By Zakia Adeli*
The advent of Taliban rule in Afghanistan a year ago this month, after two decades under the more liberal, internationally supported Afghan National Government, threw the Afghan populace backward through a time warp. The return to Taliban oppression has been most traumatic for women and girls, who suddenly find themselves in the equivalent of the Middle Ages again with respect to their rights and prospects.
Today’s Afghanistan is the only country in the world that bans high-school education for girls and restricts females from working, with very limited exceptions. This not only robs girls and women of their futures, but has a much larger impact on Afghan society and the country’s standing in the world.
A lot has changed since 2001
Guided by a traditionalist, nativist dogma, the Taliban pursued a similar policy when it previously ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001. Since then, however, much has changed for Afghan women, especially in the cities. Nationwide, female literacy doubled—although granted it is still low—and women were eager for education and new opportunities. Some went into politics and public service.
After the 2019 election, 27 percent of Afghan parliamentarians were women, the same percentage as in the current US Congress. Every ministry and government division had at least one woman at a senior decision-making level—I myself was one of them. More than 300 female judges, 1,000 prosecutors and 1,500 defense lawyers worked in the government’s judicial system.
Although women were less well represented in business than in government, there were more than 17,000 women-owned businesses in the country. Women were also prominent in other professions including diplomacy, academia and teaching, journalism, and civil society organizations. Public opinion polls showed that most Afghan men favored these new roles for women.
With the Taliban takeover, girls and women suddenly found themselves disempowered, without work and facing severe hardship. At first, however, there was some hope that the “new” Taliban would act differently from before. Indeed, when we in the Afghan National Government were negotiating with the Taliban pursuant to the 2020 Doha Agreement calling for reconciliation, the Taliban negotiators indicated a willingness to accept a more liberal female role in society. However, in contrast to the Afghan government’s mixed-gender negotiating team, our counterparts were all male.
Once in power, the Taliban initially sent some mixed signals. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was closed. By September, schools for boys were reopened, but only elementary schools for girls. Some women were kept in government offices only to be dismissed when men were trained to replace them.
In December, the Taliban did issue a decree that women could refuse marriage and inherit property, but otherwise nearly all their new measures have been repressive. As a result, the presence of women in Afghan society has been drastically curtailed, and in areas such as political life it is now zero. The Commission on Human Rights was terminated. A May 7 decree forced women to cover their face in public, with threat of serious penalties. Another on May 19 banned women from appearing in television plays and movies. Women journalists are required to cover their whole bodies, heads, and faces while reporting.
Deprived of women’s skills
There is no woman in the leadership and administration of the Taliban. None of the female judges, military officers, and women employees in the previous government have been allowed to return to their jobs. Although a small number of women are allowed to work in the health, education, and journalism sectors, they cannot be effective or free to pursue their ambitions because of the severe restrictions imposed by the Taliban. This also affects aspirations; why should women even seek education if virtually no professional opportunities are available to them?
Although even male members of the mujahedeen have complained about the lack of opportunity for their women, the Taliban so far have privileged the most traditionalist elements of their base—even if they sometimes come up with excuses designed to hold out hope that they will change course later, like blaming the closure of girls’ schools on a supposed lack of female teachers. The suffering from this is experienced not just at the individual and family level, but also by society as a whole, which is deprived of the skills of half its people.
Ironically, the Taliban also suffers, since it will never be accepted as a legitimate part of the international community if it denies basic rights and opportunities in education, employment, speech, and participation that are almost now universally regarded as fundamental rights of all mankind, including in most of the Islamic world.
It is hard to be optimistic about the future. But at the very least, foreign governments, the United Nations, and civil society organizations should continue to encourage Afghan women in any way possible and deny the Taliban government recognition and support beyond humanitarian assistance so long as it continues its brutal repression of women.
Dr. Zakia Adeli was the Deputy Minister of Justice and a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Kabul University before she was forced to leave the country following the Taliban takeover last August.