Written by Juliana Campos and Derin Erk.
The Taliban Government and Women’s Rights
After over two years under Taliban rule, Afghan women continue to endure profound challenges: limited mobility and freedom of speech, lack of autonomy and a ban on education. Even if a 20 year gap separates the Taliban’s first government, overthrown in 2001, from their reclaim of power in 2021, not much seems to have changed in their interpretation of Islamic law, though officials continue to vehemently deny human rights are being violated.
Taliban representatives claim the western media is responsible for corrupting popular opinion on their government and that UN reports do not convey the reality of today’s Afghanistan. According to them, the ban on women’s education is a temporary measure, while the government prepares an “Islamic environment” that complies with their interpretation of Sharia law and meets the demands of the Afghan people. However, after two years, no progress has been made and there seems to be little indication the Taliban will indeed address the very urgent issue of gender inequality in Afghanistan and lift restrictions such as the ban on education for women.
What Does The Education Ban Mean for Afghan Women?
Education equips women with the tools to make more informed choices, to lead healthier lifestyles and it protects them against abuse by teaching them to recognize violent behaviour and to fight for their physical and mental integrity. Not only is it an empowering tool on an individual level, educating women benefits entire communities. Being the primary caregivers in many societies, well instructed women are able to better prepare themselves for life-changing decisions such as marriage and pregnancy, raising healthier children, in happier households.
Furthermore, education allows women to take on a more active role in their nation’s economy and development, by granting them the practical knowledge needed to use their talents and creativity to open their own businesses, for example. Taliban spokesperson Suhali Shaheen claims that 8.500 business licenses have been granted to Afghan women under their ruling and that over 800.000 women are currently working in Afghanistan. The government has yet to publish these official reports and their sources, but even if they prove to be accurate, if the ban on education isn’t lifted, these numbers will certainly face a dramatic decrease in the next few years.
The fact remains that many women who remember the severe restrictions imposed in the late 1990’s by the Taliban fear being once again deprived of the knowledge that previously allowed them a small sense of economic, emotional and political independence. The impacts of such strict rules imposed by the Taliban have already been recorded during their previous period in power between 1996 and 2001. If nothing is done to change the current scenario, the world risks witnessing another generation of illiterate Afghan women, completely excluded from social life and deprived of formal education.
By reinstalling laws which limit women’s freedom in society, banning women from working, studying and being seen in public without a male chaperone (the Mahram), the Taliban severely worsens gender inequality in Afghanistan and denies women the chance to develop emotionally and intellectually, besides directly affecting the country’s economy.
The United Nations’ Take on Women and Girls’ Education Under the Taliban
The UN has been vocal about the situation in Afghanistan, particularly on Afghan women’s rights. It considers the Taliban takeover in 2021 a reversal of women’s freedoms. Indeed, it seems the little progress made in the past 20 years has suffered a complete turn over in a matter of months.
Though UN’s statements help spread awareness and reliable information, the organisation has not directly intervened on a larger scale and has not shown intention to do so, as of today. As previously mentioned, the Taliban has accused the UN of misrepresenting the situation in Afghanistan in their reports and while this is a debatable statement, one thing is for certain: women and girls are barred from receiving education. Other areas in Afghan women’s social lives may be more tricky to evaluate from far away, as many of them spend a great portion of the time inside their homes, but the state of females’ access to secondary education and higher education is clear; there is no such access.
Are There Prospects for Change?
The simple answer would be that if the international community does not intervene, there aren’t many grounds for optimism. Interviews given by Taliban representatives have made it clear that they will not be giving up the right to rule given to them by God, according to their beliefs. Therefore, it is expected that their policies on women and their rights and freedoms will continue, as it is unlikely the government will ever be overthrown by the Afghan people, who are forbidden to speak against the regime.
It is unfortunate to conclude that the Taliban government’s restrictions on women’s rights and women’s education stand strong after two years. Being banned from attending schools and universities will not only greatly hamper women’s quality of life and their well being, but also difficultate their conquest of social and financial independence through education. Moreover, the Afghan nation as a whole will greatly suffer the effects of this ban, as including women in state affairs, the economy, and social life in general is an important pillar in a country’s development.
There is little to no prospect of change for the near future as the Taliban remains determined and strong in its seat. Perhaps the most effective measure the international community can take is advocating for women’s rights and spreading awareness about what is happening in Afghanistan today.
-  DW News. How has life changed for Afghan women since the Taliban took power? Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it-TgEfxUaQ&ab_channel=DWNews
- Al-Nashif, Nadia. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Afghan women suffer extreme discrimination, restrictions and violence, 2023. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/statements/2023/06/afghan-women-suffer-extreme-discrimination-restrictions-and-violence-deputy-high
- Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security: Mahram: Women’s Mobility in Islam. Available at: https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Mahram-Womens-Mobility-in-Islam.pdf
- United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Afghanistan: UN experts say 20 years of progress for women and girls’ rights erased since Taliban takeover, 2023. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/03/afghanistan-un-experts-say-20-years-progress-women-and-girls-rights-erased
- BUTT, RIAZAT. The Taliban believe their rule is open-ended and don’t plan to lift the ban on female education, 2023. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-taliban-women-education-5bc5477a8e4599ac431e4d2e27ebaf85
- GANNON, KATHY. Many baffled by Taliban reneging pledge on girls’ education, 2022. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-education-united-nations-kabul-taliban-0c092db3ce630807729faa245420acdc
Cover Image by Graham Crouch/World Bank.
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