Why persecution of women in Afghanistan?

Harsh punishments like lashes and amputation of fingers and hands will further isolate the Taliban regime

Dr Moonis Ahmar December 04, 2022
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at amoons@hotmail.com

Following the barring of female students to enter Badakshan University on October 30 and the use of force against them by the Taliban moral police, the international community is constantly raising its voice against the persecution of Afghan women since Afghanistan’s takeover by Taliban in August last year.

On November 26, a panel of UN human rights experts in their report lamented: “Afghanistan’s de facto Taliban rulers had deepened flagrant violations of basic rights of Afghan women and girls … Already the most draconian globally, such violations may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity.” The Taliban retaliated by warning human rights organisations and western governments not to criticise the award of ‘Islamic punishments’ to those involved in heinous crimes. But the way the Taliban regime has violated the Doha Accord of February 2020 in which they pledged to adhere to human rights, particularly those related to women, reflects growing gender repression in the name of religion.

It is not for the first time that women are heavily persecuted in Afghanistan. During Taliban’s first regime (1996-2001), harsh restrictions were imposed on women who were deprived of seeking education and employment. Yet, Taliban failed to learn from their past blunders, particularly on persecution of women and minorities. Now, this is not 1996 but 2022, and a new generation of Afghans — who had enjoyed a sort of freedom during pro-American regimes of Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani after December 2001 — has grown up and is not ready to tolerate the repressive and oppressive policies of Taliban any more.

How the Afghan women who are almost half of their country’s population are reacting to the usurpation of their freedom and what is their future if the Taliban regime continues to treat them as second-class citizens? Protest demonstrations by Afghan girls and women against deprivation of their right to education, employment and travel-alone continue. Media trying to cover such events is harshly dealt with — a fact also narrated in the UN human rights report. Gradually, resentment against the Taliban policies not just against women but also non-conformist men is spreading all over Afghanistan. The UN human rights report states: “Confining women to their homes is tantamount to imprisonment and is likely leading to increased levels of domestic violence and mental health challenges.” Furthermore, restraining Afghan women to their homes is destroying their personalities and leading to psychological disorder because after 20 years of relative freedom between 2002 and 2021, they face an abnormal situation under the Taliban regime.

The UN report expresses anguish: “We are deeply concerned that by punishing male relatives for the purported offences of women, the Taliban were forcing Afghan women and girls to stay indoors; and by encouraging men and boys to control the behavior, attire and movement of women and girls in their circles, the Taliban were instrumentalizing one gender against another.” As a result, growing frustration, anger and antagonism in a major segment of Afghan society — composed of women and also men — tend to augment large-scale opposition against the repressive Taliban rule.

Consequently, harsh punishments like lashes and amputation of fingers and hands will further isolate the Taliban regime. When the Taliban regime lacks legitimacy at the international level, it has much to do with their failure to fulfil their obligations made as part of the Doha Accord. Taliban’s medieval-era oppressive mode of governance will only add to the growing violence in the country, particularly when there are reports that jihadi and terrorist organisations are getting more and more space in Afghanistan. The manner in which al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was found and targeted in Afghanistan few months ago is a case in point.

Tormenting the lives of Afghan women under the cover of religion needs to be analysed from two angles.

One, there is no impact of international rejection and criticism on the Taliban whose persecution of women, particularly girl students, continues. The sense of deprivation among the female population is deepening, but there is no change in the Taliban’s medieval type mindset. Same approach was pursued by their predecessors during 1996-2001 and their indifference had led to the US-led attack and occupation of their country. When female students of Badakshan University were whipped by morality police in late October “for not taking hijab properly”, the message given by the Taliban regime to the world was clear: they don’t care about legitimacy, sanctions or any kind of punishment over abuse of women.

Two, a large number of non-conformists left Afghanistan when their country was taken over by Taliban on August 15, 2021. Now, it is the Afghan diaspora which is catalysing protest marches and demonstrations against the repressive treatment of women. Pressure exerted from outside is expected to help compel the Taliban regime to amend their primitive and orthodox policies against women in Afghanistan. When 11 human rights observers called on Taliban to abide by international commitments and allow the rights of girls and women to education, employment and participation in public and cultural life, including lifting ban on visiting parks, it means non-compliance by the Taliban regime would cause more harm to Afghanistan and augment isolation of the conflict-ridden country.

Through the UN report released by the panel of human rights experts in New York, the message given to the Taliban regime is loud and clear: Afghan women must be liberated from the clutches of discrimination and gender persecution. Whether the Taliban regime will take steps suggested in the UN report to “investigate and prosecute those responsible in Afghanistan for gender persecution in appropriate international and extra-territorial jurisdiction” remains to be seen. But the Taliban rulers don’t take any notice of international condemnation of human rights violations in their country as their inward and parochial approach about the world rejects any scope of reform. For how long will the Taliban’s care-a-damn attitude vis-à-vis international sanctions, isolation and condemnation continue depends on their capability to suppress popular dissent.

The plight of Afghan women will certainly have its ramifications on Pakistan. The ultra-religious mindset trying to usurp the freedom of Pakistani women got an impetus with the takeover of Taliban in Afghanistan. Therefore, Islamabad must not give legitimacy to the Taliban regime in Kabul.


Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2022.

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