​Afghanistan in a state of gender apartheid as women's rights are being picked apart - Hindustan Times
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​Afghanistan in a state of gender apartheid as women's rights are being picked apart

Apr 14, 2024 05:04 PM IST

The international community must not stop criticising Taliban’s gender policies in pursuit of counter-terrorism objectives on the shared Islamic State challenge

In March 2024 Hibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, broadcast a message about resuming public stoning and flogging women to death as punishments for adultery-related crimes. This was the latest in a growing list of restrictions imposed on Afghan women according to Akhundzada’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Afghan women chant slogans in protest of the closure of universities to women by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 22, 2022 (REUTERS ) PREMIUM
Afghan women chant slogans in protest of the closure of universities to women by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 22, 2022 (REUTERS )

It was reminiscent of the Taliban’s first stint in power in Kabul from 1996-2001, during which women and girls were barred from education, employment and going out in public without a burqa or a mahram (male chaperone). Following the United States-led military intervention in 2001, a certain degree of progress in women’s status had been achieved, with them acquiring basic rights and opportunities. However, that was flagrantly upended when the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 2021, despite their initial assurances to respect the rights of women and girls.

The Doha Agreement signed between the Taliban and the US on February 29, 2020, paved the way for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, virtually handing over power to the Taliban. Four years on, a significant question arises: how could the US proceed with an agreement devoid of provisions and guarantees for women’s fundamental rights?

It should be noted that Afghan women had zero representation in the peace negotiations, contravening United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Adopted 24 years ago, it stresses the pivotal role of women in post-conflict reconstruction and advocates for their increased participation in all peace and security efforts. The absence of Afghan women in the negotiations set a troubling precedent and facilitated a dire human rights situation by enabling the return of the Taliban’s oppressive measures against women and girls.

A chronology of the curbs

After reclaiming power, the Taliban appeared “committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia”, but issued inconsistent messages over time. Although they had initially stated that higher education for girls would be permitted in gender-segregated settings, they reneged on this promise by banning women from pursuing secondary education. Within a month of their return, they disbanded the ministry of women’s affairs, replacing it with their infamous ministry for propagation of virtue and prevention of vice, a body known for enforcing strict Sharia-based morality.

In 2022, gender-based discriminatory policies under the Taliban reached a peak. They restricted women from studying beyond the sixth grade, circumscribed women’s access to specific university majors, such as civil engineering, journalism and agriculture, and subsequently banned them from public and private universities.

In 2023, however, the Afghan education ministry, speaking to The Associated Press, confirmed that girls were allowed to study at madrassas (religious schools) after the sixth grade, a statement confirmed by Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the UN Mission in Afghanistan, based on anecdotal evidence.

Following multiple decrees aimed at segregating public spaces by gender, women were subsequently banned from gyms and parks. Additionally, women were mandated to cover their faces when appearing on TV, and female staff were barred from working with UN bodies and other international non-governmental organisations.

In 2023, beauty salons were shut down, as services rendered by them were deemed un-Islamic, and women were prohibited from entering Band-e-Amir, also known as Afghanistan’s first national park. The space for protests and dissent has shrunk considerably as individuals opposed to the Taliban’s governance are subjected to arbitrary arrests, detentions, enforced disappearances, and in some cases, extrajudicial killings.

These policies, among others, implemented with the overarching aim of ensuring women’s erasure from public life, have led analysts to characterise Afghanistan as a gender apartheid state, with Human Rights Watch asserting that the Taliban are “committing the crime against humanity of gender persecution”.

Despite calls from within the Islamic community advocating the importance of the pursuit of knowledge by both genders, the Taliban has maintained an unflinching stance. Such egregious restrictions, beyond obvious implications, have adversely impacted Afghanistan’s economy, which is already crumbling under the weight of international sanctions and the freezing of its assets. A recent report by the World Bank, which evaluates women’s participation in the economy across 190 countries, has ranked Afghanistan at 178. If these gender discriminatory policies persist, Afghanistan’s chances of economic recovery will be further dimmed, pushing the country deeper into crisis.

What must the international community do?

The incentive of legitimacy (no country has recognised the Taliban government yet) has not been tantalising enough to make the Taliban yield to international pressure, as the Taliban has only grown more confident in imposing curbs on the rights of women. This is further complicated by the absence of a unified posture in engaging with the Taliban and determining the best way to employ the lever of recognition, which remains one of the few coercive tools at present. While the West seems to have relative convergence on this issue, regional actors like China and Russia have pursued their vested interests by increasingly engaging with the Taliban.

In light of the Crocus City Hall attack in Moscow, countries may be driven to seek greater cooperation with the Taliban in addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK; the outfit widely believed to be responsible for the attack), given the Taliban’s instrumental role in curbing the group’s activities.

It is imperative that the international community not become complacent about the Taliban’s reprehensible gender policies in pursuit of counter-terrorism objectives, as such actions tend to confer a degree of legitimacy on the Taliban. This sends a message to the Taliban that as long as they deliver on counter-terror goals, they are free to govern as they see fit, even if it involves severe human rights violations. In fact, countries can utilise this situation to exact concessions from the Taliban over women’s rights by offering robust intelligence on the shared ISK challenge.

Although each step taken towards engaging with the Taliban risks normalising the oppressive regime, the absence of engagement comes with its own set of problems. While pushing the Taliban too hard may make matters worse by putting them on the defensive, non-engagement may provide them with the leeway to enforce more cruel restrictions.

Further, humanitarian aid, upon which over half of the Afghan population depends, cannot be contingent on the Taliban’s ability to grant concessions, as instead of ameliorating the situation, it will exacerbate the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. Thus, as the Taliban continues to test the international community’s rules of engagement, the adoption of a middle path, a delicate balancing act, becomes vital.

In sum, the global community must not turn its back on Afghan women, who continue to face institutionalised and systematic discrimination. A reiteration of platitudes and condemnation of the Taliban’s policies across international fora bring forth little change on the ground, although steps in the right direction that should be sustained.

At a time when the purpose of the UN is increasingly being questioned, its ability to effectuate tangible change in the lives of Afghan women and girls will serve as a crucial litmus test for its efficiency.

Bantirani Patro is a research associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.

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