Afghanistan, Taliban and Women: A Tale of Gender Apartheid

Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are institutionalizing gender-based discrimination and violence. By failing the Afghan women, we are failing women everywhere.

In the novel 1984, George Orwell remarked, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever”. The prophecy made by him in 1949 is now being witnessed in today’s world, the testament to which are the gross injustices and human rights violations being suffered by women in Afghanistan. In that sense, the boot belongs to the Taliban leadership in power, and the face is of the dreams that Afghan women once saw for their prosperous future. From banning girls to access education and public jobs, restrictions on their dress code and the recent ban on Afghan Women from working with the United Nations, the heterodox conservatism and misogyny of the Taliban know no bounds.

In August 2021, with the fall of Kabul to the capture of Taliban leadership, the lives of women in Afghanistan have been marred with tribulations, injustices and terror. As the country fell to the Taliban, the cries and agonies of help from the Afghan women have repeatedly been ignored by the international community, left in the cold in the misogynistic regime.

The Taliban have established a system of governance based on systemic inequality and wholesale subordination of women, institutionalizing discrimination through its political, legal and socio-economic structures. Before the takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan, women held 27 percent of the seats in the Parliament; today they hold none. They filled up 21 percent of civil services jobs and about 30 percent of roles in civil society organizations, while at least 54,000 businesses were estimated to be run or owned by Afghan women in 2021.

In just two years, decades of progress have been systematically reversed, with 35 million young women and girls previously enrolled in universities and schools now banned from acquiring education, female civil servants, lawyers, private-sector workers and businesswomen losing their livelihoods and being excluded from all avenues of public life.

This ongoing cataclysmic situation is being called to be analyzed under international Law as “Gender apartheid”, with women workers and activists at the forefront of resistance to the regime. They are subject to harsh restrictions, under the watchful vigilance of their male household members who are now responsible for their compliance with the Taliban’s policy of gender apartheid.

Human rights activists, journalists and workers have been arrested, jailed, and forcibly tortured for their ‘moral corruption’ in their resistance to the repressive regime. It strips women of their inherent right to lead safe, free and fulfilling lives, being denied something so basic and innate, criminalizing fundamental human rights.

Some progress was made between 2001 and 2021, though social, cultural and political obstacles remained. Consequently, there was some negative reaction to formal government policies from the informal groups in Afghanistan who deemed this slight progress in women’s rights as a direct threat to their mechanisms and believed that they were being disregarded. Concomitantly, this allowed the Taliban to tactfully manipulate this reaction to dub the advancement of women’s rights as foreign, thus anti-Islamic and unaligned with the Sharia.

Much to the chagrin of women in general and Afghan women in particular, the deafening silence of the Western leadership on the tribulations of Afghan women has been heard loud and clear. The international community has expressed concern and issued statements of condemnation but their words ring hollow and their “feminist foreign policies” prove useless, since nothing concrete and meaningful has been executed to ameliorate the situation in favour of Afghan women.

As the Taliban implement a successful humanitarian crackdown suffocating the rights of women, the authoritarian oppressive regimes of the world watch carefully. The sheer inaction sends out a signal to the autocrats, that women are expendable and their rights are dispensable. Women and girls are the most vulnerable to the global democratic backsliding into authoritarianism, repression of human rights, inequality and increased conflict. Since the war in Ukraine and crises elsewhere, women have been disproportionately affected by the war, comprising a large ratio of refugees and facing widespread sexual violence, characterizing the conflict.

The sidelining of women in the Afghan peace process was not due to the lack of efforts of Afghan women. From grassroots activists to high-level political leaders, they demanded a seat at the table. They publicly warned that a hasty and unconditional withdrawal of troops without an inclusive and participatory peace agreement between all stakeholders could lead to a second stint of the Taliban regime. Yet, Afghan women were silenced and excluded at every step of the peace process between the U.S, the Taliban and the Afghan government,

Two years on, it is conspicuous that the U.S. and Western political leadership traded America’s longest war with a perpetual war on Afghan women. In doing so, it has not only violated the sovereignty and fundamental human rights of women in Afghanistan but also gestured to the world which war it finds more palatable. And as that message is having ripple effects in regimes across the globe, women everywhere are less secure because of it.

Women and girls in Afghanistan have grown up thinking of the Taliban days as the dark past of their mothers’ past, not as a cycle of terror that could rob them of their future.

The fragility of women’s rights in Afghanistan calls for recommitment and urgent focus of the international situation to the deplorable gender apartheid. The international community’s toolkit is limited and their political will seems questionable.

 In the past decades, women have struggled and fought for their rights, with uneven but important achievements. Standing beside Afghan women in their resistance and struggle against the repressive regime, and finding ways to pressure the Taliban leaders to make reparations for the injustices done, is the very least the international community could do.

A well-coordinated global action is the only way to mitigate the institutionalized discrimination against Afghan women in ongoing gender apartheid. By criminalizing systemic discrimination against women under international law, the international community has a clear lever with which to denounce and put pressure on the Taliban, simultaneously assisting the civil and military resistance against the Taliban regime.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
I am a young leader and activist and my main focus areas are Sustainable Development, Political Economy and Advocacy. Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP), Currently pursuing BS Economics and Finance from Greenwich University.