Women in Afghanistan: What a Return to Taliban Control Could Mean for Them

Published on: Sep 15, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
More displaced Afghans arrive in Kabul as Taliban gain ground.Getty Images

With the fall of Kabul on Aug 15, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan — just two weeks before the US was set to complete its withdrawal from the country. And the world has been watching the situation unfold. In the past few days, the terror group stormed through Afghanistan. In Kabul, militants took over the presidential palace, freed thousands of prisoners, and created chaos at the airport. And now many left on the ground are facing uncertain futures — particularly women.

Women living in Afghanistan are speaking out about their rights following the Taliban's takeover. The UN says nearly 250,000 Afghans have fled their homes since the end of May. And 80% of those displaced have been women and children. The return of the Taliban has women fearing for their safety, along with their ability to go to school, get a job, and leave the house on their own.

The Context: What You Need to Know About Sharia

Sharia (aka Islamic law) helps Muslims understand what to do in different parts of life (think: marriage, finance, rituals). The law is made up of practices that are written in the Quran and based on how Muhammad — the central figure in Islam — used to live. Many Muslim countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia base their own laws on Islamic law. 

In the late-1990s when the Taliban last held control of Afghanistan, citizens were subject to rules based on the militant group’s strict interpretation of Sharia. Music and movies were banned. Anyone caught stealing would have a body part amputated. Grooming and clothing choices were restricted. But the Taliban’s take on Sharia had the heaviest impact on the lives of women and girls.

A Look at Life for Afghan Girls and Women 20 Years Ago

Here are some of the rules women and girls had to follow when the Taliban controlled the country between 1996 and 2001…

  • Women were required to cover up from head to toe when leaving the house.

  • Women could only go outside their homes if a man was with them.

  • Girls over the age of 10 weren’t allowed to go to school.

  • Women weren’t allowed to work.

  • Women accused of adultery would be stoned to death.

Anyone who disagreed or was caught breaking the law was beaten or killed in public. In 2001, after the US invaded Afghanistan and the Taliban were removed from power, some things started to get better for women. During this era, more schools were built — at a rate 10 times faster than before. Female enrollment in school increased from 10% to 33% from 2003 to 2017. Women became Olympic athletes, police officers, business owners, and politicians.

By 2020, 21% of Afghan civil servants were women. There were almost zero women working as civil servants during the Taliban’s last rule. Women’s life expectancy also grew from age 56 in 2001 to age 66 in 2017. And mortality during childbirth declined. Now, many women are worried that all the progress they made in the last two decades might be erased and fast.

Here’s how the Taliban’s return to power is impacting Afghan women…

Over the past year, Taliban militants killed women pursuing professional careers (like journalists and health care workers) in a wave of attacks. In May, about 85 people — most of whom were teenage girls — were killed when bombs went off near a school in Kabul. With the Taliban's return, many women are sheltering inside their homes, scared they’ll be subjected to beatings if they step outside. And journalists, activists, and politicians say they have already received threats.

Women are also once again required to wear burkas to go outside. The cost of the garment skyrocketed in some areas to almost 10 times over the original price. And many were inaccessible due to store closures following the takeover. At the same time, there have been reports of women being prevented from visiting hospitals without a male chaperone. And one group of women who worked at a bank were escorted home by gunmen and told not to return to work.

The Taliban also issued a statement on women’s rights in Afghanistan — saying they plan to respect women’s rights “within the norms of Islamic law.” But so far, we’re not seeing much of that happening in...

  • The government. The Taliban initially promised to have a more inclusive government, allowing women who held gov positions to return to work. And they made it clear that women would not hold any senior or cabinet positions. In September, the group announced its interim government — full of Taliban fighters who were part of the old regime in the '90s and early '00s. And notably missing were...women. It's unclear if they'll be part of a more permanent gov in the future.

  • Schools. Women studying in universities are now required to wear a hijab, and can only be taught by female teachers in separate classrooms from men. The new regime is also reviewing the subjects women are learning to make sure they align with “Islamic, national, and historical values.” But critics say there is a shortage of female teachers and not enough space in schools to hold segregated classes.

Meanwhile, some Afghan women have marched through the streets, shouting and waving signs demanding equal rights and women in government. Others posted pictures of themselves wearing colorful traditional dresses on social media — protesting the new hijab requirements in school. But they’ve been met with violent retaliation from the Taliban — including beatings, whippings, tear gas, and threats of gunfire. 

Here are some ways to help…

  • Women advocacy groups are asking for help to protect Afghan women. Women for Women International — an org that supports female war survivors — seeks contributions to help Afghan women stay connected and meet safely. And Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (which studies the role of women in peace and security efforts) is looking for donations to help pay for visas and evacuations.

  • Female journalists in Afghanistan are reporting on the crisis, despite the risk of violence and attacks. Rukhshana Media is a news website that is highlighting Afghan female voices and stories that are at risk of being silenced. The media company is looking for donations to help fund its mission.

  • Different organizations (like: Women for Afghan Women and Women’s Regional Network) are collecting funds to send directly to groups in Afghanistan that provide shelter, food, and other resources to female victims.

theSkimm

The Taliban essentially eliminated women’s rights when it controlled Afghanistan before 2001. But in the past 20 years, women made huge strides in the workforce, education, and saw more recognition for their voices. Now as the Taliban returns to power, women are once again fearing for their lives and freedom. And are being left to figure out just how far their rights will be set back under the “new” regime.

Updated on Sept 15 – Updated to include the latest Taliban restrictions against women.

Skimm'd by Sana Dadani, Maria Martinolich, and Kamini Ramdeen


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