The Tale of the Afghan Woman

 

The tale of the Afghan woman was full of promise before the country was plunged into civil war and extremist rule during the late-20th century. She was treated at par with the men of her society and afforded similar privileges, including the right to education and work. All of that changed when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 following a bloody civil war and imposed their strict interpretation of Sharia law on Afghans. Women were no longer allowed to study, work or even step out of the house unless accompanied by a male ‘guardian’. Head-to-toe coverings were mandated to be worn at all times. The slightest breach of these rules resulted in severe punishment, including being stoned to death. Women had effectively been reduced to the properties of men in power.

 

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States and its coalition partners launched an offensive against the Taliban which was providing a safe haven for chief perpetrator Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban were defeated and a US-backed democratic government was established in their place. This led to a reversal in the fortunes of Afghan women, who once again had the opportunity to shape their own destiny. In the twenty years since, a substantial number of women have pursued higher education and some of them have entered public life in a way that was impossible under the Taliban regime. A certain percentage of seats were reserved in parliament for women in a bid to boost their involvement in the government. About 40 percent of the 9.5 million students in the country were girls according a 2020 study by USAID.

 

The progress made in the past twenty years is at a grave risk of getting undone owing to the withdrawal of NATO troops and resurgence of the Taliban. History dictates that the radical ideology followed by the outfit would be at odds with the values of freedom and greater inclusivity for women in positions of influence. However, the Taliban is aware that the chaotic scenes in Kabul have drawn eyeballs from across the globe. Any untoward act of violence against women which captures the attention of the international press will only serve to further intensify their scrutiny worldwide. Hence, the Taliban have elected to portray a ‘moderate’ image of themselves to the world, and have made assurances that women will be allowed to work and go to school, albeit according to their interpretation of Islamic law. Many fear that such sudden leniency in the ideology of the Taliban is only a smokescreen to avoid any further outrage from the international community. This scepticism is validated by the fact that working women in Afghanistan have been ordered to stay home by the Taliban as their forces are not yet trained not to “mistreat” them. There are credible reports from human rights groups stating that unmarried women between the ages of 14 to 45 are now randomly being chosen to be wedded by Taliban members. All of this shows that while the Taliban may try to display a facade of acceptance, their ideology at its core degrades the status of women to that of property or cattle.

 

These intimidation tactics will hinder girls from attending school or indeed building their future outside of their homes even if it is ‘allowed’. The international community needs to act now in order to safeguard the rights of Afghan women instead of leaving them to their fate.

- Aniruddh Maniktala