August 2021- while the month was routine for the rest of the world with just another passing period in the current historical period, the month will be forever etched in the memory of ordinary Afghans especially those opposed to Taliban rule. More so in the case of Afghan women who were subjected to medieval era barbarism in the earlier period of Taliban rule in the 1990s. The victory of the Taliban not only proved to be a severe setback to democracy, but more so for the condition of women. Women are under current Taliban rule are treated at best as second-class citizens, at worst as sub-humans. The Taliban regime has not only imposed ban on their education, employment but has also clamped down on the very basic liberties that any human being is entitled to.
To compound the difficulty in matters, the Taliban soon after coming to power had resurrected the notorious vice and virtue ministry responsible for the enforcement of morality and observation of ethics in the Afghan society. The Taliban which is the follower of the Hanbali-Wahhabi sect of radical Islam has imposed an iconoclastic puritanical version of the Shariat where this no place for women. Women cannot step out of their houses without a compulsory male ‘guardian’.
This research paper intends to undertake an incisive and in-depth study of the precarious condition of women under Taliban rule, their present status, the international reactions and the possible steps that the international community can take to ameliorate the condition of Afghan women.
“You educate a man, you educate an individual, you educate a woman, you educate a generation”, said Brigham Young. This is a sombre reminder to the critical role that women have played across different societies over historical periods of time and how they have shaped the social, economic and political institutions of every society be it in the United States or in UAE or even in India.
However, a place where perhaps women are treated at best as second-class citizens is Afghanistan. The country which has been labelled as the “graveyard of empires”1 has seen extreme turbulence in its political and social life for the past four decades. Perhaps, the disproportionate impact of such turbulence has been felt by women. When USA went to war against the Afghan rulers Taliban in order to eliminate them for their support to the dreaded terror organisation Al Qaeda; women by and large in Afghanistan felt relieved that they can get a taste of liberty and free life at last.
Two decades on, the US left Afghanistan in August 2021 leaving ordinary Afghans high and dry, women have the most impacted by this drastic decision by the American administration of president Joe Biden. In the twenty years when the American backed Afghan democratic governments functioned Afghan women not only received education but found fruitful employment in various avenues of the Afghan economy. Women could also stand for elections and even serve in the Afghan armed forces in different capacities.
However, come August 2021, those dreams and hopes of Afghan women have been shattered. Those could escape the country in the midst of the chaos and flee to other countries (notably western) and those who were granted asylum found themselves to be really lucky.
Others are so not lucky. The platitudes and promises offered by the spokespersons of the Taliban that they are a changed group who if and when they return to power would prioritize women’s rights and would grant women education have proven to be a mere façade designed to cloak their chauvinist ambitions to deliberately confine Afghan women to the domestic sphere with little or no liberty.
Back to the medieval age
Modernisation through the industrial and scientific revolution was not only meant to improve the economic condition of masses around the world but was meant largely to discard medieval era superstitions, beliefs and customs which are regarded as evil by today’s standards. It is meant to imbibe a sense of scientifically driven rationalism across the world. This is especially important in the field of rights and liberties.
The world has been making slow but steady stride towards modernity and today’s society is regarded as the post-modern society. However, in Afghanistan this is the exact opposite. The Taliban victory has given a severe setback to the country’s hard-won progress and development especially with regard to women’s rights and employment.
The Taliban has imposed during its first stint in power the hard line iconoclastic Wahabbi/ Salafi/Deobandi brand of Islam whose roots dates back to the time of Arabia in Prophet Muhammed and is considered to be its pristine form. Wahabbi form of Islam is based on the teachings of the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdul Al Wahab who propounded this idea of hard-line Islam in the 17th century and which became the state religion of Saudi Arabia since then. An integral part of the Taliban’s Islamist thinking is the Deobandi movement2 and majoritarian Pashtun nationalism.
This Deobandi form of Islam aims at purging the Islamic faith of all doctrinal innovations, changes and ideas. This brand of Islam forbade the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, visits to the graves of holy personalities in Islam and vigorously enforce the scriptural literalism of the Shariat.
