The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan raises the question: What happens to Afghan women? Four questions need to be discussed to get an answer: the situation of Afghan women before the Taliban came to power in 1996, during their rule, what they have regained since the fall of the Taliban, and what might be expected of the Taliban’s return.
Regarding the first, a Physicians for Human Rights report states that before the Taliban captured Kabul, “women made up seventy percent of all teachers, about fifty percent of civil servants, and forty percent of doctors in Afghanistan.”
What happened during the Taliban rule?
Girls were denied education, women were prevented from working. If they leave their home they must cover themselves from head to toe with a veil (burqa), women must be accompanied by a male relative in addition to the veil if they dared to take to the streets. Traders were instructed not to sell goods to unveiled women. Rickshaws should only pick up female passengers if they are fully insured. Anyone who breaks these rules would be locked up, as will the dealer and the rickshaw driver.
Things began to change after the Taliban was ousted from power after the US-led invasion in October 2001.
The 2004 post-Taliban constitution led by the US- invasion granted Afghan women rights of all kinds, and the political dispensation greatly improved their socio-economic condition with the overall growth in social and economic situations. Compared to fewer than 10 in 2003, the proportion of girls in elementary schools rose to 33 in 2017. The proportion of girls in secondary schools rose from 6% to 39% in the same year. In 2020, 21% of Afghan civil servants were women (compared to none under the Taliban regime), 16% of them held leadership positions and 27% of members of the Afghan parliament were women.
In rural Afghanistan, where 76% of Afghan women live, life has not changed much since the Taliban era, despite their formal legal powers. However, the existence of rights and their use by some is a starting point. The achievements of the Afghan city women could have set an example for others. Change is a slow process in history, even more so in a traditional country like Afghanistan. But the loss of Afghan women’s rights will now reverse the process.
That brings us to the fourth topic.
Some argue that the Taliban would temper their harsh views on women on their second coming. Most people believe that the Taliban have made significant changes in their social attitudes. They attribute it to the changed conditions of the 1990s. Many Taliban leaders spent nearly a decade in Pakistan or in the Gulf, which has expanded its horizons enormously since its church education in southern Afghanistan. In addition, many Taliban leaders have graduated since 2001 and delved into the wider world of Islamist discourse to open their perspective to new interpretations of Islam. For this reason, the respondents today judge many Taliban decrees from the 1990s. Taliban’s views on personal clothing, women’s education and television appear to have weakened significantly.
Concerning women, Taliban fighters recently said: “We are not against the work of women or the education of women in our country. However, this work or education should be per the Islamic Sharia. For girls in the [Islamic Emirate] region, there are jobs that women do, such as teaching girls and medicine for women. We encourage this and demand it on the condition that women’s clinics are separated from men’s clinics and on the condition that working conditions are in accordance with Islamic Sharia, and not to satisfy instincts, lust, and desires”.
But, will the Taliban, now in power, accord women the very limited status some say they have come to envision?
Well, this is difficult to answer. Top leaders under the Taliban have said they will give honor to women’s rights. However, only the rights afforded to them under Islamic Sharia Law. With the return of the Taliban, a grim nightmare has returned in the lives of Afghan women.