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Haunted by Memories of Repression, Afghan Women Fear for Safety and Rights as Taliban Gain Ground

Internally displaced Afghan women gather to receive free food being distributed by Shiite men at Shahr-e-Naw Park in Kabul on August 13. (AFP/Wakil Kohsar)

Internally displaced Afghan women gather to receive free food being distributed by Shiite men at Shahr-e-Naw Park in Kabul on August 13. (AFP/Wakil Kohsar)

The Taliban have reportedly demanded that families marry off girls aged 15 and above and widows below 40 years of age to their fighters.

As the Taliban overrun larger parts of Afghanistan and plan to take over the entire country in less than a week, fears and concerns mount over safety and rights of women. According to reports, the Taliban has adopted a more hard-lined approach in the newly captured areas even as they claim commitment to provide women their rights.

Reports suggest that the Taliban are going back to their retrograde policies, followed during their rule between 1996 and 2001, in the areas captured now.

The Taliban, in recent years, have said they are committed to providing women their rights and allowing them to work and attend school, provided they do not flout Islamic or Afghan values. However, the Taliban also said they want to limit the freedom gained in recent years by women, which has promoted “immorality” and “indecency”.

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Women During Taliban Rule (1996-2001)

The Taliban had in its five years of rule prohibited women from attending school or leaving home without a male relative. Women, who disobeyed were sometimes killed, Sher Jan Ahmadzai wrote in Asia Times.

During the previous rule, the women were required to cover their bodies and faces in a burqa and those accused of adultery were stoned to death in stadiums. Women were also publicly shamed and beaten if found breaching the rules.

The militants also monitored teachers and their relationships with their aid groups, The Washington Post quoted an educator who had taught under the Taliban rule as saying. However, then they were less coercive.

“The Taliban perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage. Some families resorted to sending their daughters to Pakistan or Iran to protect them," stated a report released in November, 2001 by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Since 1998, girls over the age of eight were prohibited from attending school and homeschool was also rarely tolerated, the report said. Women were even denied proper medical care, thus endangering their health and lives.

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Women Under Taliban: What’s Happening Now?

Forced Marriages to Fighters: Re-imposing their repressive laws, the Taliban have reportedly demanded that families marry off girls aged 15 and above and widows below 40 years of age to their fighters, the WSJ reported. Human rights groups have said it is a form of sexual violence. The Islamist group has, however, denied these reports.

There have also been reports of kidnapping and forcible marriages of teenage girls and young women to Taliban fighters. The reports have been confirmed by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. However, they could not be verified or investigated either by the ministry or the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Public infrastructure has been destroyed and social services halted in many Taliban-controlled areas, leaving 13 million people without public services, the Asia Times quoted the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission as saying.

Displacement of Afghan Women: Several women have fled their homes and taken refuge in Kabul fearing for their lives as the Taliban take over more and more territories. The displaced women mostly end up in camps or find refuge in mosques or homes of strangers.

Horrified of the changing situation, 60-year-old Rahima, who is a mother of seven girls, has taken many young girls and women into her house in west Kabul. “It’s been two weeks that my house is packed full of guests. I have personally experienced displacement so I know what it is like to seek a safe place,” The Guardian quoted her as saying.

The Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations estimates that nearly 70 per cent of the displaced are women and children.

Attacks on Working Women: The Taliban have also forced women to leave their jobs and return to their homes. In one such incident that occurred in early July, Taliban insurgents ordered nine workers at Azizi Bank in the southern city of Kandahar to quit and escorted them to their homes, Reuters reported. Two days later, Taliban fighters admonished women employees at a branch of Bank Milli for showing their faces in public. The women were forced to quit and began sending male relatives in their place.

On the question of allowing women to work in banks, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has said, “After the establishment of the Islamic system, it will be decided according to the law, and God willing, there will be no problems."

Several attacks have been reported against women professionals in journalism, healthcare and law enforcement since peace talks began last year between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government. The government blames most killings on the Taliban, who deny the allegations.

Several educated Afghan women have taken to social media to appeal for global help and express their frustration.

Smartphone Bans: The Taliban have also issued threats against women using smartphones. According to a report by The Washington Post, a teacher in Balkh province said she received a message from the Taliban for lifting her burqa while checking her phone. “We will take you away and nobody can save you,” the militants warned.

As the surveillance has grown, on being seen using a smartphone, girls are questioned if they are in a relationship with some boy, a young woman said.

Call for International Action:

UN High Commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has also called for international action as she voiced concern over the Taliban imposing severe restrictions on human rights, specially targeting women. “People rightly fear that a seizure of power by the Taliban will erase the human rights gains of the past two decades," she said.

“We have received reports that women and girls in various districts under Taliban control are prohibited from leaving their homes without a Mahram, a male chaperone. These restrictions have a serious impact on the rights of women, including the right to health – and clearly, in the midst of a war, the need to access urgent medical care for themselves and their families is a matter of life and death. Hampering a woman’s ability to leave home without a male escort also inevitably leads to a cascade of other violations of the woman’s and her family’s economic and social rights," Bachelet warned.

The UN High Commissioner further cited reports of women having been flogged and beaten in public for breaching the rules and a woman rights activist being killed in Balkh province on August 3. She raised concerns over curbs on freedom of expression and journalism.

Setback to Hard-won Women’s Rights:

Further, a newly declassified US intelligence report suggests that the progress on hard-won women’s rights can be totally hampered even if the Taliban doesn’t take full control, CNN reported. The National Intelligence Council reports see the achievements made on the women’s rights front a result of “external pressure than domestic support, suggesting it would be at risk after coalition withdrawal, even without Taliban efforts to reverse it."

“Although the Taliban’s fall officially ended some policies (restricting the rights of women), many continue in practice even in government-controlled areas," the assessment stated.

“Afghanistan’s progress since the end of Taliban rule toward meeting broadly accepted international standards for the conditions of women has been uneven, reflecting cultural norms and conflict," the report’s authors wrote. The progress was largely centered “in cities and ethnic minority enclaves, where violence is lower and women had more freedom before Taliban rule," they noted.

“Gains are less pronounced in rural areas, where roughly 70 percent of Afghans live," the report stated. “Nationwide, child marriage and stoning for adultery persist, and rape victims are killed by relatives for shaming their families."

Further, the NIC report observed that while the Taliban’s conduct may be marginally moderate in liu of “foreign aid and legitimacy", it is likely that initially, the Taliban may focus on “extending control on its own terms."

Malala Yousafzai: What Taliban Do to Women Who Fight for Rights

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for women’s right to education, was fatally shot by Taliban gunmen in October 2012. Born in Mingora in 1997, Malala began advocating for female education at a very young age of 11. During the Taliban occupation of Swat, Malala had a blog about her life in BBC Urdu and soon caught media attention across the globe.

Then a teenager, she was attacked by Taliban gunmen and was left critical. The Taliban had hijacked her bus and Malala was shot in the head and the neck. After initial treatment in Pakistan, she was sent to the United Kingdom for further recovery. Nine months after being shot, on her 16th birthday, Malala delivered a speech at UN headquarters. Malala was bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17 making her the youngest recipient of the prestigious award.

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first published:August 13, 2021, 17:29 IST