The imposition of this exclusivist and conservative brand of Islam was seen in the first Taliban government under Mullah Omar from 1996-2001. This brand of hard-line Islam is highly offensive to women. In this context Afghan women have had a taste of the kind of treatment they faced during the first Taliban rule. Norman Lowe in his book Mastering Modern World History3 argues that women were not allowed to step out of their homes without being escorted by a male guardian. They had to wear the full Islamic veil even in the most atrocious of Afghan summers. They were denied proper education and were confined strictly to the domestic sphere of life. These were some of the conditions that women had to face, therefore undoubtedly women’s conditions in Afghanistan had relegated back to the medieval age.
Education and unemployment- the least priorities of Taliban
The Taliban insurgent group’s top leaders are trained only in the religious sciences and arts with little or no exposure to basic modern subjects like Mathematics, grammar, literature and natural sciences. It is therefore expected that the regime will impose a concomitant requirement of strict adherence to religious texts and scriptures which however have largely failed to keep pace with the progress of time and space.
In this context, the Taliban regime’s rank and file have a highly backward and offensive view regarding the needs and desires of the Afghan women. Education and employment under the Taliban regime have since August 2021 taken a backseat. During the invasion years Afghan women not only received secular education, but such education made vocational employment possible. Women of Afghanistan were employed in different sectors be it the apparel, IT, defence or even the rudimentary sport sector of Afghanistan.
However, the first thing the Taliban did after coming back to power was to launch a crackdown on the dissidents of the regime. Interestingly, one way the Taliban found it necessary to curb women’s agency was to ban women’s secondary and tertiary education.
Those women who were employed in various sectors of the Afghan economy were told not to work anymore and stay at home. A full-fledged fatwa (religious command) was issued by the Taliban regime.
Since coming to power in August last year, the Taliban have overseen a hodgepodge of education policies. They allow girls to attend school until the sixth grade, when primary school ends. But they have prevented most girls from attending formal secondary school education, reneging on a promise to allow them back to class in March, when the scholastic year began. Some girls in distant provinces still attended high school, however, and another, unknown number were attending informal classes in tuition centres.
And in a quirk of contradictory decision-making, the former minister of higher education Abdul Baqi Haqqani allowed women to attend universities, albeit under strict conditions, including wearing face coverings and abiding by strict segregation. But in October of 2022, Haqqani was replaced with known hardliner, Nida Mohammad Nadim, who had expressed his opposition to women receiving an education. He is known to be close to Akhundzada.
The edict, issued by the Ministry of Higher Education, said women were suspended from attending public and private centres of higher education until further notice.
Lack of basic liberties
“Man is free and everywhere in chains”, said the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. But in the context of Afghanistan, only mankind seems to enjoy liberty albeit at least the basic ones. Women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule have been reduced at best as second-class citizens and at worst slaves. Women’s condition in Afghanistan wasn’t always like this, under the Soviet steered communist government and before that under the West backed constitutional monarchy Afghan women enjoyed liberties4 which was akin to the ones that women in many developed liberal democracies like India, USA, Germany etc are enjoying.
There was no restriction on their clothing, democratic rights, employment opportunities etc. However, the problem started from 1979 when the Soviet Union militarily intervened in Afghanistan to keep the fledgeling communist regime in power. The West treating it as a part of the cold war became involved, the rest is history.
In the ensuing geopolitical struggle, women’s rights were severely affected. This was the first blow; the second blow came in the Taliban rulers’ 1996-2001 rule where the restrictions were even more brutal and oppressive. Women were even publicly beaten for showing their ankles and mass executions took place in the Ghazi football stadium. In December 2022, the Taliban issued a decree prohibiting Afghan women from working in NGOs, and had given a similar order a few days earlier banning women from studying in universities. The group has also shut down domestic violence shelters, detained and arrested female demonstrators, and restricted female access to public health which appears to be nothing but a travesty of basic human rights that any human born in this world is entitled to irrespective of their economic, social and institutional condition.
The growing restrictions on Afghan women demonstrates how decades of gains on women’s rights and gender equality can be undone in a short time span. The lives of women, who are being excluded from public life, have gone back 20 years. Many Afghans who are opposing the Taliban’s repressive rule are young women and girls under the age of 30 who did not experience life during the group’s first rule. The access to basic freedoms during the US-led intervention became the norm for them and hence it is agonizing to see their fundamental rights being taken away suddenly.
