In April 2021, President Joe Biden of the United States announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, effectively ending a war that had started around twenty years ago. Following this announcement, the Taliban began advancing towards the capital city, Kabul, capturing significant cities across Afghanistan, including Zaranj, Kandahar, and Herat. On August 15, 2021, the Afghan Government collapsed as Taliban forces entered Kabul, marking their return to power twenty years after their initial downfall.
Since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in mid-August 2021, the situation for women's rights in the country has deteriorated significantly. Despite promises to "uphold women's rights in line with Sharia law," the Taliban swiftly implemented a series of oppressive measures, disproportionately affecting women. In the early weeks of their rule, the Taliban began to limit the rights of Afghan citizens, with women being particularly impacted. These restrictions included banning women and girls from traveling without a male companion, denying them access to higher education, imposing restrictions on their presence in various public spaces, and narrowing their employment opportunities primarily to the healthcare and primary education sectors. In December 2022, women were further prohibited from working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in most fields. Subsequently, in early April 2023, the Taliban extended this ban to Afghan women working for the United Nations Mission in the country. These actions have significantly restricted the rights and opportunities available to Afghan women under Taliban rule.
1. Historical Context of Women's Rights in Afghanistan
During the Durrani Empire (1747-1823) and the early Barakzai dynasty, Afghan women typically lived within a societal framework that enforced gender segregation based on customs. While this practice was prevalent throughout Afghanistan, variations existed among regions and ethnic groups. Over the years, some Afghan leaders attempted to enhance women's rights, but these efforts were largely unsuccessful. Nevertheless, a few leaders in the 20th century managed to introduce significant, albeit temporary, changes.
One such leader was King Amanullah, who ruled from 1919 to 1929. During his reign, he introduced a series of significant reforms to modernize and unify the country. King Amanullah was a strong advocate for women's involvement in public life and placed great emphasis on female education. He actively encouraged families to send their daughters to school and promoted Western-style clothing for women. In 1921, he implemented a law that abolished practices like forced marriage, child marriage, and bride price, while also placing restrictions on polygamy. However, his successor later reintroduced the veil and reversed many of the women's rights reforms, reinforcing gender segregation.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Afghan government embarked on a series of modernization efforts. One significant development was the establishment of the Women's Welfare Association (WWA) in 1946, with Queen Humaira Begum as its patron. The WWA offered school classes for girls and provided vocational training opportunities for women. Notably, between 1950 and 1951, women gained access to education as students at Kabul University. The 1964 Afghan Constitution marked a milestone by granting women equal rights, including universal suffrage and the right to run for public office.
However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the communist government pursued women's emancipation through literacy campaigns and mandated education for girls. Nevertheless, these initiatives encountered resistance in Pashtun tribal areas. The Communist regime also abolished patriarchal customs and raised the minimum marriage age for girls to sixteen. Despite these efforts, gender segregation persisted in rural Afghanistan, with girls attending school viewed as dishonorable in some communities.
During the Taliban regime in the 1990s, women's rights suffered a severe setback. Girls were barred from education beyond the age of eight, women were prohibited from working, and strict dress codes were enforced, covering women's entire bodies, including their faces. Women couldn't seek medical treatment from male doctors without a male family member present, and they were not allowed to speak loudly in public. Additionally, women were banned from working in radio and displaying images of women was illegal.
In 2001, after the Taliban's defeat, women in urban areas regained access to education and employment. Some Afghan women became politically active, holding government positions and participating in the electoral process. A Ministry of Women's Affairs was established, women gained the right to vote, and they were elected as representatives to the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan's Grand Council.
2. Challenges to Women's Rights in Afghanistan
Following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, they revoked the 2004 Constitution, which had enshrined various women's rights, including the right to vote, run for office, receive an education, and be free from discrimination. They also replaced female officials and civil servants with their male counterparts, reversing the progress made in gender inclusivity.
