“Any state that fails to act to end Pakistan’s invasion & prevent further Taliban brutality are betraying the women & girls of Afghanistan & making a complete mockery of their commitment to women’s rights,” tweeted Christopher (Chris) Alexander, a renowned Canadian diplomat-turned-politician with deep knowledge of Afghanistan. He was Canada’s first envoy to Kabul.
This feeling resonates among the international community. What is now being observed in Afghanistan is one of the most brutal and worst humanitarian crises imposed by the Taliban on ordinary Afghani people. An UNAMA July 2021 document reported that among the 800 civilians killed and 1,600 wounded in May and June, about half were women and children. During a briefing to the United Nations Security Council, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ms.Deborah Lyons, in early August 2020 mentioned about the fears voiced to UNAMA by many Afghan women. She says, “They tell us that they fear they will be killed if the Taliban return to power simply because they worked for the government or an NGO.”
Unlike in the 1990s, it is observed that the Taliban is back with a much more harsh and cruel face than before; though deliberate attempts have been to project a ‘reformed’ Taliban to the international community. Ali Amiri, an Afghan sociologist and university professor says, “Much of the recent wave of displacement across Afghanistan has been caused by the fear the Taliban have created about how they will treat the survivors.” A cold shiver runs down the spine of Afghani women from the very thought of the Taliban taking over control in the country and its impact on their lives and future.
A report in the Wall Street Journal highlighted that the Taliban have demanded communities to hand over unmarried women to become “wives” for their terrorists. Several human-rights groups have voiced against this as a form of sexual violence. The author of the report, Saeed Shah tweeted that a local Taliban leader told the congregation at Friday prayers that all girls over the age of 15 and widows younger than 40 should be married to the insurgent fighters. Such is the vulgar and obnoxious thought process of the outfit that claims to assume national power.
Portraying the truth is a difficult affair in present day Afghanistan. Unlike the past, the Taliban are now aware that the world is watching them and are therefore targeting the media in particular. The Guardian reported a female journalist expressing her fears anonymously saying “I’m not safe because I’m a 22-year-old woman and I know that the Taliban are forcing families to give their daughters as wives for their fighters. I’m also not safe because I’m a news journalist and I know the Taliban will come looking for me and all of my colleagues.”
Moreover, the report highlighted how Taliban use women as ‘weapons of war’. An Afghani woman expressing her fears said, “We had heard of cases where the Taliban would kill young men and sexually abuse girls and young women of the family.” Another 38-year- old Ziagul from the Bamiyan province remembers what happened when Taliban attacked her province in the 1990s, she says, “Even then when they attacked Bamiyan, they had raped women. This fear has always been in our minds. That’s why we ran away, to prevent this from happening again.”
A college professor, Moqadasa Rasouli, while reminiscing many memories from when the Taliban ruled the majority of Afghanistan and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law recalls how he witnessed a group of women being severely whipped for wearing flip-flops and nail polish. Also, the Taliban had promptly closed down a school when they found out that the Professor and other girls were secretly studying there. In the 1990s, when the Taliban exercised power, they barred girls from attending school and prohibited women from working outside the home.
A woman appearing in public without a male relative was illegal. Professor says, “Afghan women don’t want the dark era of the Taliban to be repeated,” as that period was marked with suffering for women and girls from a regime that perpetrated discrimination and horrendous acts of violence in the name of religion and these violations included rape, abduction and forced marriage.
However, since the end of the Taliban’s rule, much progress has been made over the last two decades in uplifting the lives of Afghani women. According to a document released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, about 3.5 million of the 9 million Afghans enrolled in school are female. The number of schools rose more than tenfold after 2001. According to Afghanistan country reports by the World Health Organization and World Bank, in 2003, fewer than 10% of Afghan girls were enrolled in schools however, by 2017, it increased to 33%.
Today, Afghani women have risen to prominent places in the society and are employed as police officers, politicians and cultural figures. By 2020, 21% of Afghan civil servants were women, compared to almost none during the Taliban years. Women’s life expectancy grew from 56 years in 2001 to 66 years in 2017. Mortality during childbirth declined from 1,100 per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 396 per 100,000 in 2015.
However, since the year 2020 began, the Taliban have targeted women professionals at an alarming rate. Police officer Fatima Rajabi, who worked in a special anti-narcotics division, died at the age of 23 in July 2020 after the Taliban stopped the vehicle she was traveling home in and took her captive. Her remains, which had gunshot wounds and signs of torture, were sent to her family. In May 2020, Maryam Noorzad, a midwife, was murdered in a Kabul hospital after three Taliban gunmen attacked the maternity ward. Noorzad refused to leave her patient, who was in labour. So, she, her patient and the newborn baby were all killed in the delivery suite. In June 2020, Fatima Natasha Khalil, an official with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission died at the age of 24. She was killed by a roadside explosive device planted by the Taliban in Kabul on her way to her office.
A radio and TV reporter, Malala Maiwand, 26, was assassinated along with her driver in December 2020 while on her way to work by a suspected Taliban gunman. She was not the first member of her family to die in an attack by a Taliban militant. Five years earlier, her mother, a social worker, who publicly advocated for women’s rights, was also assassinated by the Taliban.
Now, many Afghan women feel deeply threatened for their life by the prospect of Taliban gaining national power. Wazhma Sahel, 22, a military officer who works as a criminal investigator in the Kabul police department mentioned that in addition to regular threats she receives on social media, the Taliban had started sending written death threats to the office where she works. She says, that, “if the Taliban returns to power, I along with other women who work in the government’s military and security forces will either be stoned to death or executed in a public space in front of a crowd.”
Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) during a press briefing stated that, “When you take away a woman’s freedom of movement you are limiting her ability to be of use to her family. Even when you’ve got family members who have been critically injured in the course of the conflict, being able to take a wounded child to a hospital without a male escort is not possible, this is unacceptable.”
Adding to this UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in her recent statement underlining human rights violations against women said, “There are already reports of women having been flogged and beaten in public because they breached the prescribed rules (women are prohibited from leaving their homes without a Mahram, a male chaperone). In one case in Balkh Province, on the 3rd of August (2021) a women’s rights activist was shot and killed for breaching the rules”.
In the very first press conference after taking over Kabul, when asked about women’s rights, Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid replied, (English translation) “ The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia. Our women have the same rights. They are going to be working shoulder to shoulder with us. We want to assure the international community that there will be no discrimination against women but of course within our religious framework.”
However, noting the current situation of the districts under the control of Taliban, Nishank Motwani, deputy director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul, says that “they are exactly how they were when the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan in the 1990s: Women can’t go to school. They can’t go outside to buy medicine without a male chaperone. They are watched. It’s that climate of fear.” The key question is what is ‘within the framework of Sharia’? Well in the 1990s too, the rules imposed on women were according to the Sharia while the international community watched in horror the torture and atrocities being faced by Afghan women. Also, in view of the recent incidents of targeted murders, assassinations and punishments meted out to women in public spaces, it is amply clear that the Taliban ideology has neither reformed nor changed in any form. Against this background, it would only be naïve of the international community to take the Taliban’s words seriously when it comes to peace,more so in the case of women and young girls.