By Arab News
By Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
The UN Security Council on Tuesday denounced the Taliban’s ban on women attending universities or working for humanitarian aid groups. It called for “full, equal and meaningful” participation of women and girls in Afghanistan. The council said that barring women and girls from higher education in the country “represents an increasing erosion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The ban on women aid workers also will have a “significant and immediate impact for humanitarian operations in the country,” the statement said. The Security Council statement represents a rare international consensus, including by its five permanent members.
Following the announcement by the Taliban’s Ministry of Economy last Saturday, an increasing number of major nongovernmental aid groups have suspended or curtailed operations in Afghanistan, at least temporarily, because many of their key staff, especially those who deal directly with Afghan families, are women. The UK-based Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Geneva-based Care International, and the US-based International Rescue Committee said on Sunday that assistance programs will be suspended while they seek greater clarity on the announcement.
The Norwegian Refugee Council employs about 1,500 staff in Afghanistan, including 500 women. More than 3,000 of the International Rescue Committee’s staff in the country are women.
The Birmingham-based Islamic Relief Worldwide also said that it would suspend non-lifesaving operations.
Without NGOs, the burden falls on UN agencies to provide critically needed assistance, but the halt to women’s participation in humanitarian work is likely to affect their work as well, including that of the main UN mission UNAMA.
The Taliban seized power in August 2021, promising to allow women and girls to continue to receive education and participate in the labor force. Many in Afghanistan and in the international community hoped that they would live up to those commitments and not revert to the anti-women policies on display when they ruled Afghanistan previously from 1996-2001.
Since taking control, the Taliban have reassured the Afghan people, and their regional and international interlocutors, including the UN, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, that they had no intention of going back to the restrictive policies of the 1990s, or to ban women’s work or education.
However, in recent months, those promises have been proven false, and the Taliban have gradually reversed the gains made by Afghan women over the past two decades. In the process, these anti-women policies have resulted in clear human rights violations. But the Taliban are also jeopardizing the economic future of the country by denying education and work to half of its population. Most immediately, their actions are making a serious humanitarian situation worse by barring women from aid work and, thus, paralyzing international relief efforts.
In their arcane and convoluted recent justifications of the new restrictions, Taliban leaders have tried to give the draconian measures an Islamic patina, but Muslim countries and organizations around the world quickly shot down their false arguments.
The Senior Scholars Council, Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority, issued a statement on Dec. 24 admonishing the Taliban and calling on them to rescind the ban, saying that access to education is one of women’s fundamental rights in Islam.
The head of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based top religious authority in the Muslim world, issued a similar statement the previous day, denouncing the Taliban move, and warning against “believing or accepting the allegation that banning women’s education is approved in Islam.” It described Taliban claims as a “fabrication.”
Saudi Arabia and most other major Muslim countries have also acted in unison, making it clear that the Taliban’s antics are the products of misogyny and male chauvinism, and have little to do with Islamic teachings or traditions.
The Taliban are almost alone in the brazenness of their misogynistic policies; others try to hide or sugarcoat them. Two countries now stand out in their mistreatment of women — Iran and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The first is cracking down on female-led protests which are demanding an end to archaic restrictions on female dress and public conduct, while the latter is introducing increasingly harsh restrictions on women’s movement, education and work. Both countries are using extreme measures to enforce their policies. Iran is executing protesters and imposing collective punishment on communities, including the Kurds in the northwest and Balochis in the south. In an incident on Monday, Iranian authorities ordered a Dubai-bound flight to land and forced off the family of former Iranian footballer Ali Daei, who is believed to support protests in the country.
The Taliban appear to be thumbing their noses at their detractors. In fact, the university ban on women was announced as the Security Council met last week in New York to discuss Afghanistan.
Almost all outside powers, including Afghanistan’s neighbors, have refrained from conferring political recognition on the Taliban’s rule, making it clear that any acknowledgement depends on the group’s conduct, especially regarding women, forming an inclusive government and combating terrorism. Some countries, including Russia and China, have maintained significant economic dealings with the Taliban. Other states and organizations have held hopes that the group would moderate its views in time. But the recent reversals are making it difficult to maintain those hopes.
The dilemma the world faces is how to help the Afghan people, while making sure that the Taliban get the message denouncing their harsh restrictions on women. The group is effectively holding Afghanistan’s population of almost 40 million people hostage. UN aid officials told the UN Security Council last week that 97 percent of Afghans live in poverty, two-thirds of the population need aid to survive, and 20 million people face acute hunger.
Withdrawal or reduction of humanitarian assistance due to the ban on women’s work in that area threatens the lives of those in need in Afghanistan. The resistance to Taliban rule can only thrive and grow with these latest draconian measures. The country’s stability, unity, social cohesion and economic health are all at stake.
Friends of Afghanistan need to coordinate their efforts on how to address this dilemma. A meeting organized by the GCC for early January is certain to focus on how these new measures affect the delivery of aid to those in need in the country.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1