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EFSAS Commentary

The women of Afghanistan bear the brunt as the Taliban reveals its true colours and enforces a truly repressive regime


Like many others, EFSAS had been critical of the chaotic pullout of the United States (US) and its allies from Afghanistan and had argued that the move was ill-considered as it amounted to handing over the country to a bunch of terrorists whose lofty promises of ushering in a softer and more dignified version of their earlier regime that ruled in the 1990s would be belied and exposed sooner rather than later. It had also been postulated that the worst impact of a Taliban takeover would be felt by the common people of Afghanistan, especially the women of the country who make up half its population. Even though some of the core aspects of the regression that had been anticipated had begun to find expression in the early months of the Taliban’s return to power, the terrorist group had nevertheless restrained itself from demonstrating the full extent of its fundamentalist worldview in the misplaced hope that the international community would be deceived into granting it legitimacy and support, something that has rightly failed to happen so far.

Possibly in recognition of the deep-rooted reluctance of world powers to engage with it, and of the ineffectiveness and inability of its patron State Pakistan to soften world opinion in the Taliban’s favour, the Taliban has in recent weeks begun to show its true colours. Whether the hardening of the Taliban’s attitude towards the legitimate and basic rights of the Afghan people, especially the women, is aimed at forcing the attention of the West towards it, or whether it is in reaction to the realization that it would never be acceptable to the world in its present avatar is, however, not yet clear. Whatever be the case, it is imperative that the international community redirects its attention to Afghanistan, where the situation has reached a stage in which people are being forced to sell their kidneys for as little as a couple of thousand dollars just to feed their starving children, and in which women are literally being reduced to rightless adjuncts. Over the past few days, girls have been banned from going to school beyond the sixth grade, women have been barred from travelling by air unaccompanied by a male relative, and men and women have been ordered to visit public parks only on separate days of the week that have been earmarked for each. This is in addition to the slew of restrictions imposed on women earlier, whereby they had been banned from many government jobs that they were otherwise fully qualified to do, told what they can and cannot wear, and prevented from travelling alone by road to other cities. Several women’s rights activists have been detained. In effect, within a year of seizing Kabul the Taliban has totally reversed two decades of gains made by Afghanistan’s women.

While all the above measures imposed by the Taliban are heart-wrenching, perhaps the one with the most damaging implications is the 23 March decision against opening schools to girls above the sixth grade, reneging on a previous promise and opting to appease the Taliban’s hardline base at the expense of further alienating the international community that has been urging Taliban leaders to open schools and give women their right to public space. The unexpected decision came at the start of the new school year in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban earlier in the week urging “all students” to come to school. Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani, when asked to confirm reports that girls had been ordered home from school, confirmed to AFP that “Yes, it's true”, while education ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmad Rayan said “We are not allowed to comment on this”.

Waheedullah Hashmi, external relations and donor representative with the Taliban-led administration, informed The Associated Press on 23 March that “It was late last night that we received word from our leadership that schools will stay closed for girls. We don't say they will be closed forever. The leadership hasn’t decided when or how they will allow girls to return to school”. However, even if schools do reopen fully at a later stage, barriers to girls returning to education remain, with many families suspicious of the Taliban and reluctant to allow their daughters outside. Also, as Sahar Fetrat, an assistant researcher with Human Rights Watch, argued, “Why would you and your family make huge sacrifices for you to study if you can never have the career you dreamed of?”

The Taliban decision has shocked and saddened women and girls in Afghanistan, and several have pledged to protest against it. Matiullah Wesa, founder of an Afghan charity called PenPath that runs dozens of ‘secret’ schools with thousands of volunteers, announced that his group was planning to stage countrywide protests to demand that the Taliban reverse its order. At a press conference in Kabul, activist Halima Nasari read from a statement issued by four women’s rights groups that said, “We call on the leaders of the Islamic Emirate to open girls’ schools within one week. If the girls’ schools remain closed even after one week, we will open them ourselves and stage demonstrations throughout the country until our demands are met. The Taliban should be building more schools for girls in rural areas rather than shutting existing facilities. The people can no longer tolerate such oppression. We do not accept any excuse from the authorities”.

Several others have specifically underlined the untrustworthiness of the Taliban regime. Mariam Naheebi, a local journalist in Kabul, told The Associated Press that “We did everything the Taliban asked in terms of Islamic dress and they promised that girls could go to school and now they have broken their promise. They have not been honest with us”. Women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj went on Afghanistan’s TOLO TV to ask, “How do we as a nation trust you with your words anymore? What should we do to please you? Should we all die?”

The international community has also made its outrage at the development known. United Nations (UN) envoy Deborah Lyons called reports of the closure “disturbing”, and Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for women’s rights, described the development as “scary”. She added, “We see the screws tightening on women and girls every day now. They (The Taliban) have abandoned – at least for now – any effort to reach an accommodation with the international community, and that leaves them with nothing to lose”.

