Human rights were curtailed, women were relegated to their homes and a worsening economic crisis
The Taliban has been in power in Afghanistan for one year, and during this year, the Afghan people, especially Afghan women, have experienced a systemic reduction of their human rights and freedoms. The Taliban regime has eroded much of the progress made in the past 20 years and, in many ways, has plunged the country back to the late ’90s when the Taliban ruled for the first time. During the first days of the government takeover, the Taliban announced that women should stay home. Their initial advisory was framed as a “safety” measure, and since then, women have been relegated to their homes. Prohibited from paid employment, traveling alone, attending school, or seeking medical care without a male relative or mahram, life for average Afghan women has rapidly deteriorated in the past year.
The Edicts Begin
The initial order issued in August 2021, asked women to stay home from work and nonessential travel “for their safety.” The Taliban argued that, because their soldiers were “not trained” to respect women, they should remain in their homes so they would not be hurt. While this edict was framed as a temporary measure, it was a sign of the permanent changes that would follow in the coming year.
September, the first month of Taliban control, would bring many of these changes to life. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was shuttered and replaced with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice. Before the Taliban takeover, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was the foremost agency for promoting women’s rights and advancement in Afghanistan. The old Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice, on the other hand, serves as the self-described morality police in Afghanistan, policing Afghans’ appearances and lifestyle, especially that of Afghan women. This ministry is a holdover from the first Taliban regime and is responsible for most of the Taliban’s edicts regarding women. Many people who remember the first Taliban regime will recall the violence of this Ministry, including the ordering of stoning, cutting limbs, and lashing of women and girls for doing simple things like painting their nails. The employees of the Ministry roamed the streets searching for people who were not following Taliban laws and assaulted them. This change of replacing the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Vice and Virtue was a somber sign of how the lives of Afghan women would change in the next year.
The Taliban regime’s new caretaker government includes no female cabinet members, despite promises of a more inclusive government. The only women employed by the City of Kabul that could return to work were those whose jobs could not be performed by men. For example, the only women who could return to work were those jobs that could not be performed by men. One example of the jobs women could still do was to clean women’s toilets in the city. “There are public female toilets [that need cleaning] in bazaars,” Kabul’s acting Mayor, Hamdullah Nohmani, explained.
Afghanistan is the only country in the world that bans most women and girls from high school education
The government was not the only area to see massive overhauls in the Taliban’s first month in power. In September, co-education was banned and higher education was entirely segregated. At places of higher education where women were still allowed to attend, they were required to fully cover their faces and bodies. Additionally, the Taliban “temporarily” closed girls’ secondary education (middle and high school). They initially claimed secondary education would begin at the start of the next school year (in Afghanistan, the school year runs from March to December). Delaying girls’ secondary education until the following year, the Taliban argued, would allow them to ensure that girls’ education would be taught following Islam. However, these schools still have not reopened.
The first area that saw a complete and outright ban on women’s participation was athletics. Sports, the deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, told an Australian broadcaster, were neither “necessary” nor appropriate for women to play as their face or body could potentially be exposed.
November marked the Taliban’s first foray into limiting women’s access to health care. This edict prevented women from entering a health clinic without a mahram. A mahram, or close male relative, acts as an escort for a woman to ensure her safety and morality. By prohibiting women from accessing the essential services provided by these health centers without a mahram, the Taliban greatly decreased access to care, which was already difficult to come by in Afghanistan. Later that month, the Taliban also banned women from appearing on non-news television, such as dramas, soap operas, and entertainment shows. Additionally, foreign shows were prohibited from being aired on Afghan televisions. The erasure of women from the media is a clear precursor to the erasure of women from everyday life.
Freedom of movement curtailed
The Taliban rounded out the year with major restrictions on women’s freedom of movement in December. New edicts informed women that they were not allowed to travel further than 50 miles without a mahram. This directive also instructed vehicle owners to refuse service to women not wearing hijab or a full covering from head to toe. Along with the ban on solo car travel, came a ban on solo air travel. Afghan airlines were told by the Taliban to stop women from boarding flights unless a mahram travels with them. This combination of bans effectively prohibits women from traveling on their own and limits their freedom of movement.
March 2022 brought the start of the new school year in Afghanistan, and with that, the promise that schools would reopen. On March 23, thousands of girls headed off for their first day back at school. However, when they arrived at the school buildings, these girls were met with locked doors and armed Taliban guards telling them to return home. This month also saw the gender segregation of public parks. Men and women were no longer allowed to attend the parks on the same days.
