During the US-led NATO military presence in Afghanistan (2001-2021), the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) advocated for the rights of women into law. While these rights were met with skepticism, if not outright hostility, with certain segments of Afghan society and the Afghan parliament, it was a promising way forward. The Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW LAW) was issued by decree by President Hamid Karzai in 2009 and by President Ashraf Ghani in 2018. Injustices such as domestic violence, forced marriage, immolation, forced prostitution, and many others, became illegal. Women and girls became free to pursue an education, enjoy fresh air and socialize in parks, travel wherever and whenever they pleased. School-aged girls’ dreams came true as young women graduating from university.
That all came to a halt on August 15, 2021, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Like water dripping on stone, the rights women had come to enjoy eroded.
Shortly after the Taliban takeover, The Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice replaced MOWA. The staff of the World Bank’s Women’s Economic Empowerment and Rural Development Program, a $100 million program stationed in MOWA’s ministry building, were forced to leave. The Taliban also banned all women’s protection shelters, including those operated by Women for Afghan Women (WAW). Survivors of domestic violence faced being forced to return to their abusive households, or worse, death.
Initially, the Taliban promised to respect women’s rights as they applied to Islamic law. On September 12, 2021, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, stated women were permitted to continue their education through university, although some subjects would be prohibited. Classrooms became gender-segregated. But by March 2022, all females were barred from secondary and higher education. In some provinces, any girl over age ten is forbidden to attend school. Fierce criticism arose from such nations as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan – all Muslim nations. They and others spoke out against this ban, to no avail. The Taliban Minister of Higher Education, Nida Mohamamd Nadim said in a tweet, “Preventing the education of girls is the order of the Prophet. A woman is man’s farm, and it is obligatory for a woman to serve him, not to be educated.”
In short order, the once-promising world of Afghan women crumbled further. In December 2021, women were stripped of the ability to travel more than 46 miles from their home, then banned from entering an airplane without a mahram, or a male relative from the nuclear family. In November 2022, women were forbidden to enter parks, even if accompanied by a mahram. Taliban Minister of Propagation of Virtue and Vice Mohammad Sadiq Hakif Mahajer claimed these bans were to prevent women from coming to any harm.
Even the last bastion of a woman’s social life, the beauty salon, was permanently shuttered. These businesses were among the last places a woman could own, earn money, and employ other women. At first, there were restrictions. It was considered un-Islamic to have hair weaves or shaped eyebrows, so those procedures were banned. Then, for reasons unstated, on June 24, 2023, women-owned beauty salons were ordered to close.
An especially cruel declaration states that, as of May 16, 2023, women can no longer visit gravesites, cemeteries, and shrines. This means a grieving mother, sister, aunt, or widow is forbidden to pay respect or tend to the grave of a loved one, under any circumstance. Doing so results in arrest.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recently issued a report summing up the current situation for women in that country: bleak. Women and girls’ rights have evaporated, a charge that Zabihullah Mujahid, another spokesman for the Taliban, claims is not true and based on false information. It’s also interesting to note that UNAMA does not officially recognize the Taliban in its report. Instead, it refers to them as the de facto government.
UNAMA’s report details how the Taliban cracked down on women’s ability to do just about anything. It cites examples of how a midwife was arrested, detained for five hours, and threatened with death as she attempted to go to work. She resigned shortly thereafter. Another woman in a public park was beaten with a stick and ordered to leave. Two women were arrested at an airport because they were traveling without a mahram.
The Taliban de facto government would like everyone to believe these misogynistic edicts against women are meant to protect them from harm and evil. In reality, it isolates women, rendering them powerless. It strips them of their dignity, their humanity, and their worth. Gender apartheid is dehumanizing half of Afghanistan’s population and is wreaking havoc on Afghanistan’s economy and society. It is imperative that every nation in the world continue to pressure the Taliban to recognize and restore women’s rights.
Blog written by Gretchen Weerheim, Women for Afghan Women
Photo caption: Women waiting for humanitarian aid at a WAW distribution drive. Photo courtesy of WAW staff.