With the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan, everything was thrown into chaos in a shockingly short span of time. It took the Taliban an extremely limited amount of time to topple everything that was built together by the US and the Afghan governments in twenty years. While a minority in Afghanistan celebrate the return of the gun-wielding, terror-inducing Taliban, the majority of the civilians, especially women and young girls, have waved goodbye to what they have known in the past twenty years. Education, livelihood, career, freedom-life, in general, have already taken quite a turn since the Taliban takeover.
While civilians generally suffer under Taliban rule, it cannot be denied that it is the women and young girls that bear the brunt of the Taliban’s forces. The Taliban’s previous rule has no doubt left its mark on the Afghans’ lives and minds. For who can ever forget or erase images of women being publically stoned or punished? Or the gruesome reports of females being assaulted for something as trivial as stepping out of their own homes? Or young girls who were caught secretly receiving an education in underground schools? Simply put, females are punished merely because they are females. In short, a set of chromosomes is what decides one’s fate under Taliban rule. This blog does a recap of Afghan women’s lives under the previous Taliban rule and how the current Taliban takeover has already affected Afghan women.
Afghan women under the previous Taliban rule
It was in the late 1990s that the Taliban first emerged as a powerful force in Afghanistan. In 1996, after a series of conflicts with the anti-Taliban resistance, the Taliban took control of major territories of Afghanistan. And with their control came the crumbling of women’s lives.
The Taliban’s aim was to establish an Islamic government through strict law and order. Along with it came an extreme and strict interpretation of Sharia law. The Taliban are notorious for their treatment of women. Their claim was to establish a secure environment where the dignity and chasteness of women remain sacrosanct. The result was that women faded into the background during Taliban rule, becoming almost non-existent beneath the blue burqa.
Little girls from the age of eight were forbidden from having any direct contact with males other than their close blood relatives, husbands or in-laws. The burqa became mandatory. Any female who steps outside without it would be publically flogged. According to the Taliban, a woman’s face was nothing but a source of corruption for men. High-heeled shoes for women were banned since the sound of a woman’s footsteps could corrupt men. When in public, women were forbidden from talking loudly as their voices shouldn’t be heard by a stranger. They were forbidden from gathering in groups in public.
Women faced restrictions inside their own homes too. The ground and first-floor windows of homes were painted over to prevent women from being seen from the streets. Appearing on the balconies of their homes or apartments was treated as a serious crime. And the male relatives who did not go to fight in the war took the Taliban’s instructions pretty seriously. Any woman who allegedly dishonoured her family could be murdered and no one would bat an eye.
Filming, photographing and the display of women’s pictures in books, newspapers, shops and homes were banned. Any place which had the word ‘women’ in its name was changed. Any radio or television programme showcasing women was banned. Beauty salons across the county were closed, prohibiting any cosmetics.
Freedom of movement
The Taliban’s law concerning women’s public conduct severely restricted their freedom of movement. Afghanistan, during those times, was crippled by continuous war and a poor economy. And since the Taliban forced half of society to give up their work and be confined to their homes, the situation has been further worsened. There were women who could not feed their children, let alone afford a burqa. And needless to say, a majority of the men were either away or killed in the war, leaving women without any family. For such women, going out was out of the question. They had two options- either face house arrest or go out and be publically flogged by the Taliban. Even places like orphanages were shown no mercy. As the female staff at orphanages were forbidden to work anymore, the young girls there were locked inside, forbidden to go out.
Before the arrival of the Taliban, women worked in mixed-sex workplaces. The Taliban forbade not just women to work in such places, but for women to work at all. They claimed that it was against the Sharia law for women to do so. On September 30, 1996, the Taliban issued a decree banning all women from any employment.
It wasn’t just the women themselves that this law affected. Female teachers and professors banned from working meant education took a serious hit in Afghanistan. Schools were shut down. Education became non-existent.
Exemptions from the employment ban were granted to female health professionals. But they worked in almost primitive circumstances. Stepping out of the house meant some kind of assault from the Taliban. Hospitals and clinics operated in extremely limited environments. Obtaining any medicine or equipment for much-needed surgeries became rare. Many female workers quit their jobs by choice. Women were forbidden from consulting male doctors. Many died of untreated illnesses under such circumstances.
Denial of education was another serious issue under Taliban rule. Education in Afghanistan had already suffered due to wars and some previous rulers. When the Taliban came, this was only heightened. During the Taliban’s five-year rule, education was prohibited for girls and women. Although the Taliban made promises to recognize their duty to offer education to both girls and boys, they issued a decree banning girls more than eight years old from being educated.
Some women worked around the Taliban’s oppressive rules. They ran secret underground schools or lessons within their homes, which local children attended. There were also lessons for other women, which ran under the guise of sewing classes. All the parties involved- the teachers, learners and parents- were more than aware of the punishment (most of the time, execution) if they were caught. But for them, it was more than receiving an education. It was an action that gave them hope and self-determination.
Forbidding women from consulting male doctors and fewer female health professionals in employment had drastic effects. Many had to travel long distances to access health care. Segregation in the bus and the absence of a male relative only further deteriorated the pathetic situation. In Kabul, much like the clandestine school lessons run at home, many informal clinics were established. But since any medical supplies were difficult to obtain, they hardly proved any good. Death due to prolonged illness or lack of medical supplies for treating pregnancy was rampant. In 1998, women were banned from seeking treatment at general hospitals. Before, they were allowed to attend the women-only ward of general hospitals. With the ban, it meant only one hospital in Kabul was where women could access healthcare.