In September 2021, the Taliban closed the Ministry of Women's Affairs and reintroduced the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a body from their previous rule. This ministry was responsible for monitoring and enforcing a strict interpretation of Sharia law, which resulted in significant changes in societal behavior and lifestyle. The job opportunities for women were severely restricted, with employment mainly available in the healthcare and primary education sectors. This ban was later extended to Afghan women working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Simultaneously, mechanisms for reporting gender-based violence were suspended, shelters across the country were closed, and support services were terminated. Amnesty International documented cases where women were arrested and detained for reasons like being in public without a male guardian or not conforming to the strict dress code. These women were charged with 'moral corruption,' and those detained for this reason or for escaping abusive relationships were systematically denied access to legal assistance, often enduring ill-treatment and inhumane conditions while in detention.
Timeline of main restrictions on women's rights under the Taliban (2021-2022)
[Source: European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS)]
2.1 Violence Against Women and Girls
Research conducted by Amnesty International reveals that essential services supporting women and girls who are survivors of gender-based violence have been discontinued in Afghanistan following the Taliban's rise to power. The Taliban's actions included closing shelters and releasing individuals convicted of gender-based violence offenses. This situation puts survivors, as well as those involved in protective services such as shelter staff, lawyers, judges, and government officials, at risk of repercussions. It's important to note that while the system was imperfect, it provided crucial assistance to thousands of women each year in Afghanistan, where nearly 90% of women experience at least one form of intimate partner violence during their lifetime, as reported by UNAMA. The most prevalent forms of gender-based violence included physical and sexual violence, including beatings, rape, and forced marriages.
2.2. Right to Freedom of Movement
Starting from December 26, 2021, Afghan women have been subject to a restriction that forbids them from traveling beyond 72 kilometers (45 miles) without a male relative accompanying them. The Taliban has gone further to make it illegal for drivers to transport women traveling alone. This restriction has not only posed a new peril to the lives of Afghan women but has also obstructed their access to essential healthcare appointments, their ability to escape situations of domestic violence, and their prospects for employment.
In a country where millions of Afghan women serve as widows and are the sole providers for their families, this rule gravely jeopardizes their family's survival. Moreover, many women either remain unmarried or have husbands or male relatives employed abroad or in neighboring towns due to the job crisis, making it practically impossible for them to leave their homes.
2.3. Prohibition Against Visiting Public Places
In November 2022, the Taliban's decision to impose a ban on women visiting various places, including gyms, funfairs, public parks, and even all-female bathhouses, known as hammam, had significant repercussions for women's well-being in Afghanistan. This ban not only infringed upon an age-old tradition but also hindered the basic hygiene and health of Afghan women. Bathhouses were not just a cultural institution but also a crucial source of sanitation, especially considering that a substantial majority of households (estimated at 79% by the UN) lacked direct access to heating and clean water. Consequently, women faced the dire consequences of inadequate hygiene, compounded by the harsh Afghan winters, which increased the prevalence of vaginal infections and other health issues.
Furthermore, the prohibition on women's access to parks, gyms, bathhouses, and other venues did not solely impact women themselves. This ban had a far-reaching economic impact as well, causing significant losses for many business owners, some even losing all of their clientele.
2.4. Right to Press and Media
During November, the Taliban implemented a ban prohibiting women from participating in television programs and films, while also mandating female journalists and presenters to wear headscarves. A report published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in August noted that the majority of female staff in media organizations ceased working in the aftermath of the Taliban's assumption of power. In various areas of the capital city, images of women featured on advertising posters were either concealed or defaced. A study conducted by Human Rights Watch unveiled that women were being instructed to refrain from carrying smartphones or devices with advanced features, significantly restricting their access to information.
2.5. Right to Education
The situation regarding girls' education in Afghanistan has witnessed significant fluctuations. Between 2003 and 2017, there was a notable increase in the proportion of girls attending primary and secondary schools, with primary school attendance rising from less than 10% to 33% and secondary school attendance reaching 39%, up from a mere 6% in 2003.
