An Afghan woman leaves an underground school which she attends with her daughter, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 30. Photo: AP
Akanksha Khullar
Akanksha Khullar

After a year of Taliban rule, Afghan women are systematically disappearing from public life

  • Following the US’ withdrawal, the Taliban government has significantly limited women’s ability to earn a living, access education and escape violence
  • The international community must act rather than merely condemning the erosion of Afghan women’s rights

Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, women in the war-torn country were granted more rights than they had previously had under the Taliban regime, and they enjoyed a measure of freedom, in terms of how they wanted to dress, and where they wanted to study and work.

But since the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from the country last year, the situation has changed dramatically, with Afghan women once again suffering a significant and rapid rollback of their rights.
Since the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan last August, for most Afghan women, each passing day has seemingly brought a deterioration in their condition, their rights and their sociopolitical status. This is despite the group’s early pledge to protect and honour women’s rights.

The Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law has, in fact, left no room in public life for women, who comprise around 48 per cent of the country’s population.

In backtracking on its promise to allow girls to attend high school, the Taliban has imposed a de facto ban on their secondary and higher education. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school.

By replacing the Women’s Affairs Ministry with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Taliban has dismantled the system that was designed to respond to gender-based violence. It has also failed to appoint any women to its new cabinet, effectively denying women their right to take part in the country’s political life.

In addition, under the fundamentalist group’s restrictive policies – and according to guidance issued by the ministry – Afghan women are now required to have close male relatives acting as their chaperones if they wish to travel any distance beyond 72km.


Afghan women take risks driving in Herat after the Taliban restricts new licences

Afghan women take risks driving in Herat after the Taliban restricts new licences
The ministry has also called on all vehicle owners to offer rides only to women if they are wearing Islamic hijabs. Indeed, for the first time in decades, women appearing in public must now wear the Islamic face veil.

Taken together, these rules have significantly limited Afghan women’s ability to earn a living, access healthcare and education, and escape situations of violence; in effect, many women have become virtual prisoners within their homes.

Worse, a humanitarian crisis is rapidly escalating in Afghanistan, amid a collapsing economy, the suspension of aid, cash shortages and spiking prices.

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Reports suggest that acute hunger is pervasive across the country. Given that women and girls already face increasing difficulties in accessing assistance and healthcare, the impact of the economic crisis on them can only be severe.

Meanwhile, it has been nearly a year since the US’ withdrawal, and Afghan women and girls are still waiting for the world to act – to end the relentless attacks on their rights.

And although several countries have issued statements, expressed concern and called on the Taliban to cease their rights-violating policies, the international response has been severely lacking in terms of urgency and concrete action.


Starving Afghans queue for free bread as Kabul bakery donates food to needy

Starving Afghans queue for free bread as Kabul bakery donates food to needy

Still, it must be noted that members of the international community have made the upholding of women’s rights a prerequisite for recognising the Taliban government, and releasing aid.

Despite this pressure, the regime continues to resist. It is therefore safe to say that neither the increasing international isolation and worsening economic crisis, nor the growing desperation of ordinary Afghans have deterred the Taliban from reinstating its repressive policies.

To be a true leader of the country, the Taliban needs to recognise the catastrophe it has caused in just a year back in power and reverse course on women’s rights, before more lasting damage is done to a generation of women.

At the same time, the international community must not forget the women of Afghanistan. The UN Human Rights Council will hold its next session from September. During an enhanced interactive dialogue – set to take place between representatives from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, and other relevant human rights bodies – a much stronger response must be developed to protect Afghan women and girls.

The international community also needs to prioritise hearing directly from Afghan women on their needs and including their voices to strengthen advocacy efforts for the protection and maintenance of fundamental rights.

Furthermore, in light of the country’s growing economic crisis and resulting food insecurity, foreign governments must consider easing restrictions on aid and helping women by providing targeted, substantial and systematic funding to programmes that address their rights and empowerment.

Perhaps reviewing the past year of Taliban rule and the regime’s brutality against women would motivate countries to do more than merely pay lip service.

Akanksha Khullar is an independent scholar working on gender issues, in particular an understanding of the women, peace and security agenda, and identifying how national, regional and international organisations contribute in shaping the UN Security Council Resolution 1325