Women's rights in Afghanistan were severely harmed under the Taliban's first administration from 1996-2001. Women were not permitted to work or to have an education beyond the age of eight, and were only permitted to study the Qur'an. Since seizing control from the Western-backed Afghan government in August 2021, Taliban officials have reassured the international community that this time they will preserve women's rights: after the takeover, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid even tweeted that, "the Islamic Emirate is devoted to safeguarding the Sharia rights of all Afghan women". Despite such assurances, Taliban officials have announced a slew of additional restrictions on women in recent months, despite mounting criticism and international pressure.
“We had achieved so much, and had a robust free media, with growing presence of women in every sector. But look where we are now… in a country where I cannot even choose what to wear or what topics to report on”, states a 23-year-old reporter - who preferred to keep their identity anonymous - on the issue of women rights in Afghanistan after the Taliban take-over. Within their statement, the reporter referred to an earlier decree initiated by the Taliban in September 2021, which required journalists to seek Taliban approval before broadcasting reports.
Indeed, as of June 2022, the Taliban-controlled Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has once again ruled against the education of girls, withdrawn their right to choose how they dress, and refused women the right to employment; all of which are highly reminiscent of restrictions on women rights which the Taliban implemented the last time they were in control of the government. While the Taliban has promised to open schools as soon as possible, they recently backtracked on their promise to allow girls to attend school; according to a released statement from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, secondary schools for females will open only after "suitable clothing regulations" for pupils aged 12 and older are agreed upon.
Afghani women protest the restrictions on their rights. Photo credits: ABC News
Women also no longer have a say in governance, and have been systematically removed from local governments and high public service jobs while the Ministry of Women's Affairs has simultaneously been disbanded by the Taliban's Interim Government. Notably, since the Taliban assumed control, Gender Based Violence reporting systems have also been suspended, the countrywide network of related shelters have shuttered, and crucial medical treatment and other support services have been discontinued. In a country where levels of violence against women are among the highest in the world, experts state that this puts the lives of millions of women and girls at risk.
The consequences of the aforementioned employment and education restrictions have already made their appearance in Afghanistan’s civil society: a survey by Reporters Without Borders done after the Taliban’s takeover found that fewer than 100 women were still working in the media in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. “Women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital”, warned the aforementioned organization in light of these findings.
Upon witnessing the diminishment of women's voices and rights within Afghanistan, and the return to archaic, extremist practices, international rights organizations have renewed calls for greater action to be taken by regional organizations and state governments. But as one remaining women journalist in Afghanistan reports, while “several countries proudly claim a ‘feminist foreign policy’, action against the curb on women rights from the Taliban has been severely inadequate. “On the contrary, governments pandered to the Taliban by sending all-male delegations to meet them,” she continues.
Indeed, the international response by various countries’ political elite has entailed far more ‘carrots’ than ‘sticks’. On June 14, a G7 meeting released statement - by the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the High Representative of the European Union - merely “urged” the Taliban to “take steps to lift restrictions on women and girls”, an
‘action’ which perfectly describes the weak nature of the repercussions the Taliban faces for their assault on women’s human rights.
Part of the reason why this assault on women’s rights has not been met with a more robust international response, like international sanctions and deliberate action against the Taliban, is because of the key obstacle that the humanitarian and economic crisis sustained by the Afghan population following the Taliban takeover poses.
According to a May 2022 Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report on Afghanistan, 19.7 million Afghans, or 47% of the population, are currently facing high levels of acute food insecurity. Save the Children, a worldwide non-governmental organization, claimed in a statement on May 9 that about 9.6 million children in Afghanistan “are going hungry every day due to a dire combination of economic collapse, the impacts of the war in Ukraine, and the ongoing drought”. The United Nations Secretary-General organized a high-level pledging conference on March 31 to help fund the Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan 2022, which requests $4.4 billion in aid to allow humanitarian organizations “to reach 22.1 million people with life-saving multi-sectoral assistance”. Donor countries promised $2.44 billion during the latest UN summit on Afghanistan, according to media sources. The Secretary-General urged donors to "provide unconditional and flexible funding as soon as possible" in his opening comments. It seems to be generally acknowledged that - to avoid an enormous humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan - sanctions must be limited and that some level of engagement and cooperation with the Taliban is required, even if that means counterintuitive silence in the face of some of the Taliban's most heinous positions on women's rights.
An illustration of how the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan hinders international response to the Taliban is exemplified by the World Bank’s funding response. The Taliban’s decision to prevent girls from returning to high school prompted the World Bank to announce that it was suspending four projects worth $600 million focusing on agriculture, education, health, and livelihoods in Afghanistan. On April 19, 2022, however, the World Bank said that it had resumed work on the projects concentrating on health, agriculture, and livelihoods but that it would continue to withhold $150 million from education projects.
Geopolitical tensions have also limited concrete and robust international response to women’s rights. Council members of UNAMA - the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan - seem to be immensely divided regarding Afghanistan. For example, a recent rivalry sprang up between western countries and China and Russia, when the latter of the two apparently contended that UNAMA should focus primarily on addressing the humanitarian and economic crises in the country, while a majority of other Council members backed a more comprehensive mission that included human rights protections, inclusive government, and gender equality: elements which were eventually incorporated into UNAMA's mandate. China and Russia also took issue with Norway's language, claiming that it was imbalanced and focused too largely on human rights and the position of women and girls, rather than the practicalities of the conference.
Despite the aforementioned difficulties, according to organizations like Amnesty International, international actors should take advantage of the “window” they currently have to negotiate with the Taliban. Once the Taliban accesses international aid and is formally recognized by the world – there will be little scope to negotiate for female access to education and a fundamental respect for all other women’s rights.
For their part, the Taliban rejects all accusations against their interim government. Despite financial difficulties, the group says it has opened all universities to women across Afghanistan, and it intends to allow all girls to return to school later this month. The Taliban also defends several of its implemented restrictions on women, stating that they are in line with Islamic principles.
With international response remaining unchanged to these Taliban statements, it is unclear to what extent the restrictions on women rights will escalate. The fact that last year’s international focus on the Afghan conflict has faded does not help. Afghan civil society has essentially been left on its own to contend with the Taliban's severe orders while the West is preoccupied with the conflict in Ukraine, rising inflation and a possible global economic crisis similar to that of 2010.