No Place for Celebration

"We would get help from the Taliban," President Biden claimed on June 30, 2023, in defense of his decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. This statement was made in response to a question about the State Department’s declassified version of the After Action report that sharply criticizes both him and President Trump for their decisions regarding the end of the military mission in the country. Reiterating his belief that "Al-Qaida would not be present there," he urged the journalist to “read your press.” Despite his confidence, the press continues to report alarming stories from Afghanistan.

One such story was reported on July 31, 2022, when a U.S. drone attack hit Al-Qaida leader Al-Zawahiri in Kabul, where he was residing as a guest of the Taliban. The incident took place near the now-closed U.S. embassy.

The United Nations Security Council's Sanction Monitoring team has found that the Taliban maintains strong and symbiotic links with both Al-Qaida and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This and the fact that various terrorist groups have gained increased freedom of movement in the country has been widely reported in the media. Moreover, news outlets regularly highlight the ongoing erosion of rights and freedoms in Afghanistan, particularly for women, as well as the extrajudicial killings of former government officials and those who supported the U.S. military and civilians throughout the two decades.

On July 1, the media reported on yet another oppressive rule imposed by the Taliban leader Sheikh Haibatullah. This new rule banned beauty salons, eliminating one of the last sanctuaries for Afghan women. As a result, women face further limitations on their ability to experience life outside their homes and earn a living.

Nearly two years have passed since U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan as the Taliban recaptured the country. Unfortunately, there is no cause for celebration, especially for Afghan women, due to the outcomes of the Doha withdrawal deal and the subsequent withdrawal decisions. Shaista[1], a young police officer and the sole breadwinner for her family of five, represents one of the over 19 million Afghan women who are now confined to their homes. Despite her courageous fight for her rights, regularly participating in street demonstrations, and running a secret girls' school at home, she feels abandoned. Fatima, one of Shaista’s colleagues, said, "Unfortunately, I can no longer work outside. I am confined to my home, my only role being household chores. I am like a ghost, erased from the outside world." Many women and girls are now grappling with growing mental health issues and a sense of helplessness. One girl even expressed a wish that “God had never created women”.

The systematic violence against women and the shrinking civic space in Afghanistan present a dire situation. According to Richard Bennett, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, women and girls in Afghanistan are facing severe discrimination that may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity. The de facto authorities appear to govern through systemic discrimination, intending to place women and girls under complete subjugation. Bennett’s report, presented to the UN Human Rights Council on June 19, 2023, further highlights these distressing findings.

Prominent international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also documented the profound impact of the egregious and systematic violations on the lives and well-being of Afghan women. Afghan media in the diaspora, alongside courageous journalists on the ground, report daily on the increasing suppression of the population, particularly women, under the Taliban's de facto authority.

In solidarity with Afghan women's groups and civil society activists, these institutions assert that the Taliban's treatment of women constitutes "gender apartheid."

The baseline

In 2021, Afghan women accounted for 29.39% of the country's four hundred thousand civil servants. This percentage is close to the average representation of women (43%)  in the public sector in South and Southeast Asian countries, which is three times higher than in Pakistan. Before the collapse of the Afghan republic, female MPs occupied 27% of the seats in parliament. Women’s leadership in the public sector, including the military, stood at 10%. Historically, most of the restrictions against women in Afghanistan were never universally accepted or considered Islamic. Constitutional changes in Afghanistan since 1919 consistently preserved the rights and freedoms of Afghan women, with a robust bill of rights chapter. Afghan women were granted the right to vote in 1919 and gained the constitutional right to enter elected politics in 1964. Afghan women have been cabinet ministers since 1964.[2] Prior to the Soviet invasion, even rural Afghan communities had fewer traditional restrictions for women to be authoritative.

The Taliban's Oppression: A Systematic Suppression of Rights

Since assuming power on August 15, 2021, the Taliban has implemented 86 edicts, decrees, instructions, and new rules that profoundly affect all aspects of Afghan women's lives in society. These restrictions cover education, healthcare, employment, economic opportunities, media presence, and access to justice. The enforcement mechanisms, such as the Ministry of Virtue and Vice, and the systematic nature of these policies and practices aim to eradicate women from society entirely and diminish their role in the public life of the country.

These alarming measures demonstrate the Taliban's relentless efforts to suppress and control women.

Gender Apartheid: Understanding the Concept

There is a striking resemblance between the Taliban's treatment of women in Afghanistan and the actions and policies of the apartheid regime in South Africa. A comparative analysis reveals that both systems aimed to maintain domination and control over specific groups based on gender or race. The Taliban's deliberate efforts to subjugate and marginalize Afghan women mirror the apartheid regime's intent to enforce racial superiority. Additionally, both the Taliban and the apartheid regime created contexts of systematic oppression.

While the term "gender apartheid" may not be explicitly defined in international law, the policies and actions of the Taliban align with all the elements that define the crime of apartheid as a crime against humanity. These elements are outlined in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. To understand the severity of the situation, we must objectively interpret at least three key elements of apartheid.

