Afghanistan is a country that has attracted significant attention from the international community since the Cold War period. Over the course of its history, the country has experienced some really turbulent periods, often as a result of breaches of its sovereignty due to invasions by other countries, like the USSR’s invasion in 1979 and the US‘ invasion in 2001. Aside from the violation of their sovereignty, Afghanistan has also been subjected to internal turmoil and instability. A major role in the country’s internal affairs currently plays the Taliban. This Islamic fundamentalist group captured the country in 1996 and remained in power until 2001 when the U.S.-led invasion toppled their government and established a pro-western one. As the U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of active presence in 2021, the Taliban quickly returned to power after pursuing a decades-long insurgency against the U.S.-backed government since their removal in. The Taliban keep close ties with al-Qaeda and have imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Since the group’s takeover, the nation has grown increasingly isolated and impoverished.
The Taliban have transitioned from an insurgent group to a functional and stable government since they regained power. However, their rule takes a heavy toll on Afghans, and women in particular. It is no secret that Islamic law, specifically its harsh form, radically lowers the status of women. A status that makes a lot of people from Western societies rack their brains. It is important to mention that the world has many diverse cultures and customs, and peaceful cooperation among nations requires respect for those cultural differences. There is, however, one question that remains: Where is the line one needs to cross that puts all the differences aside and alerts human morality to act? One thing is to respect different cultures and customs, another one is to observe a massive breach of fundamental human rights and gender discrimination. The Taliban have perpetrated both and their governance makes Afghan women suffer in their daily lives, which has made the situation in the country one of the most serious women’s rights crises in the world.
It is no mistake to assert that human rights principles built in Afghanistan during the U.S. presence have gradually been replaced with Sharia law since the Taliban took power and erased progress on women’s rights in the country. Over two decades, donors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on projects aimed at female empowerment and social and gender equality. In the years leading up to the United States‘ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghan women had gained access to better education, health care, and basic freedoms. After the Taliban swept back to power in August 2021, they ruthlessly reversed many of the progressive gender implementations of the post-2001 era, calling it Western “social engineering”. Moreover, after their accession as a governing body, Afghanistan has plunged into a critical state characterized by an acute humanitarian crisis and economic collapse in which women are disproportionately affected. The Taliban have installed one of the most regressive governments with more than two-thirds of the population vitally dependent on humanitarian aid.
A tense negotiation between the Taliban and outside powers over humanitarian aid and assistance required to rescue almost the entire population became centered on women’s rights. The new regime has been isolated by Western countries and the development aid flowing from this direction has been cut to a certain extent and sanctions against Afghanistan continue to be imposed. This reality presents another moral dilemma pressuring humanitarian organizations. The aid withdrawal might put some pressure on the Taliban to lift such harsh measures. On the other hand, it might worsen the humanitarian crisis even more and lead more people to die from malnutrition and lack of fundamental supplies. The situation reached such a critical point that Afghanistan is facing one of world’s worst humanitarian crises. While aid workers are aware of the Taliban bans‘ harm on Afghan women and children, they are also concerned that refusing assistance in protest could be immoral, deadly, and ineffective. Approximately, ninety percent of the population is currently food insecure. The despair in the country even led some Afghans to sell their kidneys to feed their families and make ends meet. However, many organizations have decided to pause their operations and withdraw from Afghanistan as Western donors threatened to cut aid and impose further isolation on Afghanistan as a reaction to the draconian edicts that have been imposed.
