Veil of Darkness: Taliban Decrees Push Women Rights Deeper Into Abyss in Afghanistan

By Tahera Rahmani and Shivani Singh

On Saturday, while announcing a new diktat, the Taliban said women should compulsorily wear the all-covering burqa as its “traditional and respectful in Islam” or face consequences. Well, almost all global players know that there is nothing “traditional” in forcing women to be indoors and nothing “respectful” in suppressing women’s rights, be it in any religion.

What we are seeing currently in Afghanistan is how Taliban leaders are institutionalizing large-scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls, with little regard to rights. The night seems never ending for the women of Afghanistan who had been waiting for months for a new day- a brighter future under the Taliban regime. With a callous attitude towards international condemnation ever since they took over the war-torn nation in August 2021, the ruthless Taliban has gone back to its rotten roots of suppressing women with its series of decrees and laws released almost daily, erasing whatever little progress the women had made in the past 20 years under the US-backed Republican government. The “earlier so-called militant-group” took back control of the country promising a softer rule than their last regime between 1996 and 2001, which was dominated by human rights abuses. Most women today in Afghanistan belong to the generation of freedom, liberty and equality which they experienced to an extent under the Republican regime.

So, how did it start? Experts believe ever since taking over the power corridors in Kabul, the hardline Islamist group has been testing the waters as it waddles between the prize of getting international recognition and staying true to its radical ideologies.

    • First, they introduced the slow gender segregation in universities, then their careers were targeted, later movement too was restricted and finally, education was cut off.
    • But what shocks everyone more is even though women across Afghanistan have been wearing moderate head scarves over the years, the all-covering burqa has infringed on their right to live freely too as it is grim reminder of the Taliban’s previous regime. For many women in Kabul, the decrees come even as there have been campaigns of harassment and violence at the hands of the Taliban members roaming the streets which has increased over the past nine months. The religious police force has become emboldened, roaming the streets looking for excuses to question, intimidate and beat women for wearing colourful clothes, jeans or travelling without a male companion.

Taliban has been introducing these series of repressive edicts and all have been condemned widely, however, there seems to be no brakes to this juggernaut of regressive rules as the international community stays silent on action against the group. The Taliban renegading on their promises is a part of a concerted campaign to roll back decades of advances in women’s rights across the country.

Go deeper into latest decree: In their latest decree issued through a ceremony without the presence of women on May 7, the group’s leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, ordered Afghan women to wear the all-covering burqa in public.

    • The restrictions require women to either wear a burqa, the head-to-toe covering that allows women to see through only a small grille at eye-level or a full niqab, which covers the face but not the eyes.
    • The Taliban announced that the decree will be implemented in two steps – encouragement and punishment.
    • A statement from the Vice and Virtue Ministry of the Taliban reads that hijab is an obligation in Islam and that any dress that covers the body can be considered as hijab given that it is not “thin and tight.” When it comes to the type of the covering or hijab that women will need to wear, the statement says that burqa is the best type of hijab/covering “as it is part of Afghan culture and it has been used for ages.”
    • The decree added that if women had no important work outside it is better for them to stay at home.
    • It also said that the benefits of wearing hijab need to be introduced to the people by media and mosques. Meanwhile, it says that messages about hijab should be written on banners in markets and other public places to encourage the people.
    • According to the new decree, if a woman doesn’t wear a hijab, first, her house will be located and her guardian will be advised and warned.
    • Next, if the hijab is not considered, her guardian will be summoned. If repeated, her guardian (father, brother or husband) will be imprisoned for three days. If repeated again, her guardian will be sent to court for further punishment, the plan reads.
    • The statement also said that female public employees will be fired if they don’t wear hijab.
    • Male public employees will be suspended from their jobs if female members of their families do not wear hijab.

Let’s rewind on Taliban’s slew of restrictions on women: Since regaining control of Afghanistan in 2021, Taliban representatives have promised to respect women’s rights to work and education, but within their own “ill-defined” Islamic structure.

    • In March 2022, the Taliban shocking the world decided against reopening schools to girls above grade 6, reneging on a promise they had made earlier and chose to instead please their hardline base even at the expense of further alienating the international community. Girls have been banned from school beyond grade 6 in most of the country since the Taliban’s return. Universities opened earlier this year, but since taking power the Taliban diktats have been erratic. While a handful of provinces continued to provide education to all, most provinces closed educational institutions for girls and women.
    • In September 2021, one of the Taliban’s senior figures told the Reuters news agency that Afghan women should not work alongside men. Then, another order followed which was handed out by the interim mayor stating that female employees in Kabul city government institutions should stay home. The Taliban’s education minister also announced that gender segregation and Islamic dress code will be mandatory for universities.
    • In recent weeks, however, they have been introducing more hardline measures, many of them governing women’s everyday lives. Previously, in another decree, the Taliban ordered men and women not to go to parks on the same days. In that decree, three days a week were reserved for women and four days for men.
    • In April 2022, the Taliban stopped issuing driving licenses to women. Before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, women could be seen driving in some of the major cities including Kabul. But now the regime has imposed this restriction seemingly creeping back to its old shell.