In an important move, the Foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom (UK), the US, and the European Union’s High Representative released a joint statement condemning the Taliban's decision. They said, “The Taliban's action contradicted its public assurances to the Afghan people and to the international community”, and added that the decision came after months of work by the international community to support teacher stipends based on an expectation that schools would be open for all, with the higher interest of Afghan students and teachers in mind. Asserting that “Every Afghan citizen, boy or girl, man or woman, has an equal right to an education at all levels, in all provinces of the country”, the joint statement called on the Taliban “to reverse this decision, which will have consequences far beyond its harm to Afghan girls. Unreversed, it will profoundly harm Afghanistan’s prospects for social cohesion and economic growth, its ambition to become a respected member in the community of nations, and the willingness of Afghans to return from overseas”.

In other significant responses to the Taliban's decision, the US State Department cancelled meetings on key economic issues with the Taliban that were scheduled to take place in Qatar. The World Bank suspended four projects worth $600 million to be funded under the revamped Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). These projects were aimed at improving education and health and agriculture, among other things, in Afghanistan. The Bank had earlier said that the projects had a “strong focus on ensuring that girls and women participate and benefit from the support”. After the Taliban decision, the World Bank asserted that the four projects will be considered for approval only “when the World Bank and international partners have a better understanding of the situation and confidence that the goals of the projects can be met”.

The widespread criticism of its decision does not seem to have impacted the Taliban much, as the group on 28 March implemented another regressive action that directly affected the human rights of Afghan women. After a meeting between representatives of the Taliban, two Afghan air companies, the State-owned Ariana Afghan Airlines and the private Kam Air, and Kabul airport immigration authorities, the Taliban ordered the airlines to stop women from boarding flights unless they were escorted by a “mahram”, or an adult male relative. A letter issued after this meeting by a senior Ariana Airlines official to his staff, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, stipulated that “No women are allowed to fly on any domestic or international flights without a male relative”. Subsequently, dozens of women who arrived at Kabul’s international airport to board domestic and international flights, including some overseas, were denied boarding because they were traveling without a male guardian.

Earlier, the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice had ordered that men and women would not be allowed to visit parks in Kabul on the same days. A notification of the ministry, which is responsible for moral policing, said that women would henceforth be permitted to visit parks on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, while the remaining days were reserved for men. Mohammad Yahya Aref, an official at the ministry, told AFP that “It is not the Islamic Emirate’s order but our God’s order that men and women who are strangers to each other should not gather at one place. This way women will be able to enjoy their time and freedom. No man will be there to trouble them”. He added that religious police were already implementing the order.

While it is true that it is not women alone that have been at the receiving end of the Taliban’s fundamentalist policies, with male government employees not sporting beards or adhering to strict dress codes also being debarred from entering office and even being fired, journalists and activists being detained and harassed on flimsy grounds, and international media  broadcasts, including the BBC’s Pashto and Persian services, and foreign drama series being banned, it is without doubt the women of Afghanistan who are bearing the main brunt.

As to why these regressive measures are being enforced at this juncture, a 28 March report in The Associated Press revealed that “According to a senior Taliban official and Afghans familiar with the Taliban’s leadership, the push to return to the past — which resulted in the edicts — emerged from a three-day meeting last week in the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. They say the edicts stem from the demands of the Taliban's hardline supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is apparently trying to steer the country back to the late 1990s, when the Taliban had banned women from education and public spaces, and outlawed music, television and many sports… Akhundzada has modelled himself on Mullah Omar, preferring to stay in remote Kandahar, far from the eyes of the public, rather than rule from the Afghan capital of Kabul. He also adheres to Pashtun tribal mores — traditions where women are hidden away and girls are married off at puberty. Akhunzada ran a madrassa, or a religious school, in Pakistan's border regions before his 2016 rise as the new Taliban leader. Those with knowledge of Akhunzada say he is unconcerned about international outrage over the latest restrictive Taliban edicts and about the growing discontent and complaints from Afghans, who have become increasingly outspoken. It was Akhunzada who reportedly vetoed the opening of schools to girls after the sixth grade as the Taliban had promised to do in late March, at the start of the new schoolyear”.

As the atrocities against women in Afghanistan increase in scale and scope, the words of Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her speech on Women's Rights in Afghanistan made on the occasion of International Women's Day last month ring true. She had said that Afghan women were often portrayed in the international fora and media as victims, but in reality they were “not passive bystanders”.  She added, “In fact, Afghan women have – in the face of war, extreme poverty and unspeakable violence and discrimination – been working tirelessly to protect and provide for their families and communities”. She argued that for Afghanistan to find peace and progress, Afghan women should be active agents for change and be given the space to lead peacebuilding, humanitarian, and development processes. “Girls should be able to go to school and university and be empowered to contribute robustly to the future of their country. Women should be visibly represented in the police force, in courts of law, in government and in the private sector – indeed in every sphere of civic and public life”. However, as true and pertinent as every word that she said was, the tragedy of the present situation unfolding in Afghanistan is that the ground realities are moving in a direction that is exactly the opposite.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is today at the center of the international focus, as it rightly ought to be, but to forget the plight of Afghan girls and women who have over two decades been enabled and empowered to express their true productive selves would be no less of a crime.