But what has been happening to women and their rights in Afghanistan specifically? The Taliban rule has prohibited all women from attending or teaching at universities, most girls are banned to attend secondary schools, and women are prevented from working in general. On top of this, women have been barred from working at nongovernmental organizations since December 2022. Apart from these restrictions, women are required to appear in public only with a male chaperone and with their bodies fully covered. Afghan women are also banned from parks, gyms, and bath houses. Women have been excluded from all kinds of public offices and the judiciary. They are compelled to stay home and cannot travel more than 75 km without a spouse or other acceptable male family member chaperone (mahram). This requirement has become particularly difficult for women who simply do not have their mahram, as their spouses work in other countries, for example. In order to enforce all the above-mentioned rules, the Taliban use intimidation and inspections, and on top of that, the group has reinstated public punishments, including floggings and execution. As the Taliban took control, several new career restrictions were implemented. The only professions which are open to women today are basically only teaching and nursing. Women in Afghanistan have been severely oppressed, brutally persecuted, and living in almost a prison-like atmosphere. This has caused them to feel invisible, choked, isolated, and deprived of their fundamental rights. Afghanistan has become a place where it is impossible for women to meet their basic needs without access to employment or assistance. Women and girls in Afghanistan have seriously suffered under the Taliban’s rule since they are basically seen as enemies and their struggles for the future have become a struggle for basic survival.
The situation in Afghanistan has become a vicious circle, in certain terms, and Afghan women and girls are now caught within. As the international community cut humanitarian aid in response to the Taliban’s edicts harming the most fundamental human rights, Afghan women and girls face further despair due to the Taliban’s abuses and also due to the actions implemented by the international community that are pushing Afghans further into misery. The Taliban’s practices involve intimidation and threats. The group’s authorities actively search for women that are seen as being engaged in behavior they find unacceptable. Women who were in the army, worked in the government structures or worked as police have become heavy targets in particular. The violence of the Taliban is perceptible in many ways. The regime restricts young people’s education and women’s employment, and it rules by fear. In some provinces in Afghanistan, only female healthcare workers and teachers are allowed to work, and many women are forced to stay at home if they work in other fields.
As a result of foreign donors cutting off their aid, women who are still allowed to work have largely not been paid because healthcare and education were nearly entirely financed by foreign donors. Women are disproportionately affected by the collapse of the economy as well. The financial crisis that followed the Taliban’s takeover together with the work ban for women has created a critical and desperate situation for female breadwinners as they have been prevented from working and thus facing difficulties to make ends meet and feed their children. Due to the Taliban’s dismantling of systems that helped women face violence, they started to feel even more insecure. All this pressure includes the Taliban’s opinion that women should not socialize outside their houses, which also reflects in the workspace where women are still allowed to work. The typical example can be restrictions and discrimination of women in hospitals.
What is going to happen next? The Taliban have been consolidating their rule and it is unlikely that the group would suddenly lift the restrictions they have been proactively imposing since the takeover in 2021. Shortly before the Taliban regained their power, they had made promises to protect women’s rights. As soon as they took over, all the promises disappeared into thin air and proved to be empty rhetoric. As a result of these empty promises, Afghan people have been pushed into misery and Afghan women into a prison-like world where they are treated as inferiorly as possible. Since there is little possibility of change from the Taliban’s side, the UN and other international bodies could play a significant role in mitigating the impacts of the Taliban’s restrictions through humanitarian aid. A “moral compass” could become a driving force used to act in order to prevent even greater misery and a humanitarian crisis growing on Afghanistan’s soil. The next steps of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and other bodies might result from a balance between pressing the Taliban to meet its international human rights obligations using sanctions and other diplomatic means and ensuring that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is being approached and dealt with.
With respect to international law and the recognized sovereignty of Afghanistan, any international encroachment in Afghanistan is virtually impossible and unreal, especially after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021. The Taliban’s system is gradually strengthening and their edicts and restraints have seemed to be becoming more restrictive over time too. Nevertheless, it might be only a matter of time before the Taliban crosses the line of tolerance and the “moral compass” of the international community will lead to tougher steps and decisions aimed at the regime. But so far, it seems like humanitarian aid organizations and international donors are the entities that are able to play a major role in moderating the growing humanitarian crisis afflicting the majority of the Afghan population. When it comes to the draconian restrictions imposed on Afghan women, international donors could again play a crucial role as the “money-exploiting” potential could make the Taliban change their mind given what devastating situation Afghanistan’s economy is in. Future prospects for Afghan women are highly uncertain, and a lot will depend on how the international community handles the current human rights crisis as well as effective negotiations with the Taliban.
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Written by Filip Lukeš