Home is no longer safe
There is a maxim that there can be no better place than the home. However, in Afghan women’s case, the home is no longer safe. Psychologists have argued that lack of meaningful employment prospect, alcoholism, and broader social unrest can contribute towards making the home perhaps the most unsafe place for women. The pandemic brought a global domestic violence crisis in households and Afghanistan was no exception but the fears of Afghan women have been compounded by the Taliban rulers coming to power.
Taliban personnel barge into the homes of women searching for women who collaborated with the Americans and other foreigners including the Afghan democratic government in order to take revenge for violating the ‘ethical norms and codes’ set by the Taliban regime.
A good example of how the home is no longer safe for women is this- Saira Saleem5, a women’s rights activist and journalist who earlier raised her voice against the oppression of the Taliban, informed that the terrorist group’s members are searching for her.
Saleem also informed that six Taliban members came to her home four nights ago, knocking gruffly on the door. As she hid beneath her bed, the fighters questioned her father on her whereabouts. He told them his daughter was not home, New York Post reported.
Domestic violence in Afghanistan is already high: A 2021 poll of over 200 women’s rights6 experts ranked Afghanistan as the worst place in the world to be a woman.
Taliban rule-violation of Islam per se
While the Taliban make tall claims that what they are doing is in accordance with the principles and codes of Islam is at best a façade designed to give the Taliban a sham political legitimacy to perpetuate their rule. In fact, there is nothing in Islam against women’s education.
Faizan Mustafa7, a learned constitutional expert and the vice-chancellor of NALSAR university, one of India’s leading law universities argues that Islam doesn’t bar women from studying various subjects but argues that certain basic norms and code of conduct should be observed. He cited several Quranic verses to give a point-by-point repudiation of Taliban regime’s despicable decision to ban women’s education and how Taliban’s preaching goes against the fundamental tenets of Islam.
A key aspect of Taliban regime’s un-Islamic nature is by decoding the legality of its hijab ruling. Belquis Ahmadi8, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace argues that the Taliban’s justification for imposing the hijab in the name of Islam and Shariah is contradictory to the spirit of Islam. The Taliban use “hijab” as a synonym for women’s clothing and cover.
However, Quranic references to the hijab are not necessarily about women’s clothes. Islam ordained a purdah, or “curtain,” for the wives of the Prophet, not for all Muslim women. A majority of Islamic scholars agree that hijab refers to the curtain in the front door of a home that women in the Prophet Muhammad’s household were obliged to use. Also, in accordance with the Quran and the Hadith, wearing hijab is a matter of personal choice and not must not be dictated by state order. According to the Quran and other important Islamic texts and traditions, the face, hands and the feet are not included as part of required forms of Islamic dress.
By ordering women to stay at home, the Taliban are throwing more obstacles in front of women to prevent them from taking part in public life. This seemingly ignores the vital role Muslim women have played in social, political, economic and cultural life throughout the history of Islam and in the present situation as well.
For example, one of the Prophet’s wives, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman who managed and employed men as her subordinates and partners, including the Prophet. Women have held positions as mayors, judges, military commanders, teachers, architects and so on throughout the Muslim world throughout the history of Islam. Justifying restrictions on women’s mobility and access to rights has nothing to do with Islam. If anything, it proves the Taliban’s ignorance of Islam — and the ignorance of others who have employed Islam to suppress women.
Along expected lines, the international reaction was ubiquitous condemnation. The West were opprobrious at the Taliban regime’s ghastly treatment of women. Major Muslim countries with the exception of Pakistan condemned the Taliban regime. Saudi Arabia and UAE which had diplomatic ties with Taliban 1.0 condemned the decision to bar women from working and education.
Also, several South-East Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia etc didn’t recognize the Taliban. They argued that the Taliban must first ensure their conformity to international law and principles of the UN charter before seeking international legitimacy.
China, initially not recognizing the regime did become the first country in the world to keep their embassy in Kabul open. Slowly they ended up giving de-facto recognition to the Taliban regime.