Firstly, the intent to maintain domination is evident in the Taliban's deliberate and sustained efforts to subjugate and marginalize Afghan women. They restrict women's mobility, education, and work opportunities in order to maintain patriarchal control and enforce a gender hierarchy that suppresses women's agency and independence.

Secondly, the context of systematic oppression is vividly present in the Taliban's policies and practices. These measures curtail women's access to education, healthcare, and participation in public life. The Taliban's rigid interpretation of Sharia law perpetuates a deeply entrenched system of gender-based discrimination, depriving women of their basic rights and freedoms.

Lastly, inhumane acts exemplify the Taliban's brutality and the suffering endured by Afghan women.[3]  Public punishments such as flogging and executions are used as tools of intimidation and control. Testimonies from Afghan women reveal harrowing accounts of physical and psychological violence, forced marriages, sexual assault, and arbitrary imprisonment of women's rights activists. The UN report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan this May recorded 332 acts of public punishment including flogging and other corporal punishments of women and men by the Taliban in six months. These acts not only violate fundamental human rights but also foster a climate of fear and subjugation.

The way forward: Empowering Afghan women

The rejection of the Taliban's policy against women as "un-Islamic" has gained widespread support from the Islamic world, including major institutions with the highest religious authorities like Al Azhar and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Hissein Brahim Taha, the head of the OIC, called on all Islamic scholars to form a unified position against the Taliban’s ban on women. Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh, the Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates, expressed it fittingly, stating, "We must reject the exploitation and distortion of religion or culture as an excuse to deprive women and girls in Afghanistan of their basic rights. There is no religious basis for this in Afghanistan or indeed in Islam. In fact, the opposite is true."

While full gender equality remains elusive in Muslim countries, considerable progress has been made in other places, in contrast to the regression in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has five female ambassadors, including the ambassador to the U.S. In May of this year, the kingdom sent its first female astronaut, Rayyanah Barnawi, to the International Space Station. Nowhere in the Islamic world—except Afghanistan—are girls banned from school or universities. In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where the majority of the population are Muslim, over 52% of civil servants are women, and women are nowhere confined to the home, as they are in Afghanistan. The problem is not Islam; it is the Taliban.

Afghans understand that it is not the responsibility of other countries to protect and defend their rights and freedom. While Afghanistan lacks a figure like Nelson Mandela now, a large number of Afghan activists, both women and men, are fighting daily against systematic suppression. Activists like Nargis Sadat, who leads the Strong Afghan Women movement, music activist Musa Shaheen, and education campaigner and civil society leader Matulah Wesa are just a few examples of individuals who are currently enduring imprisonment and torture and have been left without access to lawyers and family visitation for months. Their bravery inspires many more Afghan men and women to stand up against the Taliban, refusing to let their dreams for a better future be shattered.

In a powerful show of solidarity, a group of female foreign ministers has recently stepped forward for the third time to stand with Afghan women and civil society. However, the gravity of the situation demands even stronger voices from human rights advocates and leaders, both men and women. Ambassador Samantha Power, with her distinguished record of Human Rights advocacy, could bring significant attention to the recognition of gender apartheid as a crime. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, Zainah Anwar, the Muslim feminist from Sisters of Islam, former First Lady Laura Bush, a long-time advocate of Afghan women’s rights, Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia, Najla Bouden, the Prime Minister of Tunisia, Retno Marsudi, Indonesian foreign minister and others should join in the call for action and accountability alongside Afghan women and Special Representative Rina Amiri. Together, they could lend their influential voices to the cause, amplifying the urgency and importance of addressing the dire situation in Afghanistan and demanding the recognition of gender apartheid as a crime against humanity.

The United States, with its professed commitment to human rights, freedom, and democracy, bears a moral responsibility to stand up against gender persecution in Afghanistan. President Biden has repeatedly emphasized human rights as a central focus of his foreign policy priorities, with his administration emphasizing the promotion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in U.S. engagement with the world. These commitments should not remain mere statements of condemnation; they demand decisive action.

While some will argue that engaging with the Taliban and establishing a field presence in Afghanistan would be in the interest of the United States, lessons learned from dealing with the Taliban in the past should guide any assumptions about a "changed Taliban." The administration must not allow the gender apartheid regime of the Taliban to become a new normal for the U.S. or the rest of the world.

Shifting power dynamics and rising global challenges, including the war in Ukraine, may tempt policymakers to be pragmatic and prioritize other concerns over human rights issues. However, if Aysha, a 16-year-old girl, who lost her father while fighting alongside U.S. forces in Wardak province, can brave the brutality of the Taliban and take a stand on the street to demand the right to education, then the United States should not shy away from utilizing its legal, diplomatic, and other foreign policy tools and leverage to stand with Afghan women. Leading by values has historically been a key element of American moral authority globally and has made it a natural partner for those who were fighting for a better, freer, and more equal country for their people. The United States has the capability to be that beacon of hope again.


[1] For security reasons, only one name or pseudonyms are used to refer to these women.  

[2] The first woman Minister was in the health department, Dr. Kubra Noorzai elected to the Parliament along with three other women in 1964.

[3] The Rome Statute defines apartheid in Article 7, paragraph 2(h) as: “inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

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