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Geopolitics & Security

Resisting the Taliban’s New Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan

Commentary17th March 2023

“With the arrival of the Taliban, women were removed from society.”

Hoda Khamosh

Journalist featured on 2022 TIME100 list

Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban has created a system of governance based on the wholesale subordination of women, institutionalising discrimination within the regime’s political, legal and cultural structures. Before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, women held 27 per cent of seats in parliament; today they hold none. They had filled 21 per cent of civil-service jobs and just under 30 per cent of roles in civil-society organisations while in the more informal private sector, at least 54,000 businesses were estimated to be run or owned by women in 2021. In less than two years, that progress has been systematically reversed, with female civil servants, private-sector workers and business owners losing their livelihoods and the 3.5 million young women and girls previously enrolled in school banned from both secondary and tertiary education today.

Amid growing calls for the situation to be classified as “gender apartheid” and recognised as such under international law, women remain at the forefront of resistance to the regime. Building on our previous work to provide a platform to the civil-society voices of Afghanistan, we have interviewed female activists whose actions – from running a network of underground schools to publicising women’s-rights abuses online – highlight the reality for the millions impacted by Taliban rule and their courageous efforts to defy the regime.

“Our struggle will continue, and we will raise our voices and stand against the Taliban regime. We will continue until we get our basic rights as the citizens of this land.”

Investigative journalist

Reversing 20 Years of Progress

After the Taliban’s defeat in 2001 and subsequent retreat, the next two decades saw women’s rights and gender equality being enshrined in Afghanistan’s Constitution of 2004, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) becoming politically influential and the country adopting legislation to significantly increase women’s access to justice. The public sector opened up, with women serving as provincial governors, ministers, ambassadors, police officers and judges – and even joining the army. Some 38 per cent of teachers were women while health-care issues started to be addressed, notably the percentage receiving prenatal care, rising from 16 to 61. While progress had been made between 2001 and 2021, social and cultural challenges remained, not least the response to the top-down approaches to advancement. This meant there was some negative reaction to formal government policies from traditional communities in rural Afghanistan who believed their informal mechanisms were being disregarded. This in turn allowed the Taliban to manipulate such reaction by framing the advancement of women’s rights as foreign and thus anti-Islamic.

“In years before the fall, the Taliban were targeting women’s-rights activists, journalists and government officials. It became so unstable we feared there would be an assassination every day. We would ask ourselves, ‘who’s next?’.”

Anisa Shaheed

Award-winning journalist

Ironically, the violations now being perpetrated by the Taliban completely defy the teachings of Islam while the group is using its policies as a bargaining chip to try and secure diplomatic recognition from the West. In summary of their broken promises, there are no women today in government, the MoWA has been replaced with the infamous Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, more than 76 per cent of female journalists have disappeared from the media landscape, shops and beauty salons have been shut, women cannot be seen in public without a male chaperone, they must wear the full-body veil, female teachers have been expelled from schools and universities, and numerous bans include the one on education. In short, women no longer have citizenship status.

“The world is witnessing horrible days for the people of Afghanistan, yet everyone has stayed mute in the face of this injustice.”

Tamana Zaryab Paryani

Olympic medallist and NGO founder

Voices of Resistance: The Women Defying the Taliban’s Policies

Amid the sweeping restrictions imposed by the Taliban since 2021, women have been leading the robust civil-society resistance to the administration’s policies. Street protests have taken place in major cities despite the ban on women leaving home alone, while former politicians, ex-government officials, human-rights defenders and activists have been risking everything – even death – to fight for a democratic future.

Resistance often has to be expressed online or in private forums. Online news outlets such as Rukhshana Media, founded by Zahra Joya in 2020, have been exposing human-rights abuses to the international community, as well as empowering female journalists by highlighting their dissenting voices and experiences living under Taliban rule.

“We publish the stories of women and marginalised groups to amplify their voices because they are voiceless. I hope the international community recognises this and that the Taliban does not speak for the people of Afghanistan.”

Zahra Joya

Journalist and founder of Rukhshana Media

Women used to comprise the majority of humanitarian-aid workers. Despite the restrictions placed on them today, including the December 2022 decree barring them from working in national and international NGOs, both women in Afghanistan and in exile continue to provide aid, education and employment to many.

