Pro IQRA News Updates.
The recent announcement that the Taliban government has banned women and girls in Afghanistan from visiting parks and gyms – even if accompanied by a male “chaperone” – has been understandably met with outrage.
It is “another example of the Taliban’s persistent and systematic erasure of women from public life,” said UN Special Representative to Afghanistan Alison Davidian, adding, “We call on the Taliban to restore all rights and freedoms for women and girls.”
In the past 50 years, from the US-led occupation by Soviet and international forces, to the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, women’s rights have often been exploited for political gain synthesized as a justification for war. Sometimes things have improved slightly for the women, but most of the time their rights have been massively violated.
Women’s rights were enshrined in a post-invasion constitution introduced with US support in 2004. The constitution reserved 25% of seats in parliament and county assemblies for women, as well as 30% of civil service jobs.
The constitution also obligates the Afghan government to respect and implement international agreements on women’s rights. Besides, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established to be the main body responsible for women’s rights and empowerment.
After the Taliban seized power, this advance was quickly reversed. Just one month after coming to power, the Taliban government dissolved the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replaced it with what they called a ministry to “spread virtue and prevent vice”. Women were completely excluded from working in the Taliban Interim Government, with the exception of the women who cleaned the women’s bathrooms.
The government told reporters that women should refrain from attending work until “appropriate regulations” are in place to “ensure their safety”. Women were banned from their workplaces, sent or escorted home and told that they would be replaced by male relatives.
Likewise, women and girls’ access to education was restricted. Upon assuming power, Taliban leaders declared that a “safe learning environment” was required before women and girls could return to education.
In September 2021, the authorities announced that secondary education (above sixth grade) would resume for boys, but no mention was made of girls’ entry. Without access to education, girls are at greater risk of child marriage and abuse.
In May 2022, the Taliban ordered women to cover their faces in public and ordered them to stay in their homes unless necessary. Women were forbidden to travel long distances without a male escort.
Shelters supporting women and girls escaping domestic violence closed, and staff had to return many survivors to their “abusers.” Fariha was nine months pregnant when she told Amnesty International: “Before, there was a shelter… They said it is not working now… There are no options for me now.”
Meanwhile, child and forced marriages are reported to have increased in the past year, despite the Taliban’s demand to oppose it. Amidst all this, an increase in suicides among women has been reported.
Fight against patriarchy
Yet Afghan women continue to make history with their acts of courage, peacefully protesting restrictions, while being harassed, threatened, arrested, detained, and tortured. Stripped of their rights, under constant threat of violence, Afghan women and girls are claiming agency and sharing their stories in news outlets and online.
All of this was happening as many Muslim countries were experiencing a revival of the women’s movement. Young women, in particular, are becoming increasingly interested in feminist ideas as a way to make sense of their lives.
In the 1980s and 1990s, an Islamic feminism emerged that used Islam and its doctrines as the only essential component of women’s lives and identities. But a new wave of young Aghani women are embracing feminist ideas that don’t necessarily work from a religious point of view.
But the Taliban is not the only issue for Afghan women. Indeed, feminists in many Muslim countries face a double problem. There is a patriarchal cultural formation that sees women as subservient to men. And then there is the difficulty of fighting for women’s rights in the face of a religious establishment that demonizes them for challenging what they see as a “fundamental” Islamic belief. In turn, religious authorities in Afghanistan accuse these feminists of being Westernized, inauthentic, and sometimes anti-national.
Read more: Afghanistan: The West needs to stop seeing women as needing to be ‘saved’
Frustratingly, the Western world has always found it difficult to move past what it perceives as the victimization of Afghan women. This has become the default Western attitude towards women in almost all traditional Muslim societies, because the West remains focused on the idea that women’s liberation from oppression is a byproduct of the defeat of fundamentalist Islam – which it sees as indelibly linked to terrorism.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s increasing isolation from the West – and harsh economic sanctions crippling the country financially – is making life more difficult as it deprives young Afghan women of any agency they might be able to achieve in a thriving economy. This makes it all the more urgent that the world hears, understands and supports the voices of Afghan women, rather than imposing a version of Western feminism that has already proven inappropriate in Islamic contexts.