The role and position of women in the Afghan society have swayed between attempts to modernization and then extreme conservatism over the past several decades. From the time of the progressive rule of King Amanullah and Queen Soraya in the 1920s to going back to extreme conservatism from 1929 to 1963. Followed by the drafting of the first constitution of 1964 which elected the first woman cabinet member as a Minister of Health to the establishment of the communist regime in 1978, Afghanistan saw another wave of societal transition. Subsequently, the notorious rule of the Taliban in 1996 followed by the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, also marked significant shifts in the position of women in the Afghan society demonstrating how the notion of gender equality and women empowerment has always been secondary to the interests of those in power.
When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 a gender policy for the country was shaped which focused on improving the lives of the Afghan women. In its endeavour to gain public support, the US went as far as it could to represent the Afghan women as silent prisoners. They used the condition of women to mould popular opinion and to justify the US invasion on the grounds of moral responsibility. Gillian Wylie talks about this in his article “Women’s Rights and ‘Righteous War’: An Argument for Women’s Autonomy in Afghanistan” and points out that “In defending the US policy, President George Bush never failed to mention the liberation of women as one of his moral ends. Greeting the fall of Kabul in January, he announced that the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were now free.”
During the two decades in Afghanistan, the US spent more than 144 billion dollars out of which 205 million dollars were spent to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan. The amelioration included the new constitution of Afghanistan which provided 25 per cent reserved seats for women, allocating women in high-government positions, and private sectors including NGOs and US-funded projects that employed many women. Many women worked in the media and were also involved in trade and businesses. Although this portrayal was promising, the gender policy marked only a symbolic inclusion of women rather than a meaningful one which did not assure the future of women rights. Although the urban women were able to do jobs and get education but the majority of women who resided in rural areas of Afghanistan were neglected. Even at the centre, the rights assured to women were superficial and after the US withdrawal, they were left to the mercy of the same Taliban who oppressed them.
Subsequently, the notorious rule of the Taliban in 1996 followed by the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, also marked significant shifts in the position of women in the Afghan society demonstrating how the notion of gender equality and women empowerment has always been secondary to the interests of those in power.
The withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan was announced in 2014, and the US-Taliban talks accelerated it in 2019. The US was dealing directly with the Taliban and women were completely left out of these talks. This reinstated how the women agenda was always made secondary and was used only to promote the US’ interests. Sima Samar, former Minister of Women Affairs of Afghanistan, posed the same concern stating that “women continue to be excluded from the decision-making processes.” Even before the withdrawal of the US troops, violence against women was reported but the US turned a deaf ear and continued with the withdrawal.
After the withdrawal, the sanctions on Afghanistan by the US also indicate the ingenuine policy towards women as this move has impacted the Afghan women significantly. Half of the women who were working in NGOs and US-funded projects find themselves unemployed and more vulnerable than before. The US has frozen 9.4 billion dollars of Afghan government reserves in the US banks after the G7 leaders discussed the “stick and carrot” policy in dealing with the Taliban government on August 24. Although the UN and many NGOs have stated that the humanitarian issues should not be politicised but the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and many European nations are following the US in sanctioning the Taliban government. These sanctions would directly impact the welfare of the Afghan women and would compromise their position in the society.
The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 directly deals with the situation of women in conflicted regions and how war affects women differently than men. In the case of Afghanistan, this agenda remained futile which otherwise could have been a testing ground for its efficiency. When security and participation of women from the grass-root level should have been the ultimate priority, the agenda fell victim to intervening powers who pursued their self-interests and put politics above social welfare. The agenda focused more on civil and political rights than economic and social rights. Now that the Taliban is in power, the agenda is expected to further derail.
Recently, the Biden administration has shown commitment towards women inclusion through a Gender Policy Council within the White House. Biden stressed on making it an integral part of the foreign policy as well by stating that, “to ensure that every domestic and foreign policy we pursue rests on a foundation of dignity and equity for women.” On account of this decision, the US would engage in diplomatic relations with only those countries where women rights are acknowledged. However, not engaging with nations who deny women their due rights would also work against the women of these countries especially countries like Afghanistan where the patriarchal system ensures womens’ suppression.
Although it is too soon to comment on the standing of the changed Taliban on women, but one can foresee what the future holds for the Afghan women considering the steps the Taliban have already taken to pursue their previous war on women. So far, the depiction reminds one of their bygone rules. The first few steps taken by them as soon as they came to power indicate towards the similar decades’ old traditional mindset where the role of women is confined to homes.
Despite Afghanistan being bound by many international human rights laws including United Nations Convention on Women Rights, there has been news of the Taliban making a list of girls above 15 years and widows under 45 years of age to arrange their marriage to the Talib fighters, prevent girls to go to school in some districts and orders of not to be seen outside without a guardian.
Another step back is the abolishing of the Ministry of Women Affairs and replacing it with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. The Ministry used for the protection of women earlier would now be used to police them. Something they did when they first came into power in 1996.
The US has frozen 9.4 billion dollars of Afghan government reserves in the US banks after the G7 leaders discussed the “stick and carrot” policy in dealing with the Taliban government on August 24.
In another development, co-education would not be allowed and women would be taught by women teachers only. Most of the university students were critical that the universities do not have the necessary funds and facilities to afford such segregation and the female faculty is limited which would result in prioritizing men’s education over women. Moreover, parents fearing the abduction of their daughters are also hesitant in sending them to schools.
Another nail in the coffin is the new cabinet ministry of the country. Despite the international community warning them that they will not be recognised if they do not change their treatment of women and minorities, the Taliban continue to exclude women from the ministry. Although, they included some minorities in their interim cabinet after inviting an outcry from the international community when they announced their all-male cabinet earlier. However, women are still not included. The ultra-conservative factions within the group believe that women cannot be ministers, they should only give birth.
The US spent almost 759.6 million dollars on 39 education programs from the year 2002 to 2014. While the USAID and the Pentagon spent 617.9 million and 141.7 million dollars each on the education sector alone. Although it is uncertain if the amount was completely spent on education, yet it helped many Afghans to get standard education. Afghan women are aware of their rights and would fight to ensure them. The latest protests by women against the Taliban show that they will not give up on their rights easily. Along with the protests in streets, social media activists and artists are also using their platforms to fight back. The amount spent on education did not go to waste after all. There is no doubt that the Taliban will fight against their resistance on streets but the awareness and education they have acquired cannot be taken away from them. As long as they are equipped with education, there will always be hope and possibility for a better future.