In 1996, women were prohibited from accessing hammams since public gatherings or socializing was seen as haram. During those times, hammams weren’t just a place for socializing. Hammams were actually one of the few places where clean, running water was still accessible. In the five years that the Taliban ruled, it was reported that many women couldn’t pray since they rarely had access to clean water.
Afghan women under current Taliban rule
Ever since US President Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, fear has been rampant among women in the country. In the past twenty years, women have entered the educational, political and workforce. Women have emerged successful, as top doctors, government ministers, professors and internationally recognized filmmakers and artists. All this is on the verge, or should I say, is already being undone by the current situation. Furthermore, the situation will be even worse for those women residing in the rural areas where the Taliban have absolute power. Over the past few days, the world has been haunted by media reports surrounding the situation in Afghanistan. It can only be said that the country has gone back two decades in the blink of an eye.
‘Women will have their rights according to Sharia law’
In the Taliban’s first press conference since their takeover, the group claimed that it would respect women’s rights within the boundaries of Sharia or Islamic law. The statement released has hauntingly similar connotations to what happened during the Taliban’s previous rule. Hence, the Taliban’s promises are taken with a heavy dose of scepticism.
Sharia law can affect every aspect of the daily lives of Muslims. According to the Taliban, it is what will dictate the freedom and treatment of women in society. With the Taliban’s skewed interpretation of Sharia law, women’s freedom of movement, access to healthcare and education could be severely affected. In the Taliban’s words, it does not want Afghanistan’s women to be ‘victims’. While women are going to be very active in Afghan society, it’ll only be so within the framework of Islam.
While many claim that it is too early to say how women may fare under Taliban rule, several instances have already happened that have left little hope for women. Local television stations started to censor any entertainment or foreign broadcasts. State-owned broadcasters ceased to broadcast almost anything, other than Islamic sermons and Taliban statements. Any shops or beauty parlours that displayed women’s pictures have been defaced or painted over. In short, the Taliban has already started erasing women.
According to the Taliban, women will be allowed to study. But civilians, especially women themselves, refuse to believe the words of the Taliban. According to many, the Taliban’s words are merely empty promises to lure them outside and kill them. Since the Taliban’s takeover, female teachers have bid goodbye to their students. Many stay confined within their homes while many have fled the country. Female students have either burned or hidden their certificates out of fear of the Taliban.
Female university students have been evacuated from their dorms by the police under the claim that the Taliban will assault anyone without a burqa. Many of these students were born after the Taliban were ousted from their previous rule. To wear a burqa now seems like having their identity being erased. And no taxi driver would transport the female students back to their home either. The reason was that they did not want to be held accountable for transporting women without a male escort. Moreover, men who had never supported women’s education stood outside universities, taunting them.
A Taliban spokesperson has claimed that only hijabs are mandatory while the burqa isn’t. According to them, women must dress conservatively and don the hijab. But fear runs high. Memories of the various degrees of punishment from the Taliban’s previous rule for not wearing a burqa are forever fresh in the minds of women. Women have taken to wearing the burqa out of fear. A woman was reportedly shot and killed for not wearing a burqa, just hours after the Taliban’s statement. And according to reports, the sudden increase in the need for a burqa and hijab has prompted the salespeople to increase their prices.
Freedom of movement
In the days after the Taliban takeover, residents have reported that the Taliban has re-imposed some of its previous bans on women. According to reports, women were prohibited from leaving their houses without a male guardian. Fewer women are now seen in the streets, as they huddle within the four walls of their homes. More disturbing are the reports of the Taliban forcing young girls below the age of fifteen to get married to men twice their age.
Ahead of the American troops leaving Afghanistan, many rightly speculated about the Taliban’s comeback. Since then, many firms, businesses and institutions which employ women have made alternative plans. Many relocated their offices from the country. Some women quit their jobs.
Since the Taliban has risen to power again, multiple businesses in cities run by women have been forcefully shut down. Women journalists have been removed from their positions. Women working in the banks have been ordered to go home. The Taliban claim that their husbands can take over their work. Female doctors have received threatening telephone calls from the Taliban too. Since the Taliban has forcefully married off little girls to adult men, female doctors have encountered pleas for help from the girls to give them contraceptive shots. The death threats for helping the girls have forced many doctors to quit and seek sanctuary within their homes.
What lies ahead for Afghan women?
While the Taliban has made vague claims concerning women, their actions speak louder than their words. So loud, in fact, that the world gapes in horror. Within a few hours of the Taliban’s sketchy assurances, different women groups have taken to protesting against the Taliban. Video clips show them shouting slogans and demanding their rights while armed Taliban fighters surround them. While for the world this is an act of extreme courage, for women, it is their lives and basic rights that are at stake. Ending the war between the US forces and the Taliban must not come at the expense of Afghan women. Over the past few days, it has become evident that the Taliban are holding on to their skewed interpretation of Sharia law. What lies ahead for the Afghan women remains an uncertainty that grows by the hour.