In May, women were ordered to cover themselves from head to toe in public, only revealing their eyes. Taliban officials explained that a burka was the preferred form of covering and recommended not leaving home at all, as it is the best form of hijab. Taliban officials also decreed that male relatives would be responsible for compliance and face punitive measures if women were spotted uncovered while out. Although many Afghan women are defiant of complying with the full coverage, they are often harassed by the Taliban members.
On May 30, 2022, women in the Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban, were completely banned from taking a taxi or public transportation without a mahram – regardless of the distance traveled. Women have already been restricted in how far they can travel alone and have been given various directives to remain at home. Now, with restrictions on public transit usage, women cannot maneuver freely, even if they had somewhere to go. This ban is especially harmful considering women in Afghanistan can no longer get drivers’ licenses, making them completely dependent on mahrams to take them anywhere they cannot walk.
Afghan women resist
While Taliban restrictions are increasing every day, there is one major difference between the Taliban’s first regime and the current one; it is the people they are ruling over. The Afghan people have changed significantly over the last 20 years, but the Taliban hasn’t. The Afghan people, through their efforts and with help from international partners, made major gains for women’s rights in almost every area. Maternal mortality rates decreased, literacy increased for both women and men, and women made up almost 30% of the government’s jobs. One particularly notable area of growth for women’s rights in Afghanistan was education. Before the Taliban’s return, 3.5 million girls were enrolled in schools, making up 40% of total enrollment. This change has happened in the past twenty years between the Taliban’s first regime (where only 1 million students were enrolled, and almost none of them were girls) and their current regime. Girls could only study in secret.
After every edict the Taliban has released to restrict their rights, women have taken to the streets. These protesters put themselves in incredible danger. At these protests, women have been harassed, detained, put in prison in unknown locations, and assaulted by Taliban soldiers. However, despite these risks, Afghan women and girls have continued their advocacy and fight for their fundamental human rights.
Famine and economic crisis
The human rights crisis women face in Afghanistan is exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis. An extensive drought (the worst in the country in two decades) and soaring inflation have pushed thousands into poverty. About 95% of Afghans are not getting enough to eat, while 80% of households are in debt. In addition, the Taliban’s return to power has led to international sanctions and the halting of many aid corridors, partly because of their track record on women’s rights. Many aid groups are struggling to get money and supplies into the country due to fears of Taliban interception. In the past, the Taliban has tried to divert these funds to their supporters instead of the people who need it most, particularly women. Due to the persistent violence in the region, there are several female-led households. These households are especially at risk since the new Taliban restrictions prevent women from traveling and working.
How can you help the situation in Afghanistan?
One way to support women in Afghanistan is to push the United States and the UN to continue not to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government. The Taliban is a terrorist organization. Recognition would eviscerate the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and around the globe, as it would show that the United States is willing to look past gross human rights abuse abroad while continuing to engage with authoritarian states worldwide. Call or write your representatives or President Biden and let them know that this is an issue the American people are passionate about. Additionally, after 20 years of engagement, it is our moral responsibility to fulfill our obligations for the human rights of Afghan women and girls. The vow the United States made more than 20 years ago, is still valid and needed. The situation that had changed for the better has been reversed once again, and we bear some responsibility for that as well.
Since Afghanistan has been receiving aid from the US, UN, and many other non-governmental organizations for a long time, it has well-developed aid corridors, and many groups are familiar with the country’s needs. While the speed of the Taliban’s return to power was largely unanticipated, local and international aid groups have been able to build off the existing aid infrastructure. However, the Taliban’s return to power has led to international sanctions and the halting of many aid corridors. Aid groups have relied on limited engagement to meet urgent needs without recognition. Humanitarian aid can and should be provided through Afghan and international organizations, which can provide the Afghan people with safe housing, equal distribution of food, and other assistance, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been running for their lives because of threats from the Taliban. The United States has accepted tens of thousands of Afghans who had helped the US mission in Afghanistan, but more resources are needed to support new refugees. If you are looking to provide immediate help in a tangible way, consider reaching out to a local refugee resettlement group or to a new neighbor who might have arrived from Afghanistan. You can also help support the Afghan Adjustment Act, which provides a legal pathway for citizenship for the newly arrived Afghans. You can support it by calling your Members of Congress and urging them to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Finally, seek out news and share stories you hear. Seeking out and sharing media keeps this issue in the news. This allows for better, more consistent reporting and can lead to better policy recommendations.