Despite promises that there would be “no discrimination against women,” the Taliban is continuing with measures against women and girls in Afghanistan.
Updated 1 October 2021: Following the formation of an all-male interim government on 8 September, which contained many old guard members from their hard-line rule in the 1990s, the Taliban remains in control of Afghanistan two months after the collapse of the Afghan government and a days-long advance by the militant group.
Moves to impose wide-ranging restrictions on media and free speech that are already stifling criticism and dissent were quickly made, with Human Rights Watch claiming that that media are now prohibited from printing or broadcasting reports that “are contrary to Islam”, “insult national figures”, or “distort news content”.
Back in July, US President Joe Biden had called a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan “highly unlikely” after agreeing to the withdrawal of all US military forces from the country by 31 August 2021. However, by 15 August, the Taliban had reversed 20 years of history in Afghanistan.
What’s happening in Afghanistan right now?
Following the coup, Afghan citizens, as well as displaced troops and civilians attempted to flee the rule. Images emerged from Kabul airport, where witnesses said several people died, and showed people clinging to the landing gear of taxiing planes in desperate attempts to flee. Inside the walls of the airport compound, desperate women were photographed throwing their babies over the razor wire, asking British soldiers to take them to safety.
As the Guardian reports, more than 172,000 lives have been lost in the two decades of war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. As such, their return to power is raised political and human rights concerns, particularly for women and girls, across the world, and sparked fears of a refugee crisis.
The UK has confirmed a new plan to offer 20,000 Afghan refugees a route to set up home in the coming years. But despite receiving criticism that this number is “not enough”, Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News that it is “important” that the scheme “delivers” but that the UK “cannot accommodate 20,000 people in one go”.
Instead, the UK government announced that it was “prioritising women and girls and vulnerable people first”, who are most at risk of human rights abuses and maltreatment by the Taliban.
President Joe Biden also defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, saying, “I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
But despite claiming the White House was “clear-eyed about the risks”, President Biden admitted that it did “unfold more quickly” than they had anticipated. “So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” he continued.
The speech was met with a wave of criticism, with the Wall Street Journal describing it as “one of the most shameful in history by a commander-in-chief”.
How will Taliban rule impact women?
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, guided by a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, violence, coercive control and terror reigned. As the Washington Post reports: “Men were forced to grow beards. Women were forced to wear burqas, flowing garments that cover the entire face and body. Schools for girls were shuttered. Women who were unaccompanied in public places could be beaten. Soccer was banned. So was music, aside from religious chants. The Taliban government held public executions in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium.”
However, following their takeover, Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, has promised that things will be different this time around. Speaking in the first press conference since they gained control, Mujahid said that “there will be no discrimination against women.”
“We are going to allow women to work and study. We have got frameworks, of course. Women are going to be very active in the society but within the framework of Islam,” he commented, adding that “there will be a difference when it comes to the actions we are going to take” compared with 20 years ago.
However, Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division director Heather Barr said the Taliban was violating the rights of women and girls across a number of categories, including: education, employment, freedom of movement, dress, gender-based violence, access to healthcare, and sport.
Back in September, the Taliban effectively banned girls from secondary education in Afghanistan, by ordering high schools to re-open only for boys.
The Taliban education ministry announced that secondary school classes for boys in grades seven to 12 would resume on Saturday, the start of the Afghan week. “All male teachers and students should attend their educational institutions,” the statement said. The future of girls and female teachers stuck at home since the Taliban took control was not addressed.
Earlier in the month, Afghan women, including the country’s cricket team, had been banned from playing sport. There have also been recent reports of a small women’s rights demonstration in Kabul being broken up by gunfire and violence towards protestors.
The deputy head of UN Women in Afghanistan, Alison Davidian, said some women were also being prevented from leaving home without a male relative, women in some provinces were forced to stop work, protection centers for women fleeing violence had been targeted and safe houses for rights activists were at full capacity.
“Memories are vivid of the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, when there were severe restrictions on women’s rights, and women and girls are understandably afraid,” she said.
Following the news, women’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai wrote on Twitter: “We watch in complete shock as the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates. Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.”
Women for Refugee Women also released a social media statement in solidarity with Afghan women. “As the Taliban retake power, we urge the UK government to do all it can to ensure that women and girls are protected, above all by offering safe passage and asylum to women who need to leave Afghanistan for safety,” they wrote.
“The government should now abandon its plans for the harmful Nationality and Borders Bill and ensure that those who have to cross borders for safety are protected, not punished.”
How to help Afghan refugees
UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab previously told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I expect that we will increase our aid budget for development and humanitarian purposes.”
“We want to try and make sure it won’t go through the Taliban, but make sure that we can alleviate the humanitarian suffering,” he added.
Unicef has also announced an appeal to help protect children in Afghanistan, and the largest women’s group in Afghanistan, Women for Afghan Women, has launched an emergency campaign and says it’s monitoring the situation on the ground.
Afghan Aid is responding with emergency assistance where needed and supporting families who have lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of the conflict.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has also launched a campaign to provide lifesaving aid, provide emergency cash assistance and protection services for internally displaced people in Kabul.