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Afghanistan, women, Taliban, education

The Fragility of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Now that the Taliban are back, what does that mean for women's rights?

Words: Heather Barr
Pictures: Sohaib Ghyasi

“But can we trust the Taliban on women’s rights?” has been a favorite question of journalists in recent years. The answer used to be “no”; the answer now is that it doesn’t matter much. The Taliban have swept back to power, and dealing with them is the reality, again, for Afghan women and girls.

It became a cliché over the last decade to say that Afghan women were facing an uncertain future, as the Taliban steadily expanded their territory. On August 16, some of the uncertainty ended — and was replaced with fear and despair — as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban, triumphant after taking most of the rest of the country, entered Kabul, the capital.

The Taliban tweet these days, which is new, but aside from that, they haven’t changed much. When they wanted to seem presentable to the international community during negotiations in Doha, their rhetoric about women’s rights shifted. They pledged to let girls study and women work — but usually with a vague caveat along the lines of “as permitted by Islam.”

Afghan women find themselves in the untenable position of looking for help to the “international community.” But these countries, the United States chief among them, are licking their wounds after two decades of military failure, and almost all the way out the exit. They most likely wish they had never seen Afghanistan.


Even when Taliban leaders offered somewhat gentler rhetoric on women’s rights, there was still a major disconnect between what they said in TV interviews and what they did on the ground, where their commanders often enforced harsh rules at odds with their leaders’ assurances. Local commanders have, in recent months and years, sometimes taken actions, such as closing girls’ schools entirely, even for primary-school age girls. The world saw, when they ruled from 1996 to 2001, how close to the fringe the Taliban views were on what Islam permitted. They banned almost all education for women and girls, imposed punishments including stoning, lashing, and amputation, and confined women to their homes unless they were escorted by a male family member, denying them access to most employment — or even a walk.

The international community’s tool kit is limited, and their political will is questionable. But as shocking as Taliban abuses against women were in 2001, they are more so now.

In recent weeks, as Taliban forces have surged triumphantly across the country, it has felt like the pretense of moderation is over, with alarming reports emerging of school closures, movement restrictions, and women forced to leave their jobs. The Taliban spokesman has continued to pledge respect for women’s rights, but his claims ring more hollow than ever.

The countries departing Afghanistan have claimed that they will exercise influence over the Taliban based on the Taliban’s need for development aid or desire for legitimacy and recognition. These may be useful levers — or they may be wishful thinking. Carefully targeted sanctions and aid conditionality, along with UN mechanisms, such as UN Security Council actions, the ongoing involvement of the International Criminal Court, treaty bodies, special rapporteurs, and the role of the UN Mission Assistance to Afghanistan present some other opportunities — if the Taliban is susceptible to such influence.

Another challenge is the limits of political will, especially on women’s rights. A few countries, including Sweden and Canada, both of which have played major roles in Afghanistan, have staked a claim to having a feminist foreign policy, but even these have been alarmingly silent as horrified Afghan women watched the Taliban triumph. During the decades of international presence, troop-contributing nations paid lip service and cash toward women’s rights, but rarely political capital, and over time the lip service and cash dwindled too. In 2011, the Washington Post reported on how efforts to support women’s rights were being stripped out of US programs, quoting an official who said, “All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.” US aid funding to Afghanistan fell from $16,748 million in FY 2010 to $3,120 million in FY 2021.


Mahbouba Seraj, a longtime women’s rights activist in Afghanistan, answered with a bitter laugh when asked by an interviewer what message she had for the international community. “I’m going to say — really — shame on you,” she said. “I’m going to say to the whole world, shame on you.”

In the days after 9/11, images of Afghan women in flowing blue burqas helped sell the war to voters around the world. Laura Bush gave a radio address about Afghan women and Cherie Blair gave a speech, both imploring the world and Western governments to focus on giving Afghan women and girls a “voice.” Today, 20 years later, a generation of Afghan girls and young women have grown up thinking of the Taliban days as a dark shadow from their mother’s past, not a cycle that could rob them of their future.

The international community’s tool kit is limited, and their political will is questionable. But as shocking as Taliban abuses against women were in 2001, they are more so now. Women around the world have fought for their rights, with uneven but important successes. In the last 20 years, women and girls in Afghanistan have enjoyed a measure of freedom and are demanding more of it. Standing beside Afghan women in their struggle, and finding tools to pressure the Taliban and the political will to do so, is the least — the very least — the international community could do.

Heather Barr is associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.

Heather Barr

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