By Lily Wolfson ’21
From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled over approximately three-quarters of Afghanistan. There, they imposed an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Under the Taliban reign, women were continually punished, dehumanized, and even executed for trivial matters—oftentimes simply for being a woman. During the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban was overthrown. Since then, most of Afghanistan has been a war zone, plagued with unrest and violence. When efforts towards peace began to intensify in 2018 between the United States and the Taliban, many saw a promising opportunity. The United States was willing to negotiate a deal whereby peace would be achieved, and the Taliban would be reinstated in the Afghan government. Peace became a coveted priority for nearly everyone involved, so the United States eagerly proceeded with negotiations. However, one group remains fearful of a peace deal with the Taliban: Afghan women.
The Taliban, during its rule, was notorious for perpetrating violence against women, treating them as property deserving of no rights. The Taliban heavily restricted women’s daily lives, from wardrobe to education to medical affairs.
Afghan women were forced to wear the burqa in public at all times; one Taliban spokesman said, “The face of a woman is a source of corruption” for men who are not relatives of the woman.
Under this systematic exclusion of women from Afghan society, sometimes referred to as “gender apartheid,” women were prohibited from seeking employment, and they could not be educated past the age of eight. Even before reaching the age of eight, women were strictly limited in educational pursuits; they were only allowed to study the Qur’an. Any woman who sought an education after turning eight had to attend underground, unrecognized schools; there, both women and their teachers risked being executed if their operation were to be exposed. The only legal way to receive treatment from male doctors (the only doctors, as women could not be employed) was to go with a male chaperone. Because many male relatives were abusive or negligent of women, this rule often resulted in women’s illnesses going untreated.
The list of restrictions of women is seemingly endless: women were to never be in the streets without a blood male relative and without wearing a burqa, women were not allowed to speak loudly in a public setting (no stranger should have ever heard the voice of a woman), women were prohibited from wearing high-heeled shoes (hearing a woman’s footsteps arouses a man), every ground and first-floor window of residential building was to be painted over or covered to ensure no one could see women from the street, women’s photos could not appear in any books or newspapers, women were banned from having a radio or television presence, women were not allowed to be on the balconies of their own homes, and every place with “women” in the name had to modify its name. Any violation of the Taliban’s laws resulted in public flogging or execution.
The Taliban encouraged and oversaw marriage for girls under the age of sixteen; these young girls would often be forced to marry men they had never met who were many years their senior. In fact, Amnesty International has data to show that 80 percent of Afghan marriages during the Taliban rule were forced.
The defense of the Taliban, per a Taliban spokesman, for imposing such harsh restrictions upon women: to “secure [an] environment where the chastity and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct.” Violently restricting women bolstered the patriarchal nature and power of the Taliban.
Since the Taliban was ousted, violence and fighting across Afghanistan have ensued. The United States had been at war in Afghanistan for eighteen years when negotiations began for Americans to leave the country altogether and bring the Taliban back into the Afghan government. On February 29, 2020, this negotiation was finalized, and a treaty was signed by the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. The treaty calls for the withdrawal of all American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops from Afghanistan, a Taliban promise to keep al-Qaeda from operating in places under Taliban control, and talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. A peaceful country sounds favorable to many, so why are Afghan women so hesitant and afraid to see the Taliban be reinstated into the government under this deal?
Immediately following the overthrow of the Taliban was a revolution for the country’s women. For the first time in years, Afghan girls and women began to attend school and enter the workforce. Since then, millions of Afghan women have pursued careers in all industries and diminished all previously conformed-to taboos.
If the Taliban were to be reinstated in the Afghan government, all of the progress made for women’s rights in the last eighteen years would be at risk.
Women in Afghanistan are still treated as lesser than men, but many women’s rights earned over the last eighteen years would not have been possible under the rule of the Taliban.
The negotiations the Taliban promises to the United States protect women’s rights, but it is exceedingly difficult to imagine that promise being realized unless the Taliban has changed its views on women entirely, which is unlikely.
Female relatives of Taliban members were no safer than women who had no blood relation to them. Many wives and daughters of Taliban members reported instances of domestic violence. Shamila, a wife of a Taliban member, was regularly beaten by her husband until she left him and decided to raise her children on her own. She now works as a police officer in Kabul, mainly dealing with cases of domestic violence. Even with her robust career, Shamila said in an interview with the New York Times that she would want to leave Afghanistan if the Taliban were reinstated—regardless of which promises it makes to protect women’s rights. Shamila knows such promises cannot be kept by the Taliban.
In an interview with a New York Times correspondent, Maulvi Qalamuddin, chief of the Taliban’s religious police in the 1990s, refused to acknowledge the Taliban’s severe mistreatment of women in the first place. This is considerably worrisome to Afghan women; Qalamuddin claimed that the only punishment a woman ever faced for not wearing a burqa was a whip-crack to the ground—with the intention of the loud noise scaring the woman. He further asserted that women never faced violence during the rule of the Taliban and that “there’s no doubt that [the Taliban is] respectful to women.” The issue is that Qalamuddin respects women’s rights only as defined by his version of Islam. Qalamuddin’s religious police force is responsible for flogging women to death when their burqas were not long enough to cover their ankles.
Zainab Fayez was the sole female prosecutor in Kandahar—until the Taliban sent her a death threat that was wrapped around a bullet. Fearing for her safety, she fled. When asked by a New York Times correspondent of her feelings about the Taliban’s reinstatement, Fayez said, “A taliban is a taliban. They have shown what kind of people they are, what their ideology is.”
Farahnaz Forotan is an outspoken Afghan journalist. She spoke to the same New York Times correspondent as Fayez; in her interview, she expressed deep fear that if the Taliban is reinstated, she will no longer be able to continue her work. Forotan asserts that the freedom women have worked hard to earn in Afghanistan is already fickle, and if the Taliban came back into power, all freedom women have earned would be diminished. In hopes of encouraging women to cultivate bravery, Forotan started the #MyRedLine campaign. The campaign intends to push women to take a stand and declare the things they will not sacrifice if the Taliban regains power. Forotan’s need to launch this campaign shows the degree of uneasiness Afghan women feel about the reinstatement of the Taliban. It is a matter of time before the unwavering fear of Afghan women is either proven unnecessary or made a grim reality.