What does the rise of the Taliban mean for women?

The news of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has taken the world by storm. It was announced in mid-August that Afghanistan, or “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as it is now known, had been handed to the authorities of the Taliban after the country’s former president left power. The Taliban first established its governance in Afghanistan way back in September 1996. In the past, the Taliban was infamously known as a religious extremist group that applied its extreme interpretation of the Islamic Sharia law, including strict laws for females who were prevented from going to school and work or leaving the house without a male chaperone. This time, though, the Taliban’s leadership claimed that it would not enforce such harsh conditions on females or citizens at large. Afghanistan has been almost a month under the rule of the Taliban, and we have witnessed some major changes – whether they be good or bad, it is safe to say that the country will is unlikely to return to its previous state.

Currently, Afghanistan is facing a severe humanitarian crisis with food shortages and the absence of an immediate international relief effort. Another issue that has come under scrutiny is the question of women’s rights under the Taliban regime, specifically the uncertainty of education, work, personal freedoms and the choice of clothing for Afghan women.

Before we delve into any controversial issue similar to this, it is essential to remember that in any situation, nothing is ever black-and-white. It is so easy to get caught up in the panic wave and media propaganda that an average person may jump to a conclusion with very little knowledge. There are multiple sides to a story, and it is our responsibility to investigate carefully before deciding on our actions. This article is by no means, a persuasion to take a particular stance. The details and statistics are all available online, and it is up to us as individuals to unite for change.

In the past, it is no secret that women were not allowed to pursue their studies or careers. By 30 September 1996, female employment was banned. Girls were not permitted to be educated after the age of eight, and those seeking to study further were forced to attend secret schools, where they risked execution if caught by the Taliban. Despite female health professionals and humanitarian workers being exempted from the employment ban, many left their jobs by choice due to widespread harassment and fear of the regime. However, according to a Taliban spokesman in a recent interview, he has stated that women “have a right to education and to work so they can hold different positions and jobs right now”, which shows a great contrast from the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s. News has shown that young girls have returned to classrooms and female teachers, doctors and journalists have returned to their respective fields of work. However, in an announcement on 17th September 2021 girls were effectively banned from returning to secondary education when the ‘Taliban education ministry announced that school classes for boys in grades seven to 12 would resume on Saturday’. We also have national activists like Pashtana Durrani who have reported that girls in certain places like Herat and Kandahar were unable to go to their universities and were asked to go to their homes. The Taliban has also announced recently that women in Afghanistan are to study in gender-segregated classrooms only, with this separation applying to both students and teachers. It had initially welcomed female representatives to actively participate in their interim government, but the final decision showed that women will not serve in the new government. Taliban stated that it is like putting “something on her neck that she cannot carry” and that women should instead focus on “birthing and raising children”. This has unsurprisingly received a lot of criticism and protests from women who describe it as “a return to the dark days”. However, on September 11, around 300 women wearing black robes with veils were seen to gather in a University in Kabul, where they held signs in support of the Taliban – namely the gender segregation and clothing rules (although many felt this demonstration was a forced act by the Taliban). Viewing the situation from the outside, it is difficult to have a full understanding of the situation – particularly when reports continuously contradict one another.

Afghan women’s freedom has also become a highly debated matter, especially their clothing. In the 1990s, women over the age of eight were not allowed in the streets without a male relative. They were required to wear a burqa (a long piece of clothing which covers the entire body from the top of the head to the ground) to screen them from the general public. If we compare that to the current times, the rulings on their attire have become more flexible; while full-coverings like burqa are not mandatory, all females are required to observe hijab – which is generally understood to mean covering the whole body except the face and the hands, which is something commonly done by many Muslim women. However, the hijab holds a greater significance than just a piece of cloth. To the Islamic faith, it is a symbol of submission and devotion to God, and an act of modesty for the females. While women are free to dress in clothes of their choice, the Taliban has made it clear that girls are still required to maintain their head covering.

All in all, it is wise to conclude by saying that there are no clear-cut answers to this current situation. Has the Taliban truly changed, or will it return to its barbaric acts of the past? Will women’s rights and interests be better fulfilled by the current regime, or will they be shunned from society? Only time will tell. Any good things the Taliban does must be acknowledged, and the bad things must be condemned and acted upon. Internationally, it is also imperative that we respect the Islamic framework and rulings, but ensure moderation in religion is exercised, which still allows for the country’s growth in safe ways. We hope for a better future for Afghanistan and its people.

Nashat Zaman

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