplies and leave.
In September, Naheed Farid, a member of the former Afghan Parliament, referred to the current regime as “Gender Apartheid”. After taking power in August 2021, the Taliban have almost completely erased women from public life through restrictive laws and have built a society in which women are barely considered human.
A Brief History of Afghan Women's Rights
Contrary to Western perceptions, gender inequality was not always the norm in Afghanistan. In 1919, when Afghanistan declared independence, King Amanullah embarked on a campaign to modernize the country. The same year, encouraged by the Queen Consort Tazri, the king gave women the right to vote-one year before the United States did.The rise of women’s rights coincided with the rise of the modern Afghan state. The next few decades would be marked by steady improvements in women’s rights and society including the right to divorce, equal inheritance, an end to mandatory hijab wearing and significant investments in women’s education and jobs.
In 1978, a communist government took power in a coup. In response, an insurgency began from political opponents. The Soviet Union invaded to prop up the regime, and the US—along with Pakistan, a regional ally,—supported the rebels. Pakistan particularly had interest in supporting radical Islamist rebels, believing they would be more loyal to their interests. Many of these radical Islamists believed in a strict interpretation of Islamic law which they believed placed women legally below men.
When the communist regime collapsed in 1992, the rebel factions turned on each other. The radical Islamists, with support from Pakistan, quickly organized into the Taliban, or “religious students”, and conquered most of the country by 1996.
Under Taliban rule from 1996-2001, women were not allowed to go to school, work or even leave their homes unless wearing a full-body Islamic veil and accompanied by a male guardian. But women’s rights were reinstated with the reconstruction of the republic government led by the US after their 2001 invasion. Afghan women were once again given equal rights, had education heavily invested in and entered large amounts of professional positions including doctors, lawyers and politicians. This new generation of women were taught to dream big and take advantage of their rights and opportunities.
Rollback Under the Taliban
But in 2021, after 20 years of freedom, Afghan women saw their futures disappear before their very eyes. Amidst the withdrawal of foreign troops, the republic government collapsed and the Taliban returned to power.
The Taliban promised more moderate rule, but they quickly enacted laws that curtailed the rights of women, banning them from traveling, taking a taxi, visiting a government office or a hospital without a male guardian. Other laws included a mandatory full-body veil and segregation of men and women in universities and banning women from public parks. Women were also fired from most government jobs with the exception of essential jobs such as teaching and medical services. These laws vary in intensity depending on the local Taliban commanders but are often punished with beatings, kidnappings or death.
The most controversial policy of the Taliban regarding women has been the closure of girl’s middle and high schools. Today, Afghanistan is the only country in the world that restricts all women this age from going to school. One month after their takeover, the Taliban reopened the education department. Boys middle and high schools were reopened but girls schools were not. Since then, girls beyond 6th grade must endure a hellish wait at home hoping that the policy may one day be reversed.
This move has caused widespread international condemnation from the international community. The US went as far as to refuse to unfreeze Afghanistan’s US-managed financial assets unless the Taliban reversed their policy but the Taliban’s hardliners have remained steadfast.
However, restrictions on women’s freedoms are not supported by all leaders of the Taliban. In an interview with the Washington Post, Abdulhaq Hammad, a senior Taliban Ministry of Education official, claimed that “90 percent of Taliban members are against the closing of the schools”.
In late September, the Taliban replaced their education minister without an explanation. And just days before, Taliban officials in Paktia Province announced girls schools would open before the central authority forced them closed a few days later.
Hammad attributes this refusal as an attempt to preserve unity among the highly factionalized terrorist group. “The Taliban don’t want to create any fragmentation amongst themselves; they don’t want to be broken from within,” he said in his interview “There are struggles with the 10 percent. But their unity is the secret of their success against the American invasion. If it’s broken, it will be very difficult to repair.”
Taliban leadership is split into two main factions: the religious leaders of Kandahar who are generally more concerned with implementing strict Islamic laws and the Haqqani Network, a clan closely linked to Pakistani Intelligence and responsible for the Taliban’s most brutal attacks and actions. Ironically, the Haqqanis are more open to opening girls schools as their main goal is gaining international recognition and are therefore willing to make compromises with foreign governments. Despite opposition to the closures within the Taliban, for now, the hardliners seem to be winning out.
Resilience and Resistance
Despite the dangers of speaking out, Afghan women have not stopped fighting. Before Iranians were chanting “women, life and freedom”, Afghan women chanted “bread work and freedom,” and continue to today. Within days of the 2021 takeover, women staged massive protests against dismissals from their jobs. The Taliban have responded by beating the protesters, firing in the air and using tear gas and have even kidnapped protest leaders from their homes. Yet the women remain defiant.
Other women have taken to actively resisting the Taliban’s laws. A network of underground girls schools have appeared across the country. These schools often take place inside the teachers’ homes. The schools disguise themselves as religious services. At one of these schools in Kabul, it is said that a student has even memorized the Quran as an act to portray a religious teacher while her actual one hides if the school were to be raided.
A few women with military and police backgrounds have even joined armed resistance groups. Although information on this is limited, as the Taliban deny the presence of the rebels and try to cover up any news about them.
The women of Afghanistan are embroiled in a fight for their rights and their futures and although their fight has received less media attention than Iran, it is no less important. The two struggles represent resistance of empowered, modern women who are standing up to oppressive regimes who seek to keep them in the past.