Can the Taliban’s Brazen Assault on Afghan Women Be Stopped?
The audacity of the Taliban’s latest bans on women in public life brings two new factors into play, which may over time lead to change.
The Taliban marked the New Year by doubling down on their severe, ever-growing restrictions on women’s rights. On December 20, they banned women from all universities — adding to their prior ban on girls attending middle and high school. Then the Taliban announced on December 24 that women cannot work for NGOs, including humanitarian organizations that are providing vital food and basic health services to the population that is now projected at 90 percent below the poverty rate. Western and regional governments have responded with uncommonly unified outrage and many humanitarian organizations have suspended their operations until women are allowed to return to their jobs.
USIP’s Andrew Watkins, Kate Bateman, Belquis Ahmadi and Scott Worden explain what may be motivating the Taliban’s misogyny and what are the prospects for moderating it.
The Taliban have been on notice since their March 2022 ban on girls in high school that they would not gain recognition or sanctions relief unless they reversed their restrictions. Why do they continue to make moves that make it even harder for them to gain international legitimacy?
Watkins: The Taliban’s most recent raft of gender-based restrictions is the sharpest shift yet back to the draconian rule the group made notorious in the 1990s.
The Taliban began restricting girls and women in public life from the first days after their takeover. But the current trend accelerated in March 2022, when the group’s supreme leader, or emir, Haibatullah Akhundzada overruled his cabinet’s decision to resume secondary education for girls. In spite of repeated warnings that the continued removal of girls and women from public life would cripple the already-anemic Afghan economy and risk vital foreign assistance, the emir and his hand-picked officials have issued a series of further restrictions ever since.
These bans are part of the ultraconservative vision of an Afghan state that the emir, a circle of influential Taliban clerics and some of their supporters claim that their insurgency was fought for. Early in 2022, the Taliban’s chief justice Abdul Hakim published a quasi-official manuscript outlining the scope of a “proper” Islamic system of government, which included extreme restrictions on women’s role in the public sphere — many of which have since been enacted. These measures also include the re-institution of hudud and qisas punishments (e.g., decapitation for theft, death for capital crimes), and the empowerment of the intelligence service and morality police to further restrict personal freedoms.
The emir and his closest lieutenants are charting this path in the face of near-universal foreign discouragement; the rejection of foreign “interference” has become a policy motivation unto itself. Over the past 18 months, the Taliban’s decision-makers have adopted a narrative that they survived 20 years of war and persecution and triumphed; by comparison, no amount of foreign pressure could ever oblige them to change course.
Doubling down on gender-based restrictions is also a reflection of power politics within the movement, an assertion of authority by the emir over those in the Taliban who might rule differently. Throughout 2022, some regions of the country saw local Taliban flexibility on the girls’ high school ban, rules for strict hijab and other decrees. Media outlets and observers have reported that many within the Taliban’s own ranks disagree with the recent bans and are disturbed by the emir’s isolationist trajectory. Even if true (and accurately surveying Taliban opinions is near impossible), the policy trend has continued unabated, with those in disagreement proving unwilling or unable to change course in any meaningful way. Indeed, the most recent bans should be understood as a consolidation of earlier edicts and obliging compliance with the emir’s vision.
The international community, including regional countries, appears unusually united in denouncing the Taliban’s bans on women in universities and NGO positions. Who has weighed in and will it have any effect?
Bateman: If there is any silver lining to the recent bans, it is that they have revived international attention to the severe humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan, and to the Taliban’s ongoing assaults on the rights of Afghan women and girls. Hours and days after each ban was announced, donor countries, regional states, the U.N., the EU, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and aid organizations condemned the restrictions and called on the Taliban to reverse them. The outcry has been stronger and more widespread than perhaps at any time since the Taliban took power in 2021. The U.N. and OIC are also vigorously pursuing engagements with the Taliban to apply pressure.
The university ban elicited firm rebukes from Western and regional states alike: major donor countries issued a joint statement denouncing the Taliban’s systemic oppression of women and girls, stating that such policies “will have consequences for how our countries engage with the Taliban.” The responses from regional countries — including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Pakistan and Uzbekistan — were less harshly worded and did not threaten reprisals. They did, however, emphasize that denying women access to education is un-Islamic and, like Western states, called on the Taliban to revisit or revoke the decision.
Responding to the restriction against women working in NGOs, major donors, international aid organizations, the U.N., and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are pressuring the Taliban to reverse that policy, as well as the university ban. U.N. envoys and heads of humanitarian aid organizations have met with senior Taliban officials across key ministries to lobby for the removal of the bans, and impress upon the Taliban the dire consequences: already-implemented suspensions of aid, potential aid cut-offs and the dire downstream effects these will have on the Afghan people. U.N. officials are reportedly soon traveling to Kabul to press the Taliban to reverse the bans.
On January 11, the OIC convened an emergency meeting and, on behalf of its 57 member states, issued a communiqué harshly criticizing both the university and NGO bans. The OIC also announced its intention to send a second team of Islamic scholars to Afghanistan “to continue the dialogue with the de facto authority on its measures depriving Afghan girls and women of their basic rights to education, employment and social justice, as these rights constitute a top priority for the Islamic world.”
