By: Daniel Somart
The withdrawal of US troops in the latter half of 2021 prompted the Afghan government to collapse and capitulate into the hands of the Taliban. Then-President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and the Taliban formed a provisional government that has made headlines for abolishing women’s intrinsic human rights. Through analysing the societal impacts of the Taliban’s misogynistic ideology, it can be argued that the erasure of women’s rights is detrimental to national security.
Prior to the takeover, the Taliban attempted to portray themselves as renewed and inclusive – the so-called Taliban 2.0. In contrast to their reign from 1996 to 2001, they pledged to abstain from violating human rights. However, in the 18 months since they regained power, the Taliban has revived many restrictions imposed in the 1990s. In September 2021, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) was dissolved and replaced by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Subsequent measures focused on excluding women from the workforce, increasing gender segregation in public spaces, and requiring women to cover their faces when outside the home. Despite initial assertions that women and girls would retain access to education in gender-segregated classrooms, Taliban leaders ordered the closure of girls’ secondary schools in May 2022 and instructed universities to suspend access to female students the following December. Hibatullah Akhundzada, leader of the Taliban, and other high-ranking officials oppose modern education, especially for women, making Afghanistan the only country in the world where girls’ education is illegal. Amnesty International argues that women are experiencing a “death in slow motion” due to these repressive measures.
The Taliban’s ideology is characterised by Pashtun nationalism and an extreme form of Deobandi Islam. Central to the Taliban’s tribal codes is the marginalisation of women, who are seen as the property and honour of men. For instance, the rape of a woman is only believed to be wrong because she represents the honour of a man, not because she was raped. In the previous government, women had access to work and education, and in 2009 the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law was adopted. Despite this, Afghanistan was still named the world’s most dangerous country to be a woman prior to the 2021 Taliban takeover.
As it currently stands, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan remains internationally unrecognised, meaning diplomats of the previous Afghan government have had to represent the country overseas. Nasir Andisha, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN in Geneva, argues that the Taliban’s “subjective and extremist interpretation of Islam is antithetical to the international human rights law.” For the Taliban to achieve international recognition, it must distance itself from these “extremist” principles. However, ideological inconsistencies have been observed within the group. Several officials within the Taliban have sent their daughters to schools in Qatar and a secret school for girls was also uncovered in Kabul, enrolling daughters of four to five Taliban families. This raises questions about possible fragmentation within the Taliban’s leadership.
The current humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is beyond bleak, ranked third-to-worst in the world behind Ethiopia and Somalia. According to the United Nations, almost 20 million people, or half the population, are facing acute hunger. Additionally, human capital flight, including the substantial evacuation of Afghan professionals, will worsen the country’s socio-economic development. The climate crisis has not spared Afghanistan either, where flash floods killed hundreds and left thousands displaced last summer. As of today, at least 157 people have frozen to death amid one of the coldest winters in years. Moreover, information on abuse against women remains almost impossible to gather due to the disbandment of the MoWA. However, in the first half of 2021 alone, Amnesty International found that over 1500 women had been victims of violence including physical assault, forced prostitution, and forced early marriages. The Taliban has also freed male prisoners who have committed acts of gender-based violence against women. The atrocities do not stop there. Due to Western sanctions crashing the Afghan economy, some families have been forced to sell their children in order to survive. Instead of governing these catastrophes, the Taliban remains preoccupied with their war on women.
The most pressing concerns for the future of Afghan women are education and work. A student at Kabul University argued that by banning women from universities, the Taliban destroyed the only bridge that connected her with her future. On December 24, 2022, a new decree was announced, prohibiting women from working in local and international NGOs. This decision will have an immensely negative impact on Afghanistan’s future. Employing female staff ensures access to those most vulnerable in this humanitarian crisis, including mothers and children in rural areas. It is worth noting that female NGO employees tend to be the main household income earners, and annulling their salaries will have negative consequences for women, children, and men.
In numerical terms, the exclusion of women from the workforce will cost Afghanistan approximately 5% of its annual GDP. This systematic exclusion of women implies the erasure of half the population. To quote Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, “without women and girls’ right to education, freedom, and participation in society, there is no future for Afghanistan.” The nation will inevitably fall into a socio-economic crisis that will take years to resolve. Some scholars argue that the oppression of women destabilises society, an idea formalised in the patrilineal/fraternal syndrome. To determine the impact of this syndrome on countries’ security and prosperity, previous studies have ranked nations based on various criteria, including violence against women, social attitudes toward women, and the prevalence of polygamy. Societies where the syndrome is dominant, whereby men control women, tend to have poor governance, national insecurity, and poor economic performance. Evidently, Afghanistan ranks among the nations with the worst scores.
International cooperation is paramount to tackling this humanitarian crisis. Yet, complex dilemmas exist, making policy decisions challenging to implement. On the one hand, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan could be alleviated if Western governments initiated dialogue with the Taliban and agreed on aid provision. On the other hand, engaging in this form of multilateralism would reinforce the Taliban rule and allow them to mismanage aid, utilising it exclusively for their own members. The United States and the UN have already donated tens of millions of dollars to Afghanistan, but following the funds to their destination is difficult due to the Taliban’s lack of accountability and transparency. If international actors were to completely abandon Afghanistan, then oversight of the Afghan people would be lost, leaving them in the dark. Another option would be to rely on a social uprising to challenge Taliban rule. Although resistance fighters are currently carrying out guerrilla attacks against the Taliban, analysts say they are not strong enough to overthrow them.
Afghan citizens need the international community to remain engaged. Foreign policy should be focused on reducing food and health insecurity, promoting women’s rights and empowerment, and listening to Afghan women on the ground. Moreover, women should be able to meaningfully participate in all stakeholder engagement on Afghanistan, including in delegations meeting with Taliban officials, as recently called for by UN Women. Some have advised that the Taliban be recognised as a terrorist organisation and isolated through the use of travel bans and freezing of personal bank accounts, however, this will increase the cost of female erasure in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Taliban must be held accountable for its crimes against humanity, punishable under international law. Spill-over effects have the potential to jeopardise global security if swift and meaningful action fails to materialise. Unfortunately, it is the women and all impoverished people of Afghanistan who will endure the lasting impacts of this crisis.
n this piece, Daniel Somart discusses the dire situation in Afghanistan with regard to women’s rights and the unfolding humanitarian crisis, exploring the link between the erasure of women’s rights and national security. The question of cooperation between the Taliban government and international actors is discussed in the context of providing support to Afghan women and people.
Photo credits: https://pixabay.com/photos/afghanistan-girl-burqa-ceremony-60641/