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The Costly Price of Gender Apartheid: Afghanistan’s Brain Drain in the Face of Taliban Rule

Afghanistan faces a bleak future as the Taliban’s oppressive regime takes hold, exacerbating the country’s brain drain crisis, with educated Afghans seeking safety elsewhere, leaving behind a fractured society struggling to retain its intellectual capital.

Many Afghans have sooner or later come to realize that the Taliban’s empty promises of a reformed leadership were crafted responses to its own perceived weaknesses. The international community leveraged their power by not recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan (so far). 

This prompted Taliban leaders to reassure the world that it would not trample on the fundamental rights and protections of people, especially historically targeted groups such as Afghanistan’s women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities and intellectuals. Those who have the most to lose from the Taliban’s return to power face two bleak choices: risk persecution and not be allowed to use their talents or flee to protect their lives and continue their livelihoods abroad. 

I studied for 16 years and nobody thinks about us. If the situation continues like this and nobody hears us, we are obliged to leave the country,” responds Fardin, a young person struggling with unemployment. This speaks truth to a reality that many young and educated Afghans face. The condition is even graver for the educated and aspiring Afghan women and girls. 

Taliban resurgence triggered mass exodus

Afghanistan’s political turmoil, combined with humanitarian and economic crises has created unbearable conditions for young educated Afghans to pursue careers in the job industry. Thousands of Afghans currently struggle to support themselves and their families. An estimated 97% of Afghans live in poverty according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2022. 

The Taliban’s resurgence triggered a mass exodus of newly educated young people, doctors, journalists, engineers, artists, and more. “Losing such human capital, simply put, is disastrous for Afghanistan,” comments Weeda Mehran, co-director of the Center for Advanced International Studies (CAIS) from University of Exeter in England. Many Afghans held hope for a promising new era in which social progress and innovation would take root and flourish, fueled by a new generation of young Afghans. 

“Brainpower also means criticism and free-thinking,” said Michael Barry, an expert on Afghanistan. “The intellectuals in any highly repressive society are a source of opposition. When you let them go, you remove the potential for opposition and therefore of change,” says Frederic Docquier from the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research. 

The Taliban’s regressive policies sweep away significant gains made the past two decades such as a nearly 20 fold increase of women’s presence in higher education. Numbers have jumped from 5,000 to 100,000 women enrolled in school almost two decades since 2001 according to UN News. 

The Taliban eliminated half of Afghanistan’s potential

While the Taliban asks men to stay and build up the country, its brutal regime has condemned Afghanistan to ruin by actively disempowering half its population through the weaponization of patriarchy.

“They should not hurt Afghanistan’s talents, Afghanistan’s scientific cadres and Afghanistan’s prides, and should not take them out of this country.” says Amir Khan Muttaqi, acting Taliban Foreign Minister in an ironic response to the mass emigration of Afghans. 

Yet, by relegating women to the status of sub-citizens in a gender apartheid state, the Taliban not only strips away their fundamental rights but eliminates half of Afghanistan’s potential. The Taliban’s sabotage of Afghanistan’s future progress manifests most visibly in the deprivation of women and girls’ livelihoods and the constant threat to their aspirations. 

Manizha Wafeq, president of the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry expressed frustration saying, “we all invested so much in creating a great pool of professionals to support the country – in politics, the economy, engineering, the environment – everything.” 

First hand accounts from the Afghan people support predicted brain drain trends with rapidly diminishing Afghan talent and intellect. The loss is further catalyzed by bans on education for women and girls. Condemning 50% of Afghanistan’s population to sub citizenry functions to install a legal system predicated on male subjugation over women. Women’s exclusion from public life and restrictions on free movement reflect the Taliban’s forced establishment of a gender apartheid state. 

Progress reversed against the will of Afghan people

The suspensions and bans on women’s employment and education by the Taliban are purportedly justified as part of a review of the state’s laws and policies, measured against adherence to Sharia law – a Sharia law based on the interpretation of the Taliban ideology. 

However, the right to education and the right to work are universal human rights, not subject to religious approval and even so, Islam urges education for both men and women. It makes up an intrinsic part of the rights and freedoms that all women and girls should have access to globally, and represents a marker of a country’s healthy growth and development.

In the last 20 years, Afghanistan cut their maternal and child mortality by more than 50%, but the current humanitarian crisis foreshadows a crumbling health service. Enriching a country’s industries requires the inclusion of all its people, with their diverse identities and experiences informing how services meet the needs of society as a whole. 

By shutting women out of healthcare professions, the Taliban perpetuates a male-dominated sector that dismisses women’s pain and fails to provide adequate care. This patriarchal mindset is reflective of the Taliban’s overall approach, which systematically excludes women from public life. A nation’s success cannot come to fruition while over half of its population suffers under systemic oppression and marginalization. 

“In a society, we need female and male doctors,” said Mohammad Mustafa, a recent graduate of Paktia University in Afghanistan.

Women and girls are not mere objects

Framing women and girls’ identities as something dissimilar to “person” dehumanizes them. This perspective reflects the Taliban’s narrow worldview, which fails to recognize that women and girls are not mere objects, but rather individuals capable of contributing to society in various and equal capacities. Journalists, engineers, doctors, artists—the potential of thousands of Afghan women remains untapped, disregarded by a system that denies them their rightful place.

To build a prosperous and progressive future for Afghanistan, it is essential to acknowledge and harness the talents, dreams, and careers of women and girls. They are not an afterthought, but an integral part of the country’s fabric. Denying them their rights only hampers the nation’s potential for growth and perpetuates a cycle of inequality and oppression. 

The Feminist Majority Foundation believes it is time to challenge the Taliban’s brutality against women, its endangerment of Afghanistan’s future, and advocate for the empowerment and inclusion of women and girls as equal participants in Afghan society.


Tolonews 06/26/2023; UNICEF 2022 ; RFERL 8/12/2022; The Economic Times 9/2/2021; UN News 1/19/2023; VOA News 5/30/2023; Reuters 10/19/2021; Tolonews 7/1/2023

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