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.