America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves women’s rights in jeopardy

With the withdrawal of American troops and the evacuation of Western allies out of Afghanistan, the Taliban is back in control of Kabul. And, already, a target has been placed on the back of every woman in the country. Although the Taliban promised a more “inclusive government,” under the confines of Sharia, this pledge was not backed by any real action and will likely never be realized. 

The new government of the Islamic Emirate is made up of several hold-outs from the repressive regime that controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. 

Acting Minister of the Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani has a $10 million bounty set by the FBI and is involved with the Haqqani Network, a designated foreign terrorist organization known for an assassination attempt on the previous Afghan president in 2008. Haqqani is known for utilizing violent tactics like death squads and mass beheadings. Additionally, Mohammad Hasan Akhund, the new head of government, was previously foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Taliban founder Mullah Omar, which earned him a place on the United Nations’ sanctions list. Finally, the Ministers of Borders and Tribal Affairs, Mullah Fazl and Mullah Norullah Noor, helped carry out a massacre of thousands of Shiites under previous Taliban rule.

These examples are meant to be frightening. The individuals, who will serve in the new interim government, are a haunting reflection of the Taliban rule that was devastating and oppressive to so many in the past. Under the previous regime, where these individuals were in power, women accused of adultery were fatally shot in the streets, girls were barred from school and women were not allowed to work. Women were also not allowed to leave their homes without a male accompaniment — restricting freedom of movement and bodily autonomy.

In spite of making promises that life would not return to the grim reality Afghanistan once faced, there have already been disastrous strides in the direction and away from the life and freedoms that Afghan women experienced over the course of the last twenty years of American involvement. 

The day after the interim government was announced, the Taliban identified new rules for women and their schooling. Since the Taliban toppled Kabul on August 15, women have been banned from playing sports because of concerns over appropriate dress. Women in school must wear an abaya (a veil covering their whole body) or a niqab (a veil only showing their eyes). Additionally, the Taliban’s rise to power means the end of mixed gender classes in universities across the country; in classrooms, there will only be female teachers for women and male teachers for men. These drastic changes are also seen throughout commercial life. The faces of women in murals, paintings and advertisements have been blacked out and replaced with plain black and white slogans. And throughout the country, Afghan cities have witnessed an almost overnight disappearance of women from the streets with the return of the male accompaniment rule, or mahram

Any demonstrations against these rules are forbidden, unless authorized by the interim government in advance. Women have neither a formal role in decision making nor an opportunity to safely participate in formal protests. On Sept. 4, 100 women staged a protest to call for more humane treatment from the Taliban, but security forces violently broke up the demonstration and beat at least 10 protestors.  

According to international law, the Taliban government is obligated to uphold the right to peaceful protest and to uphold the rights of women. However, the government decided that it will only respect international law when it is not in conflict with “traditional Islamic values.” Conveniently, the Taliban government never discloses what those values might be or how international law might even be upheld. 

Thus, many are looking to major actors like the United States and other Western allies to put pressure on the new Taliban government to protect the rights of women. Previously, the Afghan government received some 80% of its funding from Western donors. The Afghan economy is teetering on the edge of a full-scale collapse, a situation that will result in millions of people becoming internally displaced or having no food or money to provide for themselves. Aid is critical to help the Afghan people. And perhaps as a condition for this assistance, the international community must tie aid to the implementation of human rights principles.

If aid were tied to conditions that would require improvements for women, the Taliban would be forced first-hand to address the inadequacies of their regime in promoting equal rights to men and women. The Taliban will continue to be dependent on aid to support the basic survival of the state, thus the conditions would have to be met. However, tying incredibly necessary aid to conditions that go against basic principles that are guiding Taliban decision making could be dangerous. Aid from outside sources will sustain the already fragile quality of life for millions of Afghans. If the Taliban refuse to meet conditions of better protecting women’s rights, the quality of life would shatter, potentially spelling disaster, famine, and panic for the country. 

For this reason, conditional aid needs to be nuanced and gradual. It needs to put enough pressure on the government to improve the situation but not too much pressure to the point where the Taliban refuses cooperation. Regardless, conditional aid is a major player in the way the international community can move forward in protecting women in Afghanistan.  

Women do not have a voice for themselves under the new regime that has a frightening track record of decades of horrific oppression. It is the responsibility of international actors, whether it be states, corporations, international organizations, or individuals, to be the voice for these women before it is too late. 

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