However, the Taliban's return to power in September 2021 brought about severe restrictions on girls' education. The majority of secondary schools for teenage girls remained closed, essentially cutting off access to education beyond the primary level. The Taliban's education minister imposed gender segregation and instituted Islamic dress codes for educational institutions, requiring female students, teachers, and staff to wear Islamic abaya robes and niqabs, which cover the hair, body, and most of the face. Despite initial pledges to reopen schools for girls in the spring semester, the regime went back on its commitment, citing reasons such as a shortage of uniforms and female teachers.
2.6. Right to Employment
A study conducted in 2019 by UN Women and Promundo revealed that just 15% of Afghan men believed women should have the right to work after marriage, with a significant two-thirds expressing dissatisfaction with what they perceived as women having "too many rights." In 2020, women constituted 20% of the country's workforce, and an increasing number of them were engaged in running small businesses. However, as the Taliban assumed control, they implemented policies that prohibited women from workplaces, initially instructing female bank employees in Kandahar to leave their positions. Following their complete takeover, the Taliban continued to enforce segregation, preventing women from working alongside men.
In September, a senior Taliban figure announced that Afghan women should not work alongside men, resulting in a directive by the interim mayor instructing female employees of Kabul's city government to remain at home. Presently, there are no women in the new government, and approximately 200 female judges remain in Afghanistan. Many of these judges are in hiding due to threats from the Taliban, and some have experienced frozen bank accounts. Most of these judges had presided over cases involving abuse and are now living in fear for their lives. Only those in primary education or healthcare are still permitted to work, and even among them, most are not receiving salaries due to the ongoing financial crisis.
2.7. Right to Healthcare
Even before the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, the country's healthcare infrastructure and services were significantly constrained, heavily reliant on foreign aid, and plagued by substantial gaps, particularly in rural and remote regions. The suspension of international aid has had a profound impact on the ability to maintain healthcare services, including those specialized for women and girls.
One of the most alarming aspects of the humanitarian crisis is the limited access to healthcare. Women, especially those with more intricate health requirements such as pregnant women, have faced significant challenges in obtaining the necessary care. These hurdles include concerns related to fear and insecurity, mobility restrictions (the requirement for a mahram), extended distances to reach healthcare facilities, the absence of safe transportation options for women (necessitating private cars rather than public transport), and a shortage of qualified female healthcare staff.
3. Priorities in Addressing Women's Rights in Afghanistan
UN Women Afghanistan and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) conducted a series of 15 in-country consultations with 207 Afghan women in August and September 2022. According to the findings, a substantial 91% of women reported profound changes in their lives since August 2021, while the remaining 9% perceived no significant difference between life under the Taliban and life under the former Islamic Republic.
The primary concern consistently voiced by Afghan women across all these consultations was the urgent need to reopen secondary schools for girls. This issue was highlighted by 100% of the women surveyed. Security emerged as the second most common priority, with 71% of participants citing it. Within the realm of security, the focus was primarily on physical security, encompassing threats, violence, and intimidation.
Additionally, a telesurvey conducted by the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS) in August 2022 gathered the perspectives of 2,560 women inside Afghanistan. Among these respondents, 38% identified women's rights as their most significant concern, followed by access to public services (22%), security (17%), addressing poverty (11%), and improved access to humanitarian aid (11%).
In each of the 15 consultations, women from diverse professional backgrounds were asked to articulate the top priorities within their respective sectors. The table below provides an overview of the primary concerns raised in a selection of these sectors:
Primary and Secondary Education
4. Recent Situation
The current state of affairs in Afghanistan is characterized by persisting difficulties, which encompass substantial restrictions on women's rights, civilian casualties resulting from IED attacks, the imposition of corporal punishment, limitations on media freedom, and the operations of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Furthermore, challenges are prevalent within the justice and penitentiary system, concerning detainee populations and resource constraints. In early April 2023, after extensive negotiations between the United Nations and the Taliban, the Taliban reaffirmed their uncompromising policy by prohibiting Afghan women from participating in UN missions and agencies within Afghanistan.