Addressing gender apartheid in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan: challenges and strategies for advocacy and change

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021, they swiftly declared Afghanistan an “Islamic Emirate” under the leadership of a supreme leader. On the same day, they ordered the closure of all girls’ secondary and high schools, with an official decree formalizing this order issued a month later.

The Taliban’s actions in Afghanistan have curtailed the basic rights of women and girls, leading to what experts describe as potential “gender apartheid.” The discrimination faced by women and girls in Afghanistan is profound, verging on persecution and constituting a crime against humanity. The systematic nature of these restrictions, imposed through official edicts, aims to completely dominate and control women and girls.

Compared to other regions where backlash against women’s rights has occurred, Afghanistan stands out for the breadth and intensity of its assault on women and girls’ rights. Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, they have imposed wide-ranging limitations on women and girls, affecting their freedom of movement, clothing choices, access to education, employment, healthcare, and legal justice.

These restrictions have not only marginalized women and girls from participating in various aspects of society but have also led to a disturbing increase in violence against them within their own families. The situation calls for urgent international attention and action to address these egregious human rights violations and support Afghan women and girls in reclaiming their rights and dignity.

BACKGROUND

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021, they swiftly declared Afghanistan an “Islamic Emirate” under the leadership of a supreme leader. On the same day, they ordered the closure of all girls’ secondary and high schools, with an official decree formalizing this order issued a month later.

On September 7, the Taliban announced an interim caretaker government composed solely of male Taliban members, primarily from the Pashtun community. This administration, lacking recognition from the United Nations, is referred to as the de facto authority.

Later, on September 22, representatives from various religious and ethnic minority groups were added to the government, but notably, no women were included. During this period, the Taliban also abolished the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, repurposing the building to house the reconstituted Ministry of Virtue and Vice, tasked with enforcing the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law. Additionally, they suspended the constitution and dissolved both houses of Parliament and the Electoral Commission.

Since August 2021, the government has issued 36 decrees and instructions based on Sharia law, specifically targeting the rights of women and girls. Many of these decrees dictate what is considered acceptable behaviour for women, including directives on segregation from men, dress codes, and the requirement for women to have a male chaperone when travelling beyond 72 kilometres from home.

One decree even mandates that, unless they are very young or elderly, women must cover their faces except for their eyes when meeting non-male relatives, with the advice that the best way to adhere to hijab is to avoid going out unless necessary.

The decrees issued by the Taliban, labelled as “guidelines” or “recommendations,” have been implemented to varying extents across different provinces and districts. Furthermore, the government has declared that any violations of these decrees would result in punishment inflicted on the male family members of the women involved, effectively encouraging domestic policing.

The restrictions imposed by the Taliban have had devastating effects on the lives and livelihoods of women. A report submitted by a U.N. special rapporteur expressed deep concern over the significant regression in women’s and girls’ rights since the Taliban seized power.

By March 2022, 61% of women had lost their jobs, with opportunities in the informal economy also dwindling due to restrictions on freedom of movement. The situation has raised alarms about the heightened risk of child marriage and gender-based violence faced by girls. The cumulative impact of these measures has created a dire situation for women and girls in Afghanistan, severely limiting their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.

EFFECTS ON EDUCATION

In addition to the social restrictions imposed by the Taliban, education, particularly for women, has been significantly impacted. UNICEF reports that 3.7 million children are currently not attending school, with 60% of them being girls. Despite a promise to allow all girls to return to school by spring 2022, the government has largely prevented their attendance. As of March 2022, the Taliban government announced that girls could only attend primary school (grades one through six), while secondary and high schools for girls remained closed.

Furthermore, in December 2022, the government imposed an indefinite ban on university education for women and girls. Additionally, females were prohibited from working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These measures have severely limited educational opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan, further exacerbating their exclusion from academic and professional spheres.

