Will the Taliban's vow to protect women in Afghanistan hold?
During the Taliban’s first news conference last week, following their abrupt takeover of Afghanistan, the group received much-anticipated questioning concerning the future treatment of women and girls.
Zabihullah Mujahid, an official spokesperson for the Taliban said, “the issue of women is very important. The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia. They are going to be working with us, shoulder to shoulder with us. The international community, if they have concerns, we would like to assure them that there’s not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have”.
Women and girls in Afghanistan have made huge leaps in exercising their basic rights and freedoms and have been paving the way for others across the world
The Taliban’s repressive and abusive ruling with Sharia Law in the country from 1996-2001 saw women and girls subjected to strict rules compared with their male counterparts.
Women weren’t allowed to leave the house unless accompanied by a male, if they did go out it was obligatory for them to wear a head-to-toe burqa covering every part of their body, women and girls over the age of 10 were not allowed to study or work, some women were forced into marriages and/or were raped by militants, and public stoning wasn’t uncommon.
It comes as no surprise that the group’s pledge to protect women’s rights have been met with great scepticism by the women in Afghanistan, as well as experts, and the wider international community.
During the US invasion since 2001, and with aid from international organisations, women and girls were integrated into Afghan society as citizens where female enrolment at schools shot to 33 percent in 2017 from 10 percent in 2003, women held roles in government, as business owners, and Olympic athletes. Even female life expectancy grew by a decade from 56 in 2001 to 66 in 2017.
British Army General Sir Nick Carter, in an interview on Wednesday with the BBC, said that the group may have changed throughout the last 20 years and that “we should give them the space to see how they are going to govern”. But for some Afghan women, signs of the Taliban’s draconian interpretation of Islamic Law has already started to show.
Last Tuesday, Khadija Amin, an anchorwoman for Afghanistan state television, said she had been removed from her position and replaced by a Taliban official, along with other female employees.
The next generation will have nothing, everything we have achieved for 20 years will be gone,” Amin said, “the Taliban is the Taliban. They have not changed.”
Just moments before that, Beheshta Arghand, a reporter from privately-owned news broadcaster, Tolo News, gave a live interview with Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a member of the Taliban’s media team about house-to-house searches in Kabul.
Some have praised the interview as being a progressive step in the right direction for the Taliban, but most people believe the stunt is part of a much wider PR campaign where the group have been known for their tactical interactions with the media and public.
A female journalist who was working in Kabul, and now hasn’t left her home since the takeover, told the FT that the Taliban were allowing women to go to work “if [they] wear the Islamic hijab, a full-body veil.”
Mujahid had announced that women and girls would still be able to study but after the city of Herat was captured, the journalist said they “prevented female students and female professors from entering the university campus.”
In a more brutal example, last month on July 12, a group of Taliban fighters had demanded a woman and mother residing in a village north of Afghanistan with her children to cook for them. When her daughter said she had responded saying, “I am poor, how can I cook for you?'" the group began to beat the woman with their guns from which she subsequently died.
Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), tweeted saying more emphasis should be put on the legal rights of women, “that should be the baseline,” she said, “behaviour/practice can change overnight and tends to be context-specific/varied by province, local “authorities” etc.”
What Akbar is referring to is the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law which was ordered by the then parliament in 2009 and reconfirmed in 2018. The law made progress for women and girls rights who were able to report up to 22 criminal acts of abuse, which would lead to an increased number of investigations into the cases.
Women and girls in Afghanistan have made huge leaps in exercising their basic rights and freedoms and have been paving the way for others across the world. Now more than ever is a time for the international community to make sure Afghan women and girls are not robbed of their future.
Sahar Amer is a freelance journalist based in London. She holds a master's degree in Human Rights, Culture & Social Justice from Goldsmiths, University of London and her research interests include technology and digital rights.