Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

International Spotlight: Afghanistan

By Ananya Venkatesan

Independence, agency, and the rights of women

The Taliban, a force thought long-defeated in 2001, not to the extent of complete elimination but to a supposed degree of manageability, has resurfaced to capture the capital city of the Afghan state, Kabul. In the wake of US forces withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and the spread of Taliban attacks across the country, an approximately two-decade US-led coalition has fallen with the extremist group now taking over. There are several things one could talk about in this usurping: democracy, international relations, military, violence; the list is as long as Rapunzel’s hair. But, arguably, the issue of greatest concern and uncertainty at this time is the agency and independence of the most vulnerable and oppressed under the Taliban: women.

“Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book,” activist Malala Yousafzai notably commented. Prior to the success of the coalition, NATO Allies in Afghanistan, in taking control of the government, in 2001, under Taliban rule, women were denied education, barred from holding political office, suffered discrimination, and even violence. An entire gender subjected to segregation and subjugation – a clear, categorical, and cruel violation of basic human dignity and rights. Since then, a previously barren wasteland saw cloudy skies, raindrops, and saplings emerge from the cracks. When, in 2001, no girls attended school, a gross percentage of 82.85 girls became enrolled in primary schools. Women were employed as military officials, robotics engineers, and were rising among the ranks within parliamentary chambers. An entire gender started reclaiming their position within society as leaders and, more importantly, as equals. They started exercising their agency – an unfathomable thought under the Taliban – gaining independence, and having the capacity through education to make informed choices for themselves. By no means was a perfect world created for the women of Afghanistan under the coalition, but progress was being made and that sapling was growing into a full-grown tree with stable roots, plentiful leaves, and sweet fruits. A perfect world wasn’t created, but there was the hope for a better future.

“An entire gender subjected to segregation and subjugation – a clear, categorical, and cruel violation of basic human dignity and rights.”

With the return of the Taliban, this hope has been shaken to its core. There is a striking fear of that tree being destroyed, uprooted, and the threat of turning women’s lives back to the horrors of a pre-coalition world. In an attempt to dissuade these narratives from spreading, in a blatantly performative move to convince the world of a reformed Taliban, leaders of the extremist group responded to questions posed by a female journalist. They claimed in a press conference that the picture of regression that haunts the minds of the world will not come to be, that women will be granted rights, so far as is allowed by the principles of Islam. It is, however, hard to believe the promises made when behind the smokescreen women have been suspended indefinitely from state television, banks, and other workplaces. The principles of Islam undoubtedly provide agency to women, and honor their right to education and employment – the religion’s founding principles are ones of peace and progress, and in several Islamic states, women thrive as part of society. Given the Taliban’s interpretation of these rights in their former regime, however, it is hard to believe that a radical shift has occurred in their view of women’s rights. This disbelief is further strengthened by their actions over the last few weeks. Separate to the suspension of women from work, the Taliban appear to be returning to their terrorising ways in many provinces. Women have been asked not to leave their homes if unaccompanied by male relatives; women’s healthcare centers are being shut down; and armed members of the militia are even preventing women from entering university.

The Taliban is not a new presence in Afghanistan; the fear is thus not of the unknown. Society under the former Taliban regime is not something of ancient history, but lives in recent memory of all those who suffered, and all those whose loved ones went through the horrors of their draconian rule. The fear is of a return to a world where women have no agency. A world where Afghanistan, a country that made so much progress in their uplifting of the oppressed gender, becomes a country where women can’t choose what to wear or when to leave their house; have no access to education and employment; and fear being publicly flogged and beaten for wanting to be treated as equals in their society. 

“The fear is of a return to a world where women have no agency.”

The Taliban claim they will not treat women the same way as they did before. And yet, whilst their words say one thing, their actions seem to say another. Will the rights of women and their capacity to exercise independence be upheld? Or will the Taliban destroy the progress that has been made over the last decades? We can only hope that the latter does not happen and that true peace, where dignity and agency of human life is respected, will reach Afghanistan.


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There’s no way the Taliban will allow women to maintain their freedom, and they know nobody can really do anything to stop them. What are the US going to do, match right back in after being ordered to withdraw? No. We’re likely going to see footage leaked of women in burkas being machine gunned down in stadiums again.