The picture of Afghanistan’s education for women is filled with danger. Teachers have expressed deep concern over the erosion of women’s rights and civil liberties under the Taliban regime. Many are facing economic hardships due to job losses, which not only affect their livelihoods but also their ability to support their families. They highlight the plight of girls who are unable to attend school and lack alternative avenues for education.

This situation raises fears of adverse social consequences, including an uptick in forced and childhood marriages. Moreover, teachers note disparities in treatment based on ethnicity and religious affiliation, observing that women from minority groups often face harsher treatment from the government compared to those from the majority community.

NO PROTECTION

The restrictions imposed on women and girls have severely hindered their access to both routine and emergency healthcare services, resulting in dire consequences for their overall health and their sexual and reproductive rights. This exacerbates the strain on an already fragile healthcare system, which has been further weakened by poverty and years of conflict.

Given that female patients can only be attended to by female doctors under these restrictions, the continued enforcement of such limitations poses a significant risk of preventable deaths among women and girls. This situation raises concerns about the possibility of what could be considered femicide – the deliberate killing of women or girls – if these restrictions are not promptly reversed.

Furthermore, there is a constant profound worry about the absence of legal protections for women and girls, along with the systematic enforcement of discriminatory practices. Gender-based violence, including gender-related killings, forced and child marriages, the sale of children and organs, child labour, trafficking, and unsafe migration, has become normalized under these conditions. Such normalization perpetuates a cycle of abuse and exploitation, further compromising the rights and safety of women and girls in Afghanistan.

The absence of a clear and consistent legal framework in Afghanistan contributes significantly to the continuation of violence against women and the lack of accountability for those responsible, as highlighted in the report. Women are denied access to female legal professionals, further exacerbating their vulnerability within the legal system. While some women lawyers attempt to provide legal assistance from their homes, they are often barred from entering courtrooms in many areas.

Rather than protecting women and girls as asserted, the Taliban authorities perpetuate severe forms of gender-based discrimination and enforce broad censorship through restrictive decrees targeting women and girls. This includes abolishing legal safeguards and mechanisms for holding perpetrators of gender-based violence accountable, leaving women and girls without recourse or protection under the law.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSES IN THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL

The representative of the United Kingdom emphasized their significant financial contribution of over $500 million in assistance to Afghanistan since April 2021. They urged other Member States to increase support for the $3.2 billion Humanitarian Appeal for Afghanistan for 2023, which is currently only 27% funded. They highlighted the crucial need to address the exclusion of 50% of Afghanistan’s population from society, stressing that the country cannot achieve self-reliance under such circumstances.

Japan’s delegate cautioned against isolating the Taliban, drawing parallels with the 1990s when such isolation led to Afghanistan becoming a hotbed of terrorism. Instead, they advocated for continued pressure on the Taliban to reverse repressive human rights policies, especially those impacting women and girls, in line with resolution 2681 (2023) which calls for their full, equal, meaningful, and safe participation.

The United States representative condemned the Taliban’s edicts against women as “indefensible” and urged them to retract these measures. They emphasized the importance of ensuring women and girls’ access to education and allowing women to continue their work in non-governmental organizations. The United States has provided substantial humanitarian assistance, including $2 billion since 2021, with a significant portion allocated to the World Food Programme.

China’s delegate reiterated their call for the immediate return of Afghanistan’s central bank reserves totalling $7 billion, which the United States froze and placed in a trust known as the Afghan Fund. They criticized the intention to use accrued interest from these reserves for the Fund’s operations as “absurd” and akin to plundering. China also called for adjustments or lifting of sanctions and stressed the need for donor countries to prioritize the survival of Afghans rather than using assistance as a means of exerting pressure.

In response to the discussion, the representative of Afghanistan provided a grim portrayal of the country’s current situation, highlighting widespread poverty, pervasive fear among citizens due to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, and severe limitations faced by women and girls in terms of mobility, education, and participation in public life. He emphasized that Afghan women and girls are enduring what can be described as “gender apartheid” and echoed the call for a special session of the General Assembly to address these issues.

