A decree to ban women from employment, bar them from entering educational institutions, incarcerate them in their homes—and impose the burqa on those who venture beyond their walls: this horrifying, misogynistic development in Afghanistan is a recapitulation of decrees enforced when the Taliban were previously in power. They stripped women of their bodily autonomy while making health care, education and jobs inaccessible to them. With the imposition of sharia law, women were fundamentally reduced to the status of objects. When they took the capital, Kabul, on 15 August 2021, the Taliban promised to respect women’s rights. A Taliban spokesperson insisted that women “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam.” Such claims have lent the Taliban a reformist veneer in the eyes of the world. But, although they have made many such pledges, they have shown no sign of moderating their orthodox religious beliefs, which explicitly condone the violation of women’s rights. Sadly, the international community seems to have bought into this narrative, despite mounting expressions of concern about the violation of human rights under the Taliban’s brutal regime. Instead of challenging their rigid orthodoxy on the question of women’s rights, many have preferred to convey a spineless optimism—or at least feigned optimism—about the supposedly novel posture.
For their part, Afghan women have consistently warned that the Taliban’s promises to respect women’s rights were false. Their fears have proved legitimate. The crackdown on women has grown stronger with every passing day. The list of brutal decrees attacking the freedoms of women since the Taliban seized power has been never-ending. Women and girls are already forbidden to leave their homes except in an emergency—and then only with their whole bodies, including their faces, covered by a burqa. The establishment of an all-male cabinet; the replacement of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue; and, above all, the ban on secondary education for girls and restrictions on women pursuing a career, are measures indicative of systematic discrimination. Women are also barred from travelling long distances or leaving the country alone. The recent order that female TV presenters and other women on screen must cover their faces while on air is a further extension of these anti-women policies that have been imposed through violence and intimidation.
Once again, violence against women has been normalised in Afghanistan under the pretext of religious modesty, while health care, education and the possibility of a career have become distant dreams for Afghan women.
So, what made world leaders believe that the Taliban had been reformed? Or was this claim just an excuse to turn a blind eye to Afghan women’s concerns?
Today, the Afghan people are going through financial catastrophe and humanitarian crisis, while the so-called reformed Taliban administration remains focused on how to snuff out the Afghan people’s basic human rights, especially those of women.
Even the Taliban order that male family members are responsible for disciplining their women and guarding their modesty is nothing new. It has long been a part of Islamic beliefs that derive their justification from the Quran, which confers upon a man the right to discipline his wife through beating. The Taliban have simply codified this religiously ordained right into the law of the land.
The civilised world, which takes such pride in espousing feminist values, should not be shocked by these appalling developments in Afghanistan—knowing, as it surely did before the west’s hasty exit last August—that this is exactly how women are treated in a theocratic regime. The west’s indifference is both chilling and profoundly disappointing.
Courageous Afghan women have been beaten, threatened, abducted and detained for taking to the streets to demand their basic rights, while the Taliban have been invited to take part in international negotiations as a legitimate delegation. In January, Rina Amiri, the US envoy for Afghan women, wore hijab in a meeting with the Taliban, in what was a clear gesture of appeasement.
Meanwhile, hijab-wearing peace and education activists from the United States met with the Taliban in a thinly disguised attempt on the regime’s part to seek legitimacy from the international community. If we make efforts to convince the Taliban to reopen schools for girls without holding them accountable for breaking their past promises, we will simply be legitimizing a regime that perpetuates abuses of women’s rights with impunity. Mere statements of condemnation from the international community will never solve women’s rights issues in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, misogyny successfully masquerades as multiculturalism in the west—so long as it appears to be legitimised by religious texts. Gender disparities, and the misogyny that abets them, are cheerfully condoned as benign cultural beliefs if they are packaged as religious dogma.
Perhaps this is why lame excuses have been given for the violations of women’s rights in religiously conservative communities. The narrative built around the Taliban’s supposed reformism has proved to be nothing but a smoke screen. In reality, they have been consistent in their determination to enforce their religious beliefs justifying violence against women.
Today, the regime is desperately seeking recognition from the international community, relief from sanctions and the provision of financial assistance. The protection of women from all forms of discrimination should be firmly prioritised by the west in these ongoing negotiations.
Meanwhile, Afghan women’s resistance is more admirable than ever. They are on the front line of resistance against the Taliban’s brutal regime, inside its national borders and beyond. In response to the Taliban’s obnoxious fixation on imposing the burqa, many Afghan women based outside the country have shared photos of themselves in vibrant, multi-coloured ceremonial clothing, using the hashtags #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture.
Though the Taliban has shown no sign at all of a change in their regressive attitude, this time a new generation of Afghan women, raised for two decades in a society in which they enjoyed much greater freedoms and opportunities, seem determined not to succumb to fear and intimidation.
For these brave women, all hope is not lost. But should they have to pursue this struggle alone, a profound shame will fall upon the international community for standing aside when it had a chance to place itself unequivocally on the right side of history.