The Taliban's Relentless Assault On Afghan Women Continues

The Taliban's Relentless Assault On Afghan Women Continues
 Cruel and repressive measures against women and girls by the second Taliban regime compelled the UN to consider closing their operations in Afghanistan. The imposition of a ban on Afghan women working for the United Nations was defended by the Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on April 12, who termed it as an internal issue of Afghanistan, which should be respected by all international actors.

Earlier, the Taliban regime had banned women from going to the gym and parks, and disallowed them from travelling without a male companion and full veil. Banning female education was one of the first actions which were taken by the Taliban regime when it came to power following the withdrawal of American and NATO forces in August 2021. Prohibiting university and high school education for Afghan girls and women, and disallowing them from working in offices was highly resented when widespread demonstrations and protest marches in Kabul and elsewhere against the Taliban regime took place. Depriving almost 50% of the population to live a normal life will have serious ramifications in Afghanistan, as the Taliban regime violates the Doha Accords of 2020 which ensured protecting women and human rights.

Where is Afghanistan heading now that the political volatility has degenerated into a severe deterioration of human security, particularly gender equality in the last two years? How did more than $2 trillion of American spending since 9/11 fail to transform Afghanistan into a modern, democratic and an enlightened state? What is the future of the 40 million people of Afghanistan, particularly its women? For around 20 years, Afghanistan, under the regimes of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, was a different country where curbs on the rights of women and their education were minimal, but things changed when the Taliban took over in August 2021 and reverted to the medieval era type order which they refer to as adherence to Sharia.

In November 2022, a panel of UN human rights experts presented a report which dubbed the treatment of Afghan women and girls as a crime against humanity. Eleven UN appointed independent human rights experts blamed the Taliban regime of committing flagrant violation of human rights of Afghan women and girls. The report lamented that “confining women to their homes is tantamount to imprisonment and is likely leading to increased level of domestic violence and mental challenges. All 11 observers of human rights called upon the Taliban regime to conform to human rights standards, particularly respecting rights of all girls and women to education, employment, and participation in public and cultural life of their country. But the Taliban regime is adamant and refuses to cede to international criticism against banning high school, university education, working in offices, gyms and parks for Afghan women and girls.

The confidence of the current Taliban regime vis-à-vis its anti-women policies are akin to what the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001 was pursuing in the name of religion. But this time, the situation is different. The previous Taliban regime controlled 90% of Afghan territory, but this time it governs 100% of Afghanistan and has claimed to have provided good governance, rule of law and accountability to an ordinary Afghan. It is also claimed that corruption in the form of bribery has been eliminated and people are safe to travel to any part of the country.

So far, no member of the UN has granted diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime but interestingly countries like India, Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan and Turkey are conducting semi-normal ties with Kabul. It means, like the first Taliban regime which was largely isolated, this time it has been able to make diplomatic inroads because of economic and trade reasons. Enormous mineral and natural resources of Afghanistan provide ample justification and incentives to disregard human rights violations, particularly issues related to gender discrimination and conduct normal relations with the Taliban regime. However, in a regional summit held in Samarkhand, Uzbekistan on April 14, the Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang expressed his concern over Taliban government’s decision to ban Afghan women from working for the UN programs. It is yet to be seen, to what extent the Taliban regime will take note of Chinese concern over restrictions imposed on Afghan women.

The relentless assault on Afghan women in Afghanistan today needs to be analyzed from three angles. First, Afghanistan is 200 years older than Pakistan, but it has not been able to settle down as a nation state. Amin Saikal, in his well-researched book Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival examines in detail how the Afghan society emerged in 1747 under the leadership of Ahmed Shah Abdali, who tried to unite various tribes but to a large extent the Afghan mindset remained highly tribal and conservative. It is religion, combined with Pashtun nationalism which shaped the Afghan mindset in which development, education, enlightenment, tolerance and rights of women failed to have any role in shaping the dynamics of Afghan society. Curbs on women and relegating their role in society, confining them to domestic affairs possesses a legitimate hold, particularly among Afghan males.

When society is retrogressive, ultra-conservative and devoid of reasoning, the outcome is social backwardness. Afghanistan is a classic example of internal resistance against social change and development. Equating modernization with westernization is common in many Muslim countries including Afghanistan. As a result, education, research, science and technology, which are essential for the modernization of any society, failed to take roots in Afghanistan and in many Muslim societies which reflected resistance against change and social development. When the regime of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came into power as a result of the Saur Revolution in April 1978, and tried to change Afghanistan by introducing land, educational and social reforms, it faced tough resistance from the ultra-conservative segments of society to reverse the process of change. Jihad was launched against that regime, with claims that it was led by infidels and communists.

The complicated nature of Afghanistan is evident from the fact that there is no other country in the world which has experienced attack and occupation from three major powers: the British, Soviets and Americans. If Afghanistan is back to square one despite the investment of billions of dollars for modernization through social transformation, it means that the ultra-conservative roots of the country cannot be eradicated. Corruption and nepotism, along with a culture of warlordism also contributed to the failure of the process to transform Afghanistan into a modern country. Second, without social transformation and emancipation of women, Afghanistan will not be a normal state. If the Taliban, with their retrogressive and tunnel vision mindset are in control of Afghanistan for the second time in the last 27 years, it means there is something wrong with Afghan society which grants acceptance to groups who have seized power through occupation and for them democracy, human rights, enlightenment, development, social change and development hold no value. For them, modern education, research, innovation, science and technology means westernization.

When the mindset of a large segment of Afghan population conforms to ultra-conservatism and religious nationalism, denying women their productive role in human resource, management and development, the outcome is stagnation. By keeping almost half of population from getting education, employment and pursuing healthy activities like sports, travel, music and songs, the Taliban regime wants to sustain male chauvinism in Afghan society. Third, muted voices against gender discrimination in Afghanistan are unable to deter the Taliban regime from converting their country into a big prison where dissent, political pluralism, democracy and tolerance cannot be allowed. As a result, by suppressing half of their population by force, the Taliban regime will soon face a backlash because 20 years following 9/11 and the overthrow of Taliban regime by the US, the generation which grew up during those days cannot accept a medieval order which suppresses dissent, innovation, creativity, education, research and critical thinking. In the absence of women’s emancipation and the ruling of the country by force, without giving people a choice who should govern them, the Taliban regime will destabilize not only Afghanistan but also neighboring states.

The retrogression of the Taliban should be a lesson for Pakistan, when multiple quarters within out country appreciated the August 2021 takeover of Kabul. Already, the implications of anti-women measures in Afghanistan can be seen in Pakistan where suffocation, stagnation and male domination is projected in the name of religion. After all, the Taliban’s return to power was a source of jubilation for their counterparts in Pakistan who want to impose the same brand of shariah which prevails in Afghanistan today.

The author is the former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Karachi, and can be reached at