As the Taliban Curbs Women’s Rights, Advocates Demand Action Favorite 


Feb 15 2023



In December – as many around the globe were preparing for the holidays – Sama, a former attorney, remained hunkered down in her house in Kabul, Afghanistan, trying to comprehend how her world had changed.

The Taliban had just released a series of edicts robbing Afghan women of more of their hard-won freedoms. They suspended women’s higher education, ended school for girls above 6th grade, and banned women from working in local and international nongovernmental organizations.

“We were not shocked,” says Sama, who cannot use her real name due to safety concerns. “Day by day, they restrict our freedoms.” Eventually, she jokes darkly, “they may announce that women should stop breathing.”

The recent moves marked an acceleration of the Taliban’s crackdown on women, which began shortly after it took control of the country in 2021, following the abrupt summer departure of U.S. forces. Even before the latest restrictions, women couldn’t leave the house without male guardians, visit parks or gyms, or be in public without covering their entire bodies. Human rights groups say women who protest the moves, or who defy them, find themselves facing abuse, detention, enforced disappearance and torture at the hands of the Taliban.

“My life was 100% changed when the Taliban took over,” Sama says through a translator. “I was able to go to work and support my family. Now I am a housewife. I'm just sitting at home and doing nothing because we are not allowed to go and work or take part in society. … All of my plans and goals remain as a dream, and I am hopeless.”

Experts and advocates are divided on what, if anything, the international community can do to force the Taliban to abandon its restrictions on women and girls.

Humaira Rasuli, a former human rights lawyer in Afghanistan who fled to the U.S. following the collapse of the government, admits the international community finds itself with two less-than-ideal strategies: It can either double-down on penalties, which could isolate the Taliban and make meaningful discussions impossible, or it could engage with the group, which risks granting it the political legitimacy it clearly wants, she says.

“They are now taking the latter position,” she says of the U.S. and its allies.

Regardless of which strategy is best, advocates for Afghan women are largely united on one point: After 20 years of involvement in the country, during which women’s rights were championed and expanded, the international community – and the United States in particular – has a moral obligation to ensure those freedoms don’t disappear.

“All the countries who contributed extensively to the progress on women's rights in Afghanistan have a huge, huge responsibility for their protection,” says Zaman Sultani, a South Asia researcher at human rights group Amnesty International, who emphasized that he is not commenting as an official spokesperson for the organization. “The way they left …it definitely wasn’t responsible.”

When the U.S. negotiated the terms of its troop withdrawal with the Taliban, it made no requirement that the group ensure the rights of women, notes Kate Bateman, a senior expert on Afghanistan at the nonpartisan United States Institute of Peace, or USIP.

"We abandoned women and girls in that moment,” she says. “We treated it as an issue for Afghans to resolve for themselves. The U.S. might have been able to produce a better outcome if we'd been patient enough to work toward a comprehensive peace agreement between the Taliban and former Afghan government. But now, the reality is we don’t have much leverage.”

While Bateman says the U.S. must find a way to help Afghan women and girls, she recalls a phrase she once heard from a colleague: “You can’t lose a war and expect the country to look like you won.”

Others argue there’s plenty more pressure that could be put on the Taliban, which might lead to meaningful change. While Taliban leaders have faced an array of penalties dating back to even before the U.S. withdrew its forces, including asset freezes, arms embargoes and a U.N.-issued travel ban, some advocates for Afghan women say those restrictions don’t go far enough and aren’t sufficiently enforced.

Amanah Nashenas, 45-year-old an Afghan teacher, collects books in a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. The country's Taliban rulers earlier this week ordered women nationwide to stop attending private and public universities effective immediately and until further notice. They have banned girls from middle school and high school, barred women from most fields of employment and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. Women are also banned from parks and gyms. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A teacher collects books at a Kabul school in December following the Taliban's ban on women students attending universities.(EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AP)
“I would put measures in place to enforce the [existing] travel ban,” says Belquis Ahmadi, another Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who noted her opinions may differ from her organization’s. “The Taliban still travel here and there. Countries still invite them, especially Uzbekistan and Turkey. But that U.N. resolution was meant for a purpose, and if countries aren’t respecting the United Nations Security Council's decision, then there have to be implications for those countries.”

She also suggests freezing all of the Taliban’s assets outside of Afghanistan, closing their political office in Doha, Qatar, which was founded so the international community could engage with the Taliban on peace talks, and cracking down on Taliban supporters living outside of Afghanistan.

“There should be implications for those sitting in Europe, the U.S. and other countries promoting the Taliban ideology through social media,” Belquis says.

Advocates for Afghan women are also calling on the international community to speak with a unified – and assertive – voice when it comes to the Taliban’s crackdown on women.

“The U.N. should be doing more than it’s doing right now,” says Habiba Ashna Marhoon, co-founder of Together Stronger, an international online platform advocating for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. “The low level of engagement created by the U.N. is hurting our cause. We do expect the U.N. to speak louder, to be more bold in its press releases and language.”

Marhoon argues that Muslim-majority countries also need to take a stronger stance on the Taliban’s actions.

“There needs to be some sort of understanding between Muslim countries that the Taliban are not good for Afghanistan, and they are not good for Islam in general,” Marhoon says. “The face of Islam that the Taliban are showing to the world – it’s actually hurting Islam.”

Another way to curb the Taliban’s influence, some suggest, is by limiting or more closely controlling the aid making its way into Afghanistan.

[ READ: Report: LGBT Afghans Targeted by Taliban ]
Currently, all of the humanitarian assistance going to Afghanistan is administered by international and national nongovernmental organizations, according to USIP. When the Taliban issued its latest order forbidding women from working at NGOs, the institute says about 4,500 women workers were affected, of whom almost 70% were the main breadwinners in their families.

Some aid groups have already cut off their humanitarian operations, arguing the recent ban makes it impossible to distribute assistance because of staffing shortages. But some advocates are calling for a more coordinated, internationally-led drawback of aid, arguing it would send a strong message to the Taliban that its recent moves will not be tolerated. Others believe the current aid being sent to the country needs to be more closely monitored.

“The aid money that's going to Afghanistan is ending up in the pockets of the Taliban, rather than the people of Afghanistan,” Marhoon says, echoing concerns by others that the Taliban is misappropriating aid. “I don't want the humanitarian aid to end, but I also want some sort of accountability and transparency.”

If aid were to end, or to be scaled back significantly, some argue the consequences would be counterproductive.

“It would hurt the Afghan people and private sector more than it would hurt the Taliban leadership,” Bateman says. “And it's unlikely to induce a change in behavior.”

Even if the Taliban are unmoved by additional penalties, some argue other tools could be used to drive change.

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Some aid groups have already cut off their humanitarian operations, arguing the recent ban makes it impossible to distribute assistance because of staffing shortages. But some advocates are calling for a more coordinated, internationally-led drawback of aid, arguing it would send a strong message to the Taliban that its recent moves will not be tolerated. Others believe the current aid being sent to the country needs to be more closely monitored. Americans are seeking out Afghan refugees to help them in any way possible