When the Taliban seized Kabul early August, the world was reminded of the city’s capitulation in the fall of 1996. The era of the Taliban rule was particularly grave on Afghan women, swept away from society, leaving behind empty classrooms and offices. They were bound to the rims of their homes, burqas and Mahrams (male ‘guardians’).
The world watches for fear of a return to the past. More so, Afghan women whose mothers and aunts tell ghastly tales of that time, and remain engraved within. It is now the next generation that will recite the same tragedies.
The cautious optimism expressed by international officials towards the Taliban’s duplicitous attempts at being moderate is ultimately foolish. The Taliban’s misogynistic and sexist nature will inevitably overpower its ongoing momentary attempts at moderation. The recent reports of female officials, activists, journalists, and their families, hiding from the militants are self-explanatory. Afghan women know what is most likely to come, and the world does too, yet it stands in complete ineptitude.
Afghanistan lived in a parallel social landscape, between distinct private and public spheres during the Taliban rule. Decrees were enacted to segregate women from the fundamentals of civil life, denying them access to political and economic participation in a country where women once occupied 40 percent of public jobs.
Moreover, medical care was cut short, and women’s health was prioritized last.
A 1998 study - Women’s health and human rights in Afghanistan – revealed the overall poor health of Afghan women under the Taliban. The study reported severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. In addition, women were targeted and severely punished by the militias based on misguided readings of religious doctrine. Afghan women had become second-class citizens and were treated accordingly.
The panic resulting from the Taliban’s return is justified as it leads to profound anxiety. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women gradually re-emerged from the background and following the Bonn Agreement and the establishment of the interim administration confidence grew. Women became part of the nation’s workforce, including fulfilling roles in schools, universities, and offices, where previously they were forbidden to pursue careers.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established, and women were introduced as ministers, governors, ambassadors, and police officers. Yet, within this seemingly assuring environment, threats to women remained. In many cases women were assassinated.
Today, the scenes being witnessed are a replication of history. We saw women and girls rushing home from their classes, offices, places that defined them for the past two decades.
Removing certificates off their walls, burning documents, masquerading any indications of careers built, and dreams realized. Afghan women are mourning their country, their sacrificed lives, and the lives of generations to come.
As Afghanistan changes hands, experts continue to debate the discrepancies between the 1990s Taliban and the present one. What has unraveled in the past few weeks of blatant human rights violations only serves to show that it is a clear case of history repeating itself.
Fawzia Koofi, a prominent Afghan politician and women’s rights activist, asked the inevitable question: “where are women?” in a Tweet. It followed the Taliban’s political office meeting with the High Council for National Reconciliation on August 21, 2021.
The question has loomed over every new peace agreement meeting and discussion held over the years.
The future looks grim without the slightest consideration of women being involved in the negotiations.
In early July 2021, a meeting attended by the Minister of Women’s Affairs, female politicians, and government advisors discussed the country’s current situation and called for a woman representative on behalf of the Ministry, and ultimately all Afghan women, to be present during the ongoing peace process.
The failure of past peace attempts was due to many underlying factors. Still, it cannot be ignored that the exclusion of women was an imperative one. Many case studies suggest that women’s participation in politically negotiated settlements has a lasting impact on peace. Only when the other half of the population is included and their rights respected will the implementation process succeed. More importantly, power-sharing deals would be incomplete if they compromise Afghan women’s rights under any circumstances.
If we assume that the Taliban is to honor its commitments, it will still need to make room for Afghan women in their government, to listen closely to their demands and act on them.
Hollow statements and keeping women out of the decision-making process will no longer do with a generation of women and girls growing up knowing what is rightfully theirs.
The international community that abandoned them has the responsibility to listen to Afghan women’s voices that have warned of the reality of living under Taliban rule. They must ensure their safety.
Reports of the Taliban likely securing a seat at the UN Commission on the Status of Women is a slap in the face of every Afghan woman, but it begs the question of whether the move will actually place the burden on the Taliban to make sure they deliver on promises toward the treatment of women. Is it merely a PR stunt?
Given the militia’s long record of brutal oppression against women, the Taliban’s pledge to fulfil its human rights commitments will more than likely fail to materialize.