However, Pakistan’s delegate countered this depiction by asserting that the speaker representing Afghanistan lacks a legitimate government, representation, and credentials. They labelled it as a significant political anomaly that the Security Council had invited this speaker to spread what they deemed as “hatred and disinformation,” urging for this issue to be addressed.

FUTURE

The leadership of the Taliban has demonstrated over the past two years their unwillingness to uphold the promises regarding women’s rights made during the Doha Agreement negotiations with the United States. Instead, they have implemented measures aimed at bringing about generational changes that diverge significantly from Afghanistan’s cultural norms spanning centuries. Addressing this requires a comprehensive and resolute response, involving advocacy, resources, and accountability measures at local, national, and international levels over an extended period.

Despite declarations from various Islamic religious authorities affirming that traditional and mainstream interpretations of Islam do not relegate women to subordinate roles or objectify them, this argument has thus far failed to sway the Taliban’s pursuit of what they claim to be a “100% Islamic system.” This underscores the entrenched nature of the Taliban’s ideology and the challenges in promoting gender equality within their framework of governance.

The imposition of restrictive measures against women by the Taliban might be driven by a pragmatic consideration to prevent defections of their most radical supporters to groups like ISIS or other extremist organizations. The Taliban’s success as an insurgency movement has historically been tied to recruiting young male fighters from conservative rural areas or radical madrassas, often in Pakistan. These recruits were attracted by a call to purge Afghan society of what they perceived as un-Islamic Western values, especially alleged disrespect towards women. The argument suggests that if the Taliban fails to fulfil the aspirations of these fighters for a so-called “pure” Islamic society, there is a risk that they may join ISIS or similar groups to overthrow the Taliban.

The Taliban’s triumph after years of relentless insurgency has taught them a crucial lesson: loyalty is paramount, and unity is the cornerstone of success in Islam. Despite the existence of numerous private objections from significant Taliban figures regarding restrictions on women’s rights, the religious authority of the emir, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, and the pragmatic understanding that a fragmented Taliban is vulnerable, compel obedience to Haibatullah’s controversial decrees. This dynamic underscores the prioritization of cohesion and adherence to leadership directives within the Taliban, even in the face of internal disagreements.

STRATEGIES MOVING FORWARD

To address the normalization of the Taliban’s oppressive treatment of women and advance women’s rights in Afghanistan, a comprehensive approach is crucial. This involves exerting sustained pressure from various angles while implementing effective strategies for change. It’s essential to bolster international accountability mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court and U.N. special rapporteurs, by providing both political support and financial resources to document and address human rights violations.

Furthermore, offering asylum and protection to victims of Taliban atrocities is paramount, ensuring their safety and well-being. Additionally, international sanctions should be linked directly to women’s rights abuses, highlighting the importance of holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.

In diplomatic forums discussing Afghanistan, it’s imperative to ensure the representation of Afghan women, allowing their voices to be heard and their perspectives considered. Supporting women’s rights advocacy groups within Afghanistan and globally, as well as empowering Afghan media to amplify women’s voices and stories, can significantly contribute to progress in this area.

Moreover, facilitating access to education for girls through various means, including online platforms, community-based education initiatives, and scholarships for higher education abroad, is crucial for empowering Afghan women and girls.

A fundamental principle of international law dictates that the global community bears a responsibility to address atrocities occurring in any jurisdiction, including crimes against humanity such as gender persecution and gender apartheid. In addition to this legal obligation, there exists an added moral duty for the United States and allied donor countries. This obligation arises from their role in creating conditions that facilitated the Taliban’s resurgence to power, without implementing adequate safeguards for women’s rights—a central objective of Western governance and democracy policies. As such, there is a heightened moral imperative for these nations to actively engage in efforts to mitigate the impact of these atrocities and to support the restoration and protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan.