This weekend, Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban. Over the past few months, it had become a feared eventuality, after the group had steadily gained traction across the country, buoyed on by the planned withdrawal of US and UK armed forces by 11 September, yet no one expected this to happen so quickly. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani fled the country over the weekend to an undisclosed location, making the Taliban once more the de facto leaders of the country. Shocking scenes have exploded over the globe today, showing thousands of desperate Afghans attempting to escape.
Perhaps nobody has dreaded the return of the Taliban more than the women of Afghanistan. For the last 20 years, there have been many advances to women’s rights, which the current situation looks set to erase almost overnight.
A quick history lesson…
Emerging in the early 1990s, the Taliban, a political movement and military group, is believed to have begun life in religious seminaries in Northern Pakistan. Its mission was to restore order following the withdrawal of Soviet Troops from Afghanistan in 1989, and install an extreme version of Sharia law. By 1998, the group had taken control of 90 per cent of Afghanistan.
Once in power, the group quickly drew international outrage for various human-rights abuses. For women, among the strict mores installed was the banning of female education over the age of 10, the forced wearing of the burqa and a severe restrictions on day-to-day freedoms. The Taliban’s influence has often threatened to spread beyond Afghanistan to regions such as Pakistan where, famously, the group shot the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012.
When it was suspected the Taliban was sheltering Al-Qaeda forces following the attacks of 11 September, 2001, a US -led international offensive was launched on Afghanistan. The result was the ousting of the Taliban from power, the installation of an Afghan government and a 20-year-long military occupation by US and UK forces. Though no longer in charge, the Taliban lost none of its potency. It rendered many areas of the country unstable, clashed consistently with US and UK military and persisted in attacks on Afghan civilians. Among its top targets were any women in positions of power.
Peace talks between the US and Taliban were finalised in February 2020, promising America’s peaceful withdrawal in exchange for a cessation of violence. Warnings were made by both the Afghan officials and leading military generals that the government would fall without international aid. Just weeks shy of Biden’s deadline of 11 September, it appears the worst has happened.
What is the situation for women in Afghanistan now?
Before the 1970s, women’s rights in Afghanistan had arguably, broadly kept pace with many other Western nations. Afghan women had the right to vote in 1919, just one year after women in the UK. Gendered segregation was abolished in the 1950s and the 1960s saw a new constitution include women in political life. From the 1970s onwards, instability in the region saw these rights gradually peeled back.
The Taliban’s rule in the 1990s effectively obliterated female progression. The group enforced its own, extreme iteration of Sharia law that meant women were banned from education and the workforce, leaving the house without a male chaperone, showing any skin in public or accessing healthcare administered by a man, let alone any involvement in political life.
When the US-led military coalition intervened, then UN secretary general Kofi Annan famously said, 'There cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women.'
The past 20 years have seen huge progress for women in the country. Women’s movements are no longer legally restricted, nor are women legally required to wear the burqa, but can freely choose to, if they wish. A new constitution in 2003 protected women’s rights and, in 2009, Afghanistan adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. It ensured that 27 per cent of the 250 seats in Afghanistan’s parliament were reserved for women. Education is currently open to women and female participation has seen highs of 65 per cent, with millions of girls in school and thousands at university. Girls accounted for 39 per cent of the country’s 9.5 million students last year. It is believed that roughly 22 per cent of the Afghan workforce is now female and women have taken positions of power in politics, the judiciary and the military. There are more than 200 female judges in Afghanistan and, as of April 2021, there were over 4,000 women in law enforcement.
How will that change?
Though spokespeople for the Taliban have insisted that women’s rights will be preserved, reports show that women have been sent home from their jobs and universities in cities that have fallen under Taliban control. One recent incident at Azizi Bank in the southern city of Kandahar saw Taliban gunmen escorting female employees from their jobs, telling them their male relatives could take their place.
An anonymous university student has written this weekend in The Guardian of devastating scenes in Kabul, where her fellow female students have been evacuated by police and were left unable to use public transport as drivers were too scared of Taliban reprisals if they were seen transporting a woman. She reports that her sister was forced to flee her government job and that she, currently completing her second degree, 'will have to burn everything I achieved in 24 years of my life.'
International outcry has built over the last week. Malala issued a call to action to global leaders to defend the rights of women in the country. 'We watch in complete shock as Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates,' she wrote on Twitter. 'Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.' Mahbooba Seraj, the founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, said in a recent interview, 'What’s happening in Afghanistan today is going to put this country 200 years back.'
Two-thirds of the population of Afghanistan are under the age of 30, which means most women have never before lived under Taliban control. Whilst a number of women wear the burqa out of choice, many will now face wearing it for the first time under mandatory requirements. Most have never known what it is like to be unable to study, work or leave the house unchaperoned. They now undoubtedly will. A photograph spreading across the internet today shows images of female models in the windows of a fashion retailer in Kabul being painted over. It is a poignant image of what may now begin to occur for all women in Afghanistan.
How can you help?
There is a growing number of organisations and charities committed to aiding Afghan refugees and female empowerment in the region. Below are just a few.
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