Back story: Women in Afghanistan have tasted freedom as early as 1919 and there was a particular Golden Age when women flourished in all fields and even entered the political mainstream. In 1970s, more than 60 percent of the students were women. However, the Taliban regime turned the tides for women. There were brutal laws, regressive policies, execution and intolerance against women. So, what was it like living in the dark ages of the Taliban regime earlier?

    • When the Taliban was in power in the 1990s, women weathered from an extreme lack of basic rights, which included being prohibited from leaving the house without a male relative, being stopped from working or even receiving an education after the age of eight.
    • Women during that time were not allowed to receive medical treatment from a male doctor and given the few numbers of female doctors in the country, it effectively meant that they received very little medical care.
    • Public punishments for violators were regularly carried out, including chopping off the tip of the thumb of a woman who wore nail varnish.
    • Imprisonment and stoning were also common punishments as well as various forms of execution.

What were the reactions from the international community? Well, there has been a massive uproar internationally regarding the suppressing of women’s rights in Afghanistan and activists and women inside the war-torn nation too are standing up to the Taliban. However, to get the Taliban to change its policies, is a herculean task to say the least. The slew of most diktats come from the Taliban intelligence department, which is the most radical, hardline group of individuals, who believe in bringing back their old policies.

    • Some Afghan women initially protested strongly by holding demonstrations wherein they sought the right to educate themselves and work. But the Taliban cracked down harshly on these unsanctioned rallies and rounded up several of the activities, holding them incommunicado while denying they had been detained.
    • The Taliban’s decision on women clothing has provoked global reactions. Analysts, theorists, international organizations, various countries and women’s rights activists inside and outside Afghanistan have reacted to the Taliban decision.
    • UN special human rights rapporteur Richard Bennett said that the Taliban is obliterating Afghan women’s human rights and there must be consequences for these violations. He added that it is time for the international community to act.
    • UNAMA called the decree a contradiction with “numerous assurances provided to the international community, adding that they will request for a meeting with Taliban officials to seek clarification on the status of the decision.
    • UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called the decree “alarming” and urged the Taliban to keep their promises and obligations under international human rights law.
    • Senior Afghanistan researcher Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch urged the international community to put coordinated pressure on the Taliban.

What’s the situation on ground? In September 2021, Afghan women across the world started a social media campaign to protest against the strict new dress code for women students implemented by the Taliban. They posted photos of themselves wearing colourful traditional dresses on social media using hashtags like #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture. However, even under the current regime, the Taliban have arrested female activists, tortured them and many still remain missing. The disappearance of the women provoked many domestic and international reactions, but in response to all these reactions, the Taliban not only did not release the women, but also denied their arrest, saying that all these cases were staged and were part of dramas.

    • Shaharzad Akbar, former head of human rights commission in Afghanistan said that there is a lot of pain and grief for women in the country. She added that there is a lot of hatred and anger against Taliban who are considered as enemies of women, enforcers of gender apartheid and enemies of Afghanistan and humanity. Akbar also nipped at the global community and said that the world is a bystander to their pain, to an apartheid and to complete tyranny.
    • A university professor and women rights activist, Muska Dastageer, said that the Taliban’s war on women is a war on against humanity and dignity. “It seeks to reduce us to mute shadows who object to nothing. Mute shadows who raise children that can be called on to do anything. Children who grow up to be adults possessing no trace of critical faculties,” she added.

Why it matters? Ever since the takeover of Kabul in 2021, there was buoyancy that a new, pragmatic and moderate Taliban would allow women and girls to receive education and even permit them to work. Yet in the nine months since they retook the country, the Taliban have gradually fallen back on these promises, despite make a decree that ‘women aren’t property’ in December.

    • If one looks back now, the signs of a regressive government were already visible in September when the Taliban first introduced their Cabinet. The Taliban appointed an all-male cabinet. They abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and handed over the women’s ministry building to the reinstated Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which was responsible for some of the worst abuses against women during the Taliban’s previous regime.
    • While the Taliban have struggled for international recognition since taking power in Afghanistan, the group’s tyrannical orders against women and girls are seen as an obstacle to the group’s international acceptance. Their decisions have damaged efforts to win recognition from potential international donors at a time when the country is mired in a worsening humanitarian crisis.
    • In reaction to the Taliban’s decree on women clothing, the UK government said that the Taliban must live up their obligations on the rights of women if they want acceptance.
    • In fact, a report reveals that violence against civilians and politically motivated violence persist in the country even as incidents have become harder to report and verify amid an intensifying information blackout. Journalists and women, particularly those participating in or covering demonstrations in opposition to Taliban rule, have been increasingly targeted, as have members of the former government and security forces. The recent closures of many safe houses for women who suffer domestic violence have left Afghan women even more vulnerable.

Zoom out: The question currently isn’t about how bad the situation is going to be because the water is already above the tolerance level. The international community needs to take stronger steps in order to make sure that the progress made over the past 20 years aren’t erased in a matter of months. Condemnations are not affecting the hardline Taliban and the global leaders now need to find measures to tackle the regressive policies and protect women’s rights and curtailing the freedom of almost 50% of the country’s estimated 40 million people. The erratic Taliban policies have showcased rifts between the hardline and pragmatic Taliban members too and the world should be quick enough to pick up the crumbs and use it to their advantage to mold the Taliban and reverse the draconian era currently underway in Afghanistan.

Fatema Farhang contributed in this report.

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