Since the ban on female education, women have been running underground and online schools, such as the Herat Online School, to continue educating girls in Afghanistan. Individuals are also contributing: for example, an activist from Afghanistan living in the United States has established a book club in Badakhshan province, providing reading materials to 30 women so they can continue their education and cultivate discussion.

“We have two secret home schools in Kabul and a third in Daykundi province for girls above grade seven. We started the schools in March 2022 and have 1,000 students. It is hard; we have to work strategically because what we do is a crime.”

Marzia Amiri

Teacher and founder of three underground schools

Afghanistan’s female diaspora has also been actively raising awareness of the Taliban’s abuses, working to underline the regime’s illegitimacy to policymakers around the world. Along with continuing street protests and determined journalists attempting to cover the demonstrations, despite the threat of being detained and tortured, these initiatives are feeding into the wider movement to counter the removal of women from society.

But they cannot do it alone.

Currently, the international community is still trying to persuade the Taliban to uphold human rights and create an inclusive government, but women’s activists are under no illusions. Negotiations during the flawed talks for the 2020 Doha agreement provided clear warning signs of what was to come, with Afghanistan’s internationally recognised government of the time, political factions representing the mosaic of communities in the country, women and civil society excluded from the negotiations between the Taliban and the former US administration. Numerous campaigns – including #MyRedLine and The Feminine Perspective – highlighted diverse voices from all corners of Afghanistan, reflecting their concerns over the “peace process” and the danger that the Taliban posed for human rights.

“During peace negotiations, people were saying the Taliban had changed. However, we knew they had not. When we said this to the media, they called us city girls and claimed we do not speak for rural women. This is why we started The Feminine Perspective. Most of our stories came from rural women, who also want education, civil and political rights.”

Attia Mehraban

Co-founder of The Feminine Perspective

Moving Towards Coordinated Global Action to Counter the Gender Apartheid

Over the past year, the international community has begun to engage with civil-society members in Afghanistan and those living in exile. However, this effort has so far been ad hoc and uncoordinated. The international community has also roundly condemned the state of women’s rights, for example Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock described the situation as “the biggest violation of women’s rights currently” while the United Kingdom’s Shadow Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Bambos Charalambous called the Taliban’s ban on female education “barbaric” and a “tragedy”, urging the UK parliament to support women and girls in Afghanistan. On 8 March 2023 – International Women’s Day – the foreign ministers of 23 countries and the EU high representative released a joint statement highlighting the “steep decline” in the condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

However, more support is needed in the form of a coordinated and effective policy response to the Taliban’s abuses. Policymakers especially in the West need to adopt a unified definition of the situation impacting women’s rights – particularly governments, such as Germany, Canada and France, which have adopted feminist foreign policies and therefore committed to upholding gender equality internationally. Professor Karima Bennoune, a specialist in international human-rights law, has described the Taliban’s actions as “gender apartheid”, a system of governance based on the subordination of women that institutionalises sex discrimination across a state’s political, legal and cultural structures. Although “apartheid” is often defined through the prism of racial domination and systematic oppression, she has applied the concept to Afghanistan, where societal structures of control and oppression are being adopted by one group over another. Bennoune argues that substituting “gender” for “race” in the conventional definition of apartheid very accurately reflects Taliban policies towards women, with this serving as an essential mechanism to set in motion global legal accountability for the regime’s actions.

Providing the international community with a unified definition of the Taliban’s abuses would standardise their ambiguous and ad-hoc responses to date. By criminalising the systematic discrimination of women and girls under international law, the international community has a clear lever with which to isolate, denounce and put pressure on the Taliban, one that should also discourage other countries and international actors from engaging directly with the regime. Without the internationally recognised “gender apartheid” definition, it is possible there could be greater normalisation of the Taliban’s regime and its policies, which would weaken the value of women’s rights globally and undermine the women of Afghanistan.

Last week, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett used the term at the UN Human Rights Council – something the West and its allies should replicate. Adopting such a definition would also enable the international community and Western governments to move beyond simply condemning the situation in Afghanistan – and take firmer action to formulate an effective policy response to counter the Taliban’s erosion of women’s rights.

“We are losing faith in Western governments. The system created by the Taliban does not believe in human rights. The international community must assist the civil and military resistance against the Taliban’s regime.”

Wahida Amiri

Librarian and activist previously been detained by the Taliban

Lead Image: Getty Images

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