Afghan gender apartheid

Taliban deny allegations of suppression of women rights arguing that they only follow Islamic principles

Dr Moonis Ahmar May 07, 2024
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at


After almost four years after Afghanistan’s takeover by Taliban, there is no qualitative change in the status of women in Afghanistan. In a UN meeting held on April 29, there was widespread criticism of Taliban’s gender policy that features barring women and girls from studying at schools and universities; preventing women from working in aid agencies and visiting public parks and government offices; and restricting them from travel if not accompanied by a male guardian. Thus the Taliban regime is not recognised and legitimised by the majority of UN member states.

Taliban deny allegations of suppression of women rights arguing that they only follow Islamic principles. Since August 15, 2021 when the Taliban took control over Kabul, there is lot of propaganda from their side about building network of roads and infrastructure so as to dispel the notion of negative transformation of Afghanistan. Ironically, despite knowing that the Taliban regime has imposed a dictatorial rule and suppressed the fundamental rights of people, countries like China, India, Pakistan and Russia are expanding their cooperation with Kabul. As a result, the confidence of Taliban regime, despite international criticism, is growing with each passing day.

The Taliban control the whole of Afghanistan and do not either face any external or internal threat, like the Northern Alliance in the past. Even then, the Taliban regime feels insecure particularly from non-conformists and women population. By not granting girls and women equal status, the Taliban regime has led to gender apartheid in Afghanistan.

According to a report, “Taliban restrictions on women’s rights deepens Afghanistan crisis”, published on February 23, 2023 by International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels based organisation: “Upon returning to power in 2021, the Taliban installed one of the world’s most regressive governments, especially with regard to women’s rights. The new regime in Kabul started imposing even stricter rules on women in the final weeks of 2022, with a pair of heavy-handed rulings banning them from studying in universities and working for NGOs. In response, many aid organizations paused their operations, sparking fears of greater misery as horrified Western donors threatened to cut aid and impose further isolation on Afghanistan’s beleaguered economy.”

The report further says: “Girls and women started losing freedoms from the first days of the Taliban takeover in August 2021. At least partly in response, Western countries isolated the new regime, cutting development aid, freezing assets and maintaining sanctions. These measures contributed to a 20 per cent contraction in Afghanistan’s economy in a matter of months, which in turn led to unprecedented hunger throughout the country and a plunge into poverty for millions.”

According to Doha Agreement of February 2020, Taliban delegation pledged to follow an inclusive exclusive mode of governance which also meant granting equal rights to women. But after coming to power in August 2021, Taliban reneged on their commitment and began to follow apartheid like policy based on gender discrimination. For instance, “on 20 December 2022, the Ministry of Higher Education issued a written order to public and private universities, suspending female education until further notice. An unusual concentration of armed Taliban stood at checkpoints set up around universities, confronting female students and teachers at campus gates. Male students were ushered inside while women were told, at gunpoint, that they could no longer attend. Male and female students protested in several cities, but the Taliban dispersed them with water cannons, beatings and arrests.” Periodic demonstrations by female organisations in Kabul and elsewhere against harsh restrictions failed to have any cogent impact on the Taliban regime.

The gender apartheid in Afghanistan needs to be analysed from three angles.

First is the tribal and ultra-religious characteristics of Afghan society which has no proper scope for enlightenment and moderation. Despite past efforts to modernise Afghanistan and liberate its women population after the Saur revolution of April 1978 and the overthrow of Taliban regime in October 2001, the country is back to square one. It is in the hands of those who do not believe in democracy, constitution, political pluralism and inclusive mode of governance. Thus, unless there is structural changes in the Afghan mindset — based on enlightenment, moderation, tolerance and political pluralism — the country will not come out of the web of orthodoxy. According to an Amnesty International Report 2023, “Amid a deteriorating humanitarian crisis and economic upheavals, people in Afghanistan suffered extreme repression and human rights violations. The Taliban placed increasing restrictions on women and girls, apparently aimed at erasing them completely from public arenas. There were international calls to investigate this gender persecution as a crime against humanity. Freedom of expression was eroded, and those peacefully expressing views critical of the Taliban faced enforced disappearance, unlawful detention, arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment. The culture of impunity continued, including for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Freedom of religion shrank further under Taliban rule. Ethnic groups, including religious minorities, faced increasing marginalization, prejudice and forced evictions. The Taliban enforced public executions and corporal punishment such as stoning and flogging.” Despite widespread international criticism, the Taliban regime is adamant and rejects external pressure referring to gender apartheid.

Second, the role of various countries trying to placate Taliban’s severe violation of human rights for safeguarding their economic interest is lamentable. But for Russia and China, it doesn’t matter if the Taliban regime is undemocratic or pursues a policy of gender apartheid as long as their economic interests are served. Giving legitimacy to a regime which has a poor record of human rights means patronising elements known for their repressive past and cruel present. Given their consistent past and present, one cannot expect a change in their mindset as regards gender discrimination.

Third, the absence of proper resistance emboldens the Taliban regime. The so-called National Resistance Front, unlike the Northern Alliance during the first Taliban rule, is unable to give a tough time to those who rule Kabul today.

All in all, gender apartheid in Afghanistan will further deepen unless the world community and NRF augment their drive against the exclusive Taliban regime, compelling it to implement terms and conditions of Doha Accord.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2024.

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