What the new Taliban regime really means for Afghan women’s rights


12 | 11 | 2021


The situation of women in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s recent taking of power has suffered some drastic and detrimental changes in their lives

In the image

Afghan girls and boys before the new Taliban regimen was established []

When the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, the battered population of Afghanistan could only presume what was about to occur to them. Still, the initial doubt was promptly replaced with discouragement and extreme alarm, especially on the side of women and girls.

This forced transfer of power has certainly very negatively affected the already harsh reality of women in Afghanistan. Even before the latest escalation in violence, Afghans had to battle with a poor management of  COVID-19, poverty, a huge inequality between rural and urban areas as well as the scars of the regime back in 2001, altogether with a weak government and the imminent menace of a comeback from the Taliban. The combination of all those factors resulted into discouraging data for women in Afghanistan: at the beginning of 2021, 35% of Afghan girls married before reaching the age of 18, and an outraging 80% of women were victims of domestic abuse.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban regime ruled fiercely, imposing strictly the mandates of sharia law, an Islamic legal system. The sharia (meaning “the clear path" in Arabic) is derived from a univocal interpretation of the Quran and rules about almost every aspect of the life of a Muslim. Its application during the first Taliban regime in Afghanistan was especially harsh on women.

The strict prohibition to work outside the house, that of being alone without being chaperoned by a designed male tutor (mahram), altogether with the interdiction to study, use cosmetics, makeup or “revealing” clothes (including high-heels, as they are not supposed to be heard by men), are only a few examples of what womenhad to endure under the first regime of the Taliban. Under sharia’s most extreme application, women in Afghanistan were not allowed to laugh in public, be represented in ads or pictures, ride a bike or even show their faces or ankles (they always had to be completely covered by a burkha) in public, under risk of being subjected to violent beatings and public verbal abuse.

This extremist Islamic armed group has taken once again the power in Afghanistan after the impromptu departure of the  American and their allies’ troops back in August. Even if they appear to have improved their public relations strategy this time, the Taliban have in fact not changed much. Consequently, when they regained power this year only to announce that they would respect and ensure women’s rights according to the sacred mandates of sharia and purdah (an Islamic belief to hide and segregate women from public life), Afghan women started to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

With the new overtake of Kabul, all the progress and gains obtained for Afghan women and girls during the years of Western occupation have simply vanished. Despite public declarations on respecting the fundamental rights of women, the new government has already taken some serious actions that must be seen with preoccupation. Concerning education, for example, Afghan universities will be segregated by gender, according to recent public declarations by the Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani, who claimed to ensure women’s access to high education, albeit not alongside men. Also, a new dress code will be introduced, so women are dressed “modestly”; they are required to be completely covered from head to toes and keep their face hidden by a niqab.

The minister went as far as announcing a review of the subjects students would be taught. The Taliban have stated their aim to create new academic curriculums based on Islamic values, and consequently, that all the contents taught in Afghanistan would be reviewed and changed to be aligned with this idea. Even if this constitutes a clear improvement from the situation during the last Taliban period, when girls were banned altogether from schools and universities, in practice it is unsure whether the new rules will be applied at all. Many voices have been raised to denounce that the implementation of these new regulations would translate into the complete exclusion of women from all educational levels, as many universities do not enjoy the sufficient resources (classrooms, female professors…) to provide segregated classrooms, and that, consequently, men’s education would be prioritized. On the other hand, in primary and secondary schools, both sexes will also be segregated.

The Taliban also pronounced themselves on regards to the right of women to work. At first, due to alleged “security” issues during the first month of their mandate of fear, the Taliban prohibited women to work outside their houses, but soon doctors and nurses were allowed to come back to hospitals, as they are the only ones which are allowed to provide medical assistance to other females. Some weeks later, it was the turn for primary schools to reopen, and so female teachers could leave their homes and girls have resumed their educational activities. In addition to this and aiming to gain an international image of openness, a small group of Afghan flight attendants also have gone back to Kabul’s airport to attend female travelers.

Despite the apparent image of freedom and respect for women, however, their plight can drastically vary depending on the area. Thus, in some provinces (such as Baghdis for example), women are completely excluded from participation in any activity, including education or work. In a total of 11 provinces, they can only work in health services and education, whilst in others such as Kabul they have fewer restrictions on their liberties, or at least so does it seem.

Another critical issue is that when permitted, the possibility to work or leave their houses is solely based on oral agreements and declarations instead of on binding rules, generating great uncertainty and fear because maybe not all the Taliban recognize them. Consequently, the streets of Afghanistan are no longer a safe placefor any of the women who were not able to escape during the recent international evacuation.

In addition to the major changes in work and education, the Taliban's cultural commission has also declared in international media that the practice of sports by women was not considered appropriate or necessary, and that consequently they would not be allowed to practice them. Similarly to what happens with the permissions to work, there are no records of official communications or norms with legal support whatsoever, but again, taking into consideration the past Taliban regime back in 1996 as well as how the situation is evolving now, women have mainly stopped practicing sports outside, due to the rational fear they have for their lives.

Another measure that clearly restricts the political rights of women in Afghanistan and that is endowed with legal and official recognition is the shutdown of the Women’s Affairs Ministry. This institution, which was essential in the small improvements of life and political participation of females after 2001, has been replaced with the dreaded Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which was formerly in charge of ensuring the enforcement of sharia law. It controlled the deployment of the religious police, who publicly beat women accused of immodesty or going against the purdah. 

Needless to say, when Afghan women have tried to peacefully protest against all those violations of their fundamental rights, Taliban extremists have pursued them and punished them with violence: not only are they completely excluded from a new government made up entirely by men, but they are unable to do anything about it.

To conclude, even if not all the details of the modus operandi of the new Taliban regime have transcended, it is undeniable that serious breaches of fundamental rights are already taking place under their power, which affect more seriously women. Even if between the first and the second Taliban regime their situation was far from perfect, it has to be said that it was quite better than what they have to suffer nowadays.

Women in Afghanistan must not really have to live through said atrocities. They deserve to be free and make their own decisions, to have political representation and quality education, and to laugh, practice sport and peacefully protest if they desire to do so. Afghan women deserve to enjoy their liberties and rights but, unfortunately, the international community is witnessing each day how the Taliban regime makes that goal completely hopeless.