(Written on August 10th 2021)
Source: The Indian Express
As the Doha Agreement of 2020 between the United States and the Taliban promised to bring a new dawn in the process of ensuring peace in Afghanistan, a curtain of darkness fell over the campaign for the rights of Afghan women.
Capitalising on the final stages of withdrawal of the U.S. troops, the Taliban launched an offensive, making sweeping territorial gains in various parts of Afghanistan. Days after the capturing, disturbing reports emerged from rural Afghanistan that the Taliban Cultural Commission had issued orders in the form of letters to local imams (religious leaders), stating that women cannot go to the bazaar without a male companion. It also purportedly asked them to provide the Taliban with a list of girls above 15 and widows under 45 to be married to Taliban fighters.
The Taliban’s Silent War Against Women’s Rights From 1996 to 2001
The reports served as a bitter reminder of the mandates issued by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice during the Taliban’s stint in power from 1996 to 2001. The Ministry under the Taliban became the infamous symbol of ineffable abuses against women and girls, as reported by the Human Rights Watch. Women were publicly beaten for frivolous “crimes” like wearing socks that were not sufficiently opaque, showing wrists and ankles, or not being accompanied by a close male relative to public places. Talking to an unrelated man resulted in death for a married woman, without as much as a trial. The word of the local Taliban leader was the verdict.
Afghanistan under the Taliban had one of the worst women’s rights records in the world. From 1998 till the U.S. invasion, girls over the age of eight were prohibited from attending school. Homeschooling was also discouraged. Women were given the most rudimentary access to health care, leading to high mortality rates. In 2000, Afghanistan had the world's second-worst maternal death rate during childbirth, accounting for 1900 deaths per 1,00,000 live births, as reported by the World Health Organization. Reports of rape, abuse, and forced marriages became the new norm under the Taliban rule. Women’s right to work was fully taken away, thus relegating them to a life of poverty and indignity.
Has life improved for Afghan women over the past two decades?
The U.S. army invaded Afghanistan in 2001 as an instant retaliation to September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The then-President, George W. Bush, embraced the empowerment of women as a justification for the invasion and its war on the Taliban. Consequently, the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan provided wide-ranging rights to women.
By 2018, the post-Taliban regime had constructed 3,135 functional health facilities, giving, at least in theory, 87 per cent of Afghans access to a medical facility within two hours distances. Female enrollment in primary education and secondary education had grown to 82 per cent and 39 per cent respectively by 2017. Women’s life expectancy increased to 66 years by 2017. Yet these advances have been distributed highly unequally, with the high and middle-class women from urban areas reaping most of the benefits. For the 76 per cent of Afghan women living in rural regions, not much has changed.
Caught in the crossfire between the U.S. troops and the Taliban soldiers, these women have lost countless loved ones. Apart from the obvious psychological trauma, the deaths of the family men have also brought debilitating effects on the economic conditions of the rural women, leaving the question of their mere survival hanging in the air. For them, education and the right to work are distant dreams. They just wish for peace, even if it is achieved at the cost of oppressive laws being forced upon them under the garb of Islamic Law. Unsurprisingly, the position of Afghan women on peace and the means to achieve it varies greatly.
Where does the Taliban stand on the question of women?
September 11, the date of the final withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghan soil, is just around the corner and a giant question mark still hangs over the fate of Afghan women. The Doha Agreement left the question of women’s rights completely at the mercy of intra-Taliban negotiations and military developments. The U.S.A., which had considerable political and military influence, could have negotiated better terms of withdrawal which would have benefitted its troops and the civil stakeholders of the democratic society it vowed to build two decades ago in Afghanistan. Instead, as the Doha round of talks with the Taliban, the Ghani government of Afghanistan, and other international allies continues, the U.S. has very conveniently cut itself out a deal for safe withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in exchange for letting the Taliban decide its fate in Afghanistan.
With the relatively weak position of President Ashraf Ghani in the administration and the Afghan society and the Taliban’s military supremacy over Afghan troops, there seems no realistic prospect of the Afghan government defeating the Taliban. A U.S. intelligence agency report estimates that the Taliban could come to power as soon as six months after the American withdrawal.
Keen to project a softer image this time around as it seeks international legitimacy for its bid as more than just an insurgent movement, the Taliban has promised that it will protect the rights of the women, but only according to “Islamic values”. This does not instil a sense of confidence in the minds of the Afghan women who went through human rights abuses carried out in the name of a narrow interpretation of the Sharia law in the late-1990s. Observers have also pointed out the absence of women in the negotiating team of the Taliban. The absence of women from the Taliban’s political offices and governing structures has also raised doubts about the legitimacy of the Taliban’s claim. Its refusal to comment on this issue and the reports of abuse of women’s rights in captured areas shows that the Taliban is back to its old way of marginalization of women.
How can the rights of Afghan women be secured?
Afghan women have fought hard for the last 20 years to ensure constitutionally guaranteed gender equality, make great strides in women’s education and healthcare, and ensure social, economical and political representation to women. As Zarqa Yaftali, an eminent Afghan women’s rights activist had stated at the UN Security Council meeting in November 2020, “The widespread and meaningful participation of women in the peace process is essential both for peace and for the fate of Afghan women.”
The international community, especially the U.S.A., needs to promote direct and formal participation of women in the negotiation process. There are only 5 women in the 21-member negotiating team of the Afghan government. The number should be made proportionate to the female Afghan population and should include all voices of Afghan women. The Taliban should be persuaded to include women in its negotiating team, which would ultimately project it as a protector of women’s rights.
Constitutions are fundamentally important in the process of state-making. As Afghanistan stands at a critical juncture with the power dynamics changing every day, women’s rights must be specifically spelt out in the Constitution drafted by the new power holder in Afghanistan. This would give women a position to challenge hierarchies of power and reshape institutions. It would also ensure more political and social representation of women.
It is imperative for the international community to proactively promote the protection of women and ensure that their current rights are not taken away by any future government. It should continually provide financial aid to those working for women’s rights in Afghanistan and a safe platform for Afghan women to raise their voices. If need be, UN Peacekeeping Forces should intervene to stop any human rights abuses being carried against the Afghans.
Regional powers need to be more involved in the peace process to avoid a refugee situation and a border security threat from a war-torn nation. They must use their influence over the Afghan government and the Taliban to develop an inclusive platform to work out a representative peace agreement.
As uncertainty hovers over the future of the Afghan political architecture, it is crucial to include all civil stakeholders in the process to avoid a full-blown civil war beneficial to none. Women have undoubtedly been the biggest victims of the Afghan power play out of all stakeholders. Many international organizations have been working with activists in the country to provide humanitarian and financial aid as well as a platform to raise their concerns to these vulnerable women. They fear that the American withdrawal and the Taliban’s dictatorial rise to power will reverse the great strides taken in women empowerment in Afghanistan. The United Nations has reiterated that it will not recognize a government that has come to power by force. If the Taliban wants to gain legitimacy as a position of power, it would be wise for it to stop its attack on civilians and resume negotiations with the government and the disgruntled sections of the society, especially women.
Stuti Biyani is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Ramjas College, University of Delhi.