Today is International Women’s Day, a celebration of the achievements of women. It is also another day of Afghan women and girls living under Taliban rule, fearful of which freedoms will be stripped from them next. For decades, women’s rights in Afghanistan have been a continuing challenge of deadly and far-reaching consequence. After their 2021 takeover, the Taliban have established a diplomatically isolated regime with reactionary policies toward women that violate fundamental human rights. They have issued dozens of edicts targeting girls’ and women’s rights and complicating the delivery of humanitarian aid to the starving population dependent on it. The Taliban’s actions have outraged the international community and transformed Afghanistan into an extreme conservative theocracy.
On this International Women’s Day, let Afghanistan serve as an urgent reminder that the security of women and girls is paramount to the stability and future of all nations. If we are to see Afghanistan survive, it will happen only through the restoration of women’s rights. An attack on our human rights in Afghanistan is a threat to women’s rights everywhere.
Afghanistan’s neighbors China and Iran recently issued statements urging an end to the restrictions on women’s work and girls’ education. There are few issues that China, Iran and the West can agree on, but this is one. No other country in the world bans women and girls from education. Yet in my country, Afghanistan, it has been over a year since girls attended secondary school, and now they are also banned from universities. In Afghanistan, if a woman goes outside, she must cover her face, stay out of most public space and have a male chaperone, or a “mahram,” to escort her at all times.
A harsh winter has worsened a dire situation. Ninety percent of the Afghan population is food insecure and half are without any income, since the Taliban banned women from most forms of employment. On Dec. 24, the Taliban announced new edicts, including a ban on women’s employment in nongovernmental organizations that deliver humanitarian aid in the country. Despite the country’s desperate poverty, the Taliban continue to test Western agencies, risking the suspension of international aid. Without such help, Afghans will suffer and millions are likely to die. This crisis has renewed the international debate: how do you deliver humanitarian aid without condoning the Taliban’s disregard for the rights of women and girls? This is a difficult question on which Afghan women should be consulted closely.
The Taliban claim to have brought peace and safety to Afghanistan after a long, deadly war. But how can peace exist without protections for women and minorities? United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 decisively states the essential role of women in the “prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction.” The post-conflict reconstruction of Afghanistan will need women to succeed and heal from the endless violence inflicted on our country. Having taken over the country a year and a half ago, the Taliban have a responsibility to all Afghans to ensure that everyone is fed, educated and treated with dignity and respect. The exclusion of women and girls will make it impossible for the Taliban to fulfill the responsibility it has claimed.
UN-sanctioned travel bans and eventual political recognition are underestimated tools that the international community can use to encourage the Taliban to reverse their damaging decrees. We need clear, irreversible benchmarks to serve as preconditions to the easing of sanctions. As the former Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs, I know that the Taliban’s vision for restored girls’ education is one that trains women and girls to be subservient. That mentality extends to all walks of life, but it is not a viable path to a peaceful future for the country and the region. Benchmarks must be tied to an acceptance of the international obligation to respect all human rights.
Women who resist the Taliban face harsh punishment, but they have still fearlessly pushed back. Be it on the streets of Kabul, outside a locked classroom or at a podium at the UN, Afghan women are speaking out loud and clear. Today, as we celebrate women, let us remember that the Taliban seek to render us invisible in our own country. But Afghanistan does not have a future without women.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the rights of Afghan women?
Habiba Sarabi is the former governor of Bamyan Province, the first woman to be appointed governor of any Afghan province. She also served as Afghanistan’s Minister for Women’s Affairs. She now serves on the steering committee of the Women’s Forum on Afghanistan.
I believe the men– fathers, brothers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, and male cousins — need to stand up for rights of female family members against this discrimination. These women are not random unknown people. They are family members with minds, thoughts, talents, and aspirations. It seems strange to withhold education from a family member. It seems strange to not allow a family member to contribute to the family (in dire straits). I have no doubt the Afghani women hold a flicker of hope in their hearts, but the flicker needs a bit of support. How can the men of the family stand by and watch the Taliban try to extinguish that flicker?
The misogyny of the Taliban knows no bounds. They have barred international NGOs, including those implementing UN programs, from employing women – thereby severely restricting the NGOs’ ability to provide directly health, education, livelihood training and other vital services to women and girls in Afghanistan. Many NGOs have pulled out or are working “below the radar” with great risk to their women employees and themselves, while some have caved in to the Taliban pressure. UN seems coy to say much in public. Can Passblue find out what is happening? It is a life and death issue for Afghan women who need international assistance and their Afghan sisters who are ready to help them.
Powerful article! There needs to be a coordinated international policy response that explicitly penalises the Taliban leaders who have made the decisions depriving women and girls of their most basic rights.