On 3rd December, the Taliban government of Afghanistan released a decree on female rights which said women should not be considered “property” and must consent to marriage. They hoped it would be seen as progressive, but it made no mention of female access to education or work beyond the home.
Most outside the regime sees it as their response to the international community’s economic sanctions, and withdrawal of international aid, which are now taking their toll on the country. This has been done precisely because of how the Taliban treat women.
As a female student in Kabul told CNN: “[The decree] has no connection with our right to go to school, university orparticipate in government. They only want women to stay home and prevent them from going out for school, university or work, but they want to appeal to the international community.”
One of their first actions was to immediately abolish the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and reduced the power of the Elimination of Violence against Women Law – both established to protect women from abuses such as forced marriage.
To reinforce the point, the Taliban converted the Ministry of Women’s Affairs building into offices for the religious morality police, who used brutal force on the population when they were last in power.
This new ministry is formally called the Ministry of Invitation, Guidance and Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Few have forgotten the Taliban’s control of the country from 1996 to 2001 when women were required to wear the burqa in public, to only come into contact with male blood relatives.
In addition they had have severe limitations put on their education, were restricted from working, and faced severe punishments for breaking these rules and many others. Few will forget seeing the beatings meted out against women in the streets by the religious morality police, or the public execution of Zarmeena, a mother of seven, shot dead at the Ghazi Stadium in 1999.
Since their relegation to the outer regions of the country by the US and allied forces in 2001 the Taliban have slowly recaptured provinces and quickly applied their extreme form of gender apartheid.
All the hard won rights women achieved in the last 20 years are now under threat once again.
In early September, the Taliban established the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and appointed their first Government Ministers – none of them were women. The new interim Prime Minister is Hassan Akhund who served as deputy foreign minister in the 1996 to 2001 regime. He is said to be moreinfluential on the religious side of the movement, rather than the military side – something which might not bodewell for women’s rights.
The appointments were followed by peaceful protests on the streets of Kabul by women who do not want a return to the draconian laws of the past. The Taliban’s response is indicative of what one would expect. Female protesters were beaten with whips and electric shock batons.
One protester said: ”We were all beaten. They told us to go home saying that’s where a woman’s place is.”
Journalists were also targeted with severe beatings, confiscation of equipment and detention.
In September the new regime allowed all male teachers and students back into educational establishments but refused entry for their female equivalents, claiming this was a temporary measure.
In mid-November Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani activist shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 after angering them with her campaign for girls’ schooling– said she fears their claim the ban is temporary may not be true. Speaking to the BBC she said: “The Taliban have been quite vague about their commitment to protecting women’s rights, and they announced two months ago that Afghan boys can go to school, but for two months Afghan girls have not been able to go to their secondary schools…” She pointed to a similar Taliban promise in 1996 of a temporary halt on girls’ schooling, saying: “That ban lasted for five years.”
More recently the United Nations Development Programme published a report raising concerns that restricting women fromeducation and employment will have a major impact on Afghanistan’s economy. The UN report found that the new Taliban regime had told all female government employees to stayat home and banned most girls from going to school. Only a small number of women in essential services like nursing have been asked to resume work.
Besides this, Human Rights Watch have reported that the Taliban are now introducing rules prohibiting most women from operating as aid workers just as the humanitarian crisis worsens in the country.
Specific restrictions have also recently been placed on female journalists and those in the arts – all suggesting a return to the late 1990s style of Taliban government.
In late November, Human Rights Watch put out a statement showing that the Taliban authorities are threatening journalists and imposing strict new media guidelines that especially harm women. It said: “Taliban intelligence officials have made death threats against journalists… and have required journalists to submit all reports for approval before publication. New guidelines from the Vice and Virtue Ministry dictate the dress of female journalists on television and prohibit soap operas and entertainment programs featuring female actors.”
Patricia Gossman, associate Asia Director, said: “The disappearance of any space for dissent and worsening restrictions for women in the media and arts is devastating.”
All the signs are that whilst the Taliban attempt to ease negative perceptions of their regime with their recent decree on women’s rights, the reality is that they are as committed to gender apartheid as they have ever been. This is once again becoming a dangerous time to be a woman in Afghanistan.
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