On June 29, the Taliban’s acting deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, announced that an all-male gathering of Islamic clerics and tribal elders would meet to discuss Afghanistan’s future.
Some 3,000 men were expected to participate in the gathering at Kabul’s Polytechnic University. Women were excluded, but issues like reopening girls’ schools would be discussed, Al Jazeera reported.
The announcement angered civil society activists, who criticized the exclusion of women from the gathering and questioned its legitimacy.
In response, Hanafi said the Taliban “respect women a lot,” and that women would be represented through their male sons, who would attend the gathering.
“Different people with different views are going to gather,” he said. “This will be a positive step for stability in Afghanistan and strengthening national unity.”
That is misleading. In fact, the voices of 19 million women in Afghanistan will be absent. So far, the Taliban have fenced off the participation of women in public life.
In September 2021, soon after retaking power, the Taliban dissolved the Women’s Affairs Ministry, which had been established in 2001 after the Taliban were ousted by the United States. The ministry oversaw the new Afghan government’s efforts to secure women’s legal rights.
The Taliban replaced it with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which it had established during its first first period in power from 1996 to 2001.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the restoration of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice as symbolic of the erasure of Afghan women's rights.
“The ministry ruthlessly enforced restrictions on women and men through public beatings and imprisonment. The ministry beat women publicly for, among other things, wearing socks that were not sufficiently opaque; showing their wrists, hands, or ankles; and not being accompanied by a close male relative,” wrote Heather Barr, associate director of HRW’s women’s rights division.
The Taliban have backtracked on earlier promises to respect women’s rights, including a promise not to force women to wear a full burqa covering the entire face and body.
“The burqa is not the only hijab [headscarf] that [can] be observed: There is different types of hijab not limited to burqa,” Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told British broadcaster Sky News after the group’s takeover of Kabul last August. “[Women] can get education from primary to higher education – that means university.”
But in May, the Taliban’s virtue-and-vice ministry decreed that all women must cover from head to toe in public. The Washington Post quoted the ministry’s spokesman, Mohammad Sadiq Akif, saying this was “an important part of cleansing a society” to discourage sexual harassment.
“When women wear the proper hijab, it prevents bad behavior in others,” the Post reported. “This is not a violation of women’s rights; it gives women more freedom.”
The compulsory veil order was the most recent setback for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
In April, an internal memo from Taliban’s Interior Ministry stated that the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, advised women to stay home. According to VICE magazine, a section of the memo stating that “women shouldn’t go to offices and work or go outside of their homes,” was written in boldface.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed deep concern.
“This decision contradicts numerous assurances regarding respect for and protection of all Afghans’ human rights, including those of women and girls, that had been provided to the international community by Taliban representatives during discussions and negotiations over the past decade,” the UNAMA statement said.
“These assurances were repeated following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, that women would be afforded their rights, whether in work, education, or society at large.”
The Taliban’s internal memo emerged shortly after it postponed plans to open secondary schools for girls for the first time since taking power. The group justified its decision by citing a lack of teachers and the need to create a suitable environment and appropriate uniforms.
In March, the Taliban government informed airlines that women would not be permitted to board domestic or international flights without a male family member.
Earlier, in December 2021, the Taliban said a woman must be accompanied by a male relative to travel any distance over 45 miles and instructed drivers not to allow women into their cars if they were not veiled.
On June 15, Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the U.N. Human Rights Council that Afghan women are facing a worst-case scenario.
“What we are witnessing today in Afghanistan is the institutionalized, systematic oppression of women,” Bachelet said.
“While Afghanistan has ratified a number of international treaties, including the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the de facto authorities remain far from complying with those international obligations, in both policy and practice, to respect and protect the rights of women and girls.”
On top of all this, Afghanistan’s financial and humanitarian crises hit the country’s women particularly hard, Human Rights Watch said.
Afghanistan’s economy is highly dependent on foreign aid, which was disrupted following the Taliban’s takeover. International sanctions were imposed on Afghanistan, and the country’s foreign exchange reserves were frozen.
According to the U.N.’s mission in Afghanistan, the country’s economy contracted by up to 40%. Another U.N. report predicted that 97% of Afghans could fall into poverty.
“Taliban policies that have barred women from most paid jobs have had a swift and devastating impact on households in which women were the sole or main earners,” HRW said.