The Taliban regime has increased the arrests of several journalists, activists, and university professors as a response to their demands of lifting the restrictions on women’s rights. Among them is civil society activist Matiullah Wesa, head of PenPath, an organization that advocated for the reopening of schools for girls in Afghanistan. Wesa was arrested on March 27, 2023, and his whereabouts are still unknown. Other activists and journalists have also been detained during the past months with no information about their location and well-being. Among them are Nargis Sadat, Zakaria Osuli, Sultan Ali Ziaee, Khairullah Parhar and Mortaza Behboudi.
These arrests further underline the nature of the Taliban regime in its pursuit to cut women and girls fully out of Afghanistan’s civil society. Since Afghanistan is still part of the UN declaration of human rights, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Roza Otunbayeva highlighted that the Taliban regime as the de facto governing party has a duty to uphold human rights principles such as freedom of expression and assembly and the right to give access to education and work. However, these principles were neither uphold by the Taliban regime in the past, nor does it seem that they will be considered in their plans of governing the country.
Men, women, elderly, young, everyone from every corner of the country are asking for the Islamic rights to education for their daughters. Penpath female volunteers calls for girls education and their rights to education #PenPathGirlsEduCampaign #PenPathDoor2DoorEduCampaign pic.twitter.com/EFkse7cReY
— PenPath قلم لار (@PenPath1) March 26, 2023
Since the Taliban regime seized power in September 2021, it has gradually installed repressive rules and restrictions against its women. Against all hopes of the international community, the Taliban regime’s mindset has not progressed from its first rule, with the latter banning secondary education for girls just two weeks after its grip on power. Many female journalists, artists, scientists, and government workers have fled the country, mainly finding refuge in Pakistan such as former Tv-presenter Nafeesa Malali. In interviews, Malali highlights that before the current Taliban rule, there was no full gender equality within the Afghan society, yet the current Taliban regime has stripped away even women’s basic rights.
The last major restriction occurred in winter 2022 when the Taliban also banned women’s access to university education, effectively trapping Afghan women behind closed doors.
Currently, Afghan women and girls are not allowed to study, work, or leave their house by themselves. Therefore, the United Nations currently classifies Afghanistan as the most repressed country for women rights. Mahbouba Seraj, a 74-year-old women’s rights activist that lives in Afghanistan, highlights that one of the most concerning pushbacks of the Taliban is the rejection of laws that were issued by the former government. These laws were intended to protect women from gender-based violence, leaving women currently without legal protection from any type of violence. According to the United States Institute for Peace, the number of homicides, gang rapes, stabbings and murder of women have drastically increased since the second takeover of the Taliban regime. This makes Afghanistan not only the most repressed but also one of the most dangerous countries for women to live in, since neither basic rights nor legal protection against gender-based violence is ensured.
The first Taliban rule and its impact on Afghan society
Looking back on Afghanistan’s history, one can see parallels with the massive restrictions of the Taliban regime comparing its second (and current) rule to its first rule. At the time (1996-2001), the Taliban regime announced that the laws of the state will follow their interpretation of the Islamic Sharia rule. That is, women could not access education or work, were forced to cover themselves in so-called burqas and could not leave their home without a male relative.
An interview with a woman from Kabul presents a crucial aspect that characterizes the Taliban regime. At the time of the first Taliban rule, the woman highlighted that she was conscious that the Taliban had implemented rules that were not written in the Quran – since she was a Muslims herself. Even today, as US Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Richard Bennet highlights, the pressure from particularly Muslim countries on the Taliban regime to allow women back into different spaces of society is crucial.
Everything must change for everything to remain the same
When looking at Afghanistan’s current situation, it is evident that the Taliban failed to progress in their view on women’s rights and the place of women within the Afghan society. Several women’s rights activists worldwide have warned that if the Taliban regime continues its restrictions on women’s rights within the next decades the Afghan society will feel the impact.
The United States Institute for Peace report underlines that women and girls in Afghanistan now count as the most vulnerable group, which means that any financial, food and health crises will affect women and girls first.
Not just a women’s fight
It is important to mention that during the period of US presence in Afghanistan, women slowly gained their voices back and therefore had opportunities to speak out against gender-based violence and inequalities. However, the harsh repressions of the Taliban rule had left its mark on the Afghan society. A great challenge was to sensitize the people for thoughts such as equal rights and protection of women.
Initiatives such as the rolling library for children from Freshta Karim or the emergence of the Afghan Women’s Political Participation Network presented important socio-political steps into the generation of gender equality. However, other episodes also showed the cultural division on the issue within the society.
The most striking instance was the murder of 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada in Kabul in September 2015. She was a student of Islamic theology and on her way to the mosque when she was attacked by a mob of men. Farkhunda was accused of burning a Quran after apparently arguing with a Muslim cleric who accused then her. Therefore, she was attacked in broad daylight by a group of hundreds of men who beat her to death, even filming parts of the scene. The videos are still on Facebook. The case became known all over the world and the international pressure led to an investigation and the arrest of 49 men. Only eight got twenty-year long sentences. The case also led to reconsider the meaning for true freedom for women in Afghanistan and the impact the Taliban regime had left on Afghanistan’s society as a whole.
However, contrary to popular belief, there is a small but loud fraction of Afghan men that are advocating for gender equality and universal access to education and work. Their voices have become louder since the second rule of the Taliban regime. A university professor stood up in Afghan National TV and demanded publicly that the Taliban should let Afghan girls access education. Further support also came from a group of male students from the University of Kabul who refused to take their final exam in solidarity with their female colleagues, who were not allowed to take the exams anymore. The prohibition of women’s education also led to the hashtag #LetAfghanGirlsLearn on Twitter. Under the hashtag, Afghan women urge the international community to amplify the voices of women living inside of Afghanistan.
Afghan men walk out of class to support their female colleagues after Taliban announced ban on female education at Universities. May we see a day where Afghans unite and get rid of Taliban. pic.twitter.com/7usdY4tzRg
— Sehar مفتي (@Smufti87) December 22, 2022
As Mahbouba Seraj highlights, it is crucial for the international community to amplify the voices of women inside Afghanistan, standing in solidarity with them and their struggle. The use of the cyberspace offers a great advantage for Afghan women compared to the first Taliban rule.
Now spaces such as Twitter and Instagram can be effectively used to spread information about protests and incidents happening inside the country. Afghan women living in Afghanistan can reach out directly to diplomats and ministers from other countries, urging them to support their demands for regaining their basic rights. Until then, one can only hope that the resilience of Afghan women will not be broken by the Taliban’s restrictions.
Cover Photo: Afghan girls attend their class at a primary school in Jalalabad on April 30, 2023 (photo by Shafiullah Kakar/AFP.)
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