Taliban's war on women: International community must not remain a mute spectator

In a brazen on-camera interview, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister, said in response to a question on how Afghan women feel unsafe to leave homes under the Taliban rule, “We keep naughty women at home.” 

Dr Koyel Basu Aug 27, 2023
Representational Photo (Taliban's war on women)

The deeply conservative conflict-ridden Afghan society has an underlying meta-narrative-the violence against women which is actually war against women, a greater malaise than the war against terrorism. As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan for the second time in August 2021 amidst a chaotic troop withdrawal of American military forces, women’s lives across Afghanistan have fundamentally changed. Despite promising palliative measures for women and agreeing not to stop their education, as soon as the Taliban came to power ousting the previous civilian rule they gave orders to deny women education, remove them from their jobs and force them back under the veil. In a brazen on-camera interview, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister, said in response to a question on how Afghan women feel unsafe to leave homes under the Taliban rule, “We keep naughty women at home.” (‘Top Taliban leader makes more promises on women’s rights but quips “naughty women” should stay home’, J Shelley, M Popalzai, E Popalzai, A Mengli, R Picheta, CNN News, 19 May, 2022. Source: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/05/18/asia/amanpour-haqqani-taliban-women-interview-intl/index.html). These words state the underlying sinister intentions of the Taliban involving gender persecution dragging the country a few decades backwards.

The United Nations Security Council is deeply alarmed by these restrictions on Afghan women. Many international aid agencies have suspended their operations there with heavy backlash from the Taliban who reinstated themselves in the country’s administration. Much of the healthcare system has collapsed. This happened in the middle of a raging Covid-19 pandemic that already was storming across the nations. It is next to impossible for Afghanistan to pull up by its bootstraps. There is a shortfall in manpower and resources and burgeoning food prices.

The Taliban’s premeditated and deliberate policy to make Afghan women and women of all sections of society invisible from public life has forced many to beg for a living. Shima Forugh who was once ambitious enough to break restrictions and join the military is now left without a job. Forugh describes her life under the shadow of Taliban rule as painful and unbearable. She says she feels like a prisoner. She says, “Truthfully, I am very tired. If suicide were right, I would end this miserable life.” (‘Hungry, hunted, terrified: the unending plight of the Afghan women who served in military and police’, Zahra Zoya and Rukhshana, The Guardian, 4 August, 2023. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2023/aug/14/hungry-hunted-terrified-unending-plight-of-the-afghan-women-who-served-in-military-and-police#:~:text=Shima%20Forugh*%20was%20in,Zafar%20army%20corps%20in%20Herat).

Under the alibi of preserving morality, religion and safety of women, the Taliban has issued edicts or decrees that intend to erase them from all aspects of public life. In a step that has sparked outrage among women in Afghanistan, the Taliban has ordered all local and international non-governmental organizations to stop their female employees from coming to work. This order was condemned by the United Nations as profoundly irresponsible and unacceptable. 

In fact, there are severe clampdowns even in the private lives of women. Between September 2021 and May 2023, 50 edicts were issued by the Taliban restricting women’s movements, prohibiting their access to education and limiting their freedom to wear attires of their choice. (Report of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan submitted to 53rd Session of Human Rights Council. Source: https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/ahrc5321-situation-women-and-girls-afghanistan-report-special-rapporteur)

 Even civil servants whose wives and girls do not abide by these decrees are liable to face suspension at work. This has created a climate of uncertainty and fear which sees no abatement. What is disturbing is that there is no atonement for wrongs committed by the Taliban on women and this kind of discrimination is being constantly normalized. '

Steep decline in women's health

The Taliban’s preposterous stance on women is leaving women’s rights in Afghanistan on a cliffhanger. Limitations on women’s autonomy and mobility leave them with no choice except to flee their country or submit to their fate with dashed hopes, dreams and aspirations. The violation of their dignity and loss of their hard-won freedoms and rights leaves them with a bleak future. There is a sharp decline in child and maternal mortality and polio eradication efforts. These measures against women by the Taliban have not only been detrimental to them but also to the economy. Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, said in May 2022, “Current restrictions on women’s employment have been estimated to result in an immediate economic loss of up to $ 1 billion or up to 5 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP…” (‘Send us a man to do your job so we can sack you, Taliban tell female officials’, Zual Ahad, The Guardian, 18 July, 2022. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jul/18/send-us-a-man-to-do-your-job-so-we-can-sack-you-taliban-tell-female-officials)

Afghanistan's homes stoically bear the deep agony and helplessness of women who are condemned to live as second-class citizens, who can’t escape, and who are faced with uncertainty, trauma, and mental health problems. Many have contemplated suicide. Others are fighting it out hard. There is misogyny apart from poverty and malnutrition and a message that screams out loud that moral policing of women is justified and normal coupled with tremendous objectification of women that is astonishingly vivid everywhere. The Taliban even went to the extent of pursuing its malice by vowing to kill an Afghan doctor who gave birth control pills to a child bride.

Yet all may not be lost

There is still flickering hope, at least some women would like to believe that. Many once-influential women, in positions of significance, have stayed back in the country to resist the Taliban on the ground. For instance, Salima Mazari, one of the three female district governors in Afghanistan, has been on a mission to protect the Charkint district from the Taliban. Zarifa Ghafari, Afghanistan’s youngest mayor, has been championing women’s rights for long and hopeful about her country. Fawzia Koofi, second deputy speaker of Parliament, represented the Afghan government in peace talks with the Taliban. (‘These Female Afghan Politicians are Risking Everything for their Homeland’, Dalia Faheid, npr.org, 18 August, 2021. Source: https://www.npr.org/2021/08/18/1029014825/afghan-women-politicians-taliban-resistance)

The contraventions on women’s rights in Afghanistan including fundamental rights, rights to substantive equality, quality education, freedom from torture etc. have caused adverse reactions across nations. However, the Taliban seems unfazed by such reactions. They are carrying on institutionalized system of oppression and the ousted civilian government and their supporters are being mercilessly harried by the former. 

Nowhere in the world attacks on women and girls have been so ubiquitous, structured and comprehensive as in Afghanistan. The lack of accountability of the Taliban is emboldening the abuses. Yet many Afghan women are fighting a long and hard battle to keep themselves afloat. The international community should nurture such efforts through worldwide media attention and economic action. 

(The writer, whose research interests include human rights and gender inequity, particularly in South Asia, is  Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jangipur College, Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at koyelbasu1979@gmail.com.)

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