India’s stance has been quite cautious on the Taliban, knowing well that the Taliban have historically colluded with Pakistan, India hasn’t given international recognition to the Taliban. But New Delhi hasn’t totally cut of presence in Afghanistan. India has been regularly sending humanitarian aid to the needy Afghan as Afghanistan’s economy is in dire straits. This included a huge consignment of wheat to the country. Also, India via its IIM Kozhikode has approved an online certificate course to Afghan officials (read Taliban) on India’s journey as a diverse nation-state over the years as a part of Afghan diplomats’ training9.
On the issue of women’s rights being eroded, India has urged the regime to adhere to the rules and regulations of UN charter and that women’s rights must be protected and any attempt to violate or rescind women’s rights will be unacceptable. India also appealed to the Taliban regime to form an inclusive cabinet composed of women and other Afghan minorities which clearly fell through.
Can Afghan women be rescued?
This is perhaps the million-dollar question that has kept the foreign policy establishment of every country especially India on their toes. Afghan women are suffering, not only have they lost their source of income, but they have been robbed of their basic liberties. To compound matters, Afghanistan is passing through a severe economic crisis with acute malnutrition staring in the face of millions of women and children of the country.
At present, at best that can be done for Afghan women is send humanitarian help mostly in the form of food, medicines and other critical commodities. As far as India is concerned, it must give asylum to the Afghan people stranded in the country since the Taliban’s takeover. Also, India can through the global Afghan diaspora especially in the western countries can pile up moral pressure on the regime to rescind their abominable decisions. While the outcome of such steps appears at best to be offering moral platitudes without doing anything solid, yet India must do its share of duty in helping Afghan women’s rights.
Afghan women and children need India’s and global support to survive.
The future of Afghan women is appearing to be bleak. While it is clear that women’s rights and agency under the Taliban regime has taken a backseat it is also clear that the ordinary Afghan woman of today will not be a mute spectator, she will not sit idle and let the chauvinist Taliban regime violate her rights, the Taliban may rule by the power of the gun, yet it is clear that resistance will continue even clandestinely. One never knows the future, but it is clear that one of the prime oppositions to the Taliban rule will be mounted by women now as well as in the near future.
- Pillalamarri, A. (2017, June 30). Why is Afghanistan the ‘graveyard of empires’? – The Diplomat. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://thediplomat.com/2017/06/why-is-afghanistan-the-graveyard-of-empires/
- Sohel Rana PhD Student, & Sumit Ganguly Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations. (2022, September 13). Taliban’s religious ideology – deobandi islam – has roots in colonial India. The Conversation. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://theconversation.com/talibans-religious-ideology-deobandi-islam-has-roots-in-colonial-india-166323
- Lowe, N. (2013). Mastering modern world history. Palgrave Macmillan education.
- Women’s rights in Afghanistan: A timeline | best countries | U.S. news. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/slideshows/womens-rights-in-afghanistan-a-timeline?slide=4
- International, A. N. (2021, August 30). Taliban hunt for woman journalist who opposed the terrorist group: Report. NDTV.com. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/taliban-hunt-for-woman-scribe-who-opposed-the-terrorist-group-2523897
- Expert’s take: Gender equality is critical for Afghanistan’s future, long-term development, and sustained peace. UN Women – Headquarters. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2021/10/experts-take-gender-equality-is-critical-for-the-afghanistans-future
- Mustafa, F. (2022, December 28). In banning women from universities, the Taliban is being un-Islamic. The Indian Express. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/in-banning-women-from-universities-the-taliban-is-being-unislamic-8344603/
- How the Taliban’s hijab decree defies Islam. United States Institute of Peace. (2022, May 19). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/05/how-talibans-hijab-decree-defies-islam
Bureau, T. H. (2023, March 14). 18 persons from Afghanistan took part in mea course: IIM-Kozhikode. The Hindu. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/18-from-afghanistan-took-part-in-mea-course-iim-kozhikode/article66619629.ece
The writer is PG-II (Political Science with International Relations), Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. He was also a research associate for think tank Defence Research and Studies(DRAS) and a columnist.