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New Taliban, same old misogynistic policies
Sitara Srinivas, ORF
2023-01-09
Region : Afghanistan, Central Asia,
Issue : Security, Politics,
The Taliban are reverting to their old habits as restrictions on women continue to escalate
In its gradual efforts to restrict female participation in Afghan society and public life, the Taliban in late December banned female employees from working at international organisations, stating that “all female employees who are working in their respective departments should stop their work until further notice”. This, the Taliban claimed was because female aid workers had broken dress codes by not wearing the hijab. This announcement comes on the heels of the recent ban on Afghan women from attending university –having suspended secondary education for girls earlier on.
Beyond the impact on the delivery of lifesaving assistance, this will affect thousands of jobs amid an enormous economic crisis.
Consequently, at least six international and national organisations suspended humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, with three—Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and CARE putting out a joint announcement that “We cannot effectively reach children, women, and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff. Without women driving our response, we would not have jointly reached millions of Afghans in need since August 2021. Beyond the impact on the delivery of lifesaving assistance, this will affect