On August 17, the Taliban held their first news conference in Kabul after overthrowing Afghanistan's Ashraf Ghani-led government. Official spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid took questions from journalists, including about the high-profile matter of women’s rights.
“The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia,” Mujahid said. “Our sisters, our men have the same rights; they will be able to benefit from their rights."
For some, the jury is still out on whether the Afghan Taliban have changed. But based on the group’s brutal treatment of women in the past, any such pledge is suspect.
Meantime, reports of abuses already are emerging, sending a chilling message and inciting fear.
Taliban fighters are “unfortunately behaving the same way they did when they were in power” in the 1990s, prior to the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, said Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan politician and one of the female participants in recent Afghan peace negotiations.
“Their political office issues statements that don't make sense. There is no relevance of their statements to the situation on the ground,” she told the Thomas Reuters Foundation on August 16.
The United Nations Human Rights office reported on August 10: “There are already reports of women having been flogged and beaten in public because they breached the prescribed rules.”
“We have received reports that women and girls in various districts under Taliban control are prohibited from leaving their homes without a Mahram, a male chaperone,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.
On August 3, a women's rights activist in Balkh province was shot and killed for breaching the Taliban rules, the U.N. reported.
The Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai, is among those skeptical of a Taliban transformation.
“[W]hen I was 15, the Taliban tried to kill me for speaking out about my right to go to school,” Yousafzai wrote in a commentary for The New York Times on August 17. “In the last two decades, millions of Afghan women and girls received an education. Now the future they were promised is dangerously close to slipping away … Afghan women’s fears are real.”
The Associated Press reported on August 13 that the Taliban’s rapid return to power “crashed down the dreams and ambitions of women” who grew up in a Taliban-free Afghanistan.
The AP quoted Zahra, a young woman who lives with her family in the city of Herat, as saying. “How can it be possible for me as a woman who has worked so hard and tried to learn and advance, to now have to hide myself and stay at home?”
Zahra said she worked with a local nonprofit. However, now “like most other residents, Zahra, her parents and five siblings are hunkering indoors, too scared to go out and worried about the future,” the AP reported.
Zahra told the news agency that her 12-year-old sister, “who loves learning,” will not be able to attend school; that her brother will never play football again; and that she won’t be able play her guitar.
On August 19, The New York Times reported that members of Afghanistan's all-girl robotic team left the country "joining a growing number of people fleeing the Taliban’s takeover."
Masih Alinejab, an Iranian-American activist and Voice of America Persian language service correspondent, said via Twitter that the Taliban’s stated commitment to women’s rights should not be trusted.
Alinejab was the target of an Iranian kidnapping plot exposed in July. Her show "Tablet" often deals with restrictions on women's rights by clerics in Iran. Alinejab posted a video of someone in Kabul spray painting over the faces of women in a storefront display.
"[T]oday this is the reality in Kabul: first they erased photographs of women then they'll remove women from public sphere. Iran have experienced these lies 42 years ago," she tweeted.
As Taliban forces rapidly swept across Afghanistan in July, Al Jazeera reported that a group of their fighters barged into Azizi Bank in Kandahar. They escorted women working in the bank to their homes and “told them not to return to their jobs.”
On May 8, a car bomb exploded outside the all-girls’ Sayed-ul-Shuhada school in Kabul, followed by two other blasts. The explosions killed 85 girls and wounded an estimated 147, CNN reported. Then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban, although the group denied it.
The statement by spokesman Mujahid that the group is committed to women’s rights added the qualifier, “within the frameworks of Sharia.” That is a reference to the unsparing form of Islamic law enforced by the group, the same religious rationale the Taliban used to brutalize women and others in the 1990s.
More recently, New York-based Human Rights Watch said conditions in Taliban-occupied parts of Afghanistan in 2020 weren’t much different from those during the prior Taliban rule. “Very few Taliban officials actually permit girls to attend school past puberty. Others do not permit girls’ schools at all,” HRW reported.
The rights group also said the Taliban policies discouraged female education by imposing taxes on teachers and harassing the relatives of educators in areas that had been controlled by the Afghan-government prior to the takeover.
In one hopeful sign, Reuters reported on August 19 that local TV in Herat showed video of girls returning to Tajrobawai Girls High School "freely walking about within the school compound and taking lessons in classrooms."
But in an interview with Reuters a day earlier, Taliban commander Wahedullah Hashimi said the following when asked how Afghanistan would be governed:
"There will be no democratic system at all. We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is Sharia law, and that is it."