Will the Taliban bend in response to this pressure campaign? Tragically for the Afghan people, the Taliban’s behavior of the past 17 months suggests this is unlikely, at least in the short term. The Taliban leadership has so far resisted international demands to protect women’s and broader human rights and to govern more inclusively. They appear to place implementation of their hardline vision of Islam — one that majority-Muslim countries insist contradicts fundamental Islamic tenets — over the lives, livelihoods and basic rights of the Afghan people. And yet the stakes are so high, the international community must continue to explore all avenues to influence and persuade Taliban leaders to change course.
What impact will these bans have within Afghanistan?
Ahmadi: Almost every month the Taliban have issued decrees or edicts imposing restrictions on women and girls that violate their very fundamental rights.
The Taliban’s ban on girls’ education is a moral outrage that, if enforced over time, will reinforce what Afghan activists have labeled “gender apartheid” and remove Afghan women from professional and leadership roles — likely the Taliban’s intent. Afghan women have reached out to world leaders, the U.N. and OIC countries calling on them to move beyond condemnations and take viable actions to hold the Taliban responsible for their actions. One such platform is Together Stronger, an online platform that has launched campaigns with the slogan, “All or None.”
In an encouraging show of solidarity, as soon as the university ban was announced, both male professors and university students protested at universities across the country and near 100 faculty resigned from their positions in protest.
University degrees are not widely required for employment in Afghanistan but are necessary for technical jobs that come with higher salaries and greater social status. Economists, engineers, professors and doctors all require university degrees. There is a spiraling logic to a ban on women in universities given the Taliban’s insistence on gender separation in public and workplaces. If there are no women professors, there can be no women students. And if there are no female doctors and other health specialists, one wonders how the health care system will work for half of the country’s population?
The Taliban’s ban on women in NGOs presents a more immediate practical problem. Currently all of Afghanistan’s humanitarian assistance, which is essential to provide lifesaving emergency and humanitarian aid to 28 million people, is delivered through international and national NGOs. The U.N. estimates that half of Afghanistan’ population face acute hunger. Since the December 24 decree banning women’s employment in NGOs, 150 organizations and aid agencies have suspended all or part of their work, the vast majority of whom were delivering humanitarian aid. A U.N. Women survey of 124 such NGOs revealed that over 4,500 female employees were affected, of whom nearly 70 percent are their families’ main breadwinners.
Not only are women essential to these organizations’ operations, by the Taliban’s own decrees women need to receive assistance from other women. So, the ban effectively discriminates against women receiving many types of assistance, violating basic humanitarian principles.
Cutting off humanitarian aid will have real costs for the large segments of the Afghan population — men and women — who rely on it. But the alternative of yielding to Taliban aid delivery rules that are both impractical and discriminatory is unpalatable as well.
Is there a way out?
Worden: The Taliban have demonstrated over the past year and a half that they are unmoved by the standard tools of diplomatic leverage — namely strident diplomatic demarches and economic and individual sanctions. In fact, the religiously motivated hardliners in Kandahar that are issuing restrictive social decrees seem to be perversely incentivized: if the West is against a policy, that means it is right. Even when regional and Muslim majority countries have criticized women’s rights restrictions for being un-Islamic, the Taliban have said they are striving for the purest form of Islamic statehood yet and are not constrained by others’ interpretations of Islam.
The audacity of the latest Taliban bans brings two new forces into play, which may over time lead to change. The most immediate is a decision by most international and Afghan humanitarian international NGOs to suspend their humanitarian assistance work as long as the ban on their female employees remains. The U.N. is also considering whether to suspend some of their operations as well. Since the Taliban took over in August 2021, Afghanistan has received $3 billion in humanitarian aid, providing an essential source of food for more than half the population. All of that is delivered through the U.N. and NGOs rather than the Taliban. Moreover, the value of the Afghan currency and a significant portion of the economy is kept stable by shipments of $40 million per week in cash — a total of $1.8 billion in the last year — that are flown in by the U.N. to pay for the salaries and logistics needed to deliver humanitarian assistance.
While humanitarian principles hold that assistance cannot be conditioned on politics, the fact that a large percentage of these organizations’ staff are women means that work cannot continue without massive disruptions. It remains to be seen whether a reduction in essential services and cash will sway Taliban leadership. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s poor — a vast majority of the population — will bear the pain of such a test of will because starvation and illness will increase if the pause in aid remains in effect over time. Who will blink first is the metric of this terrible dynamic.
The second vector of possible reform comes from within the Taliban. It is clear that a majority of Taliban ministers and diplomats personally disagree with their emir’s reactionary decrees. Many themselves have daughters who are in school outside of Afghanistan. And several surely recognize that neither the Afghan economy nor international credibility will revive unless they govern society with the same basic norms that other Muslim majority nations adhere to. This raises the possibility that at some point powerful Taliban factions outside of the conservative bubble in Kandahar say “enough is enough” and increase pressure from within to moderate restrictions. There is also some hope that the pressure from reducing cash and humanitarian aid will advance that point in the timeline.
One slight bit of good news in a pressure campaign scenario is that the Taliban have based both the university ban and women’s employment with NGOs on an declaration that their strict rules on facial coverings were not being followed and that studies and work must be paused until the risks of violations are reduced. While this is likely a pretext that masks underlying ultra-orthodox religious beliefs, it offers a potential face-saving way out whereby a reversal can be explained by declaring there is now a proper understanding of the headscarf rules rather than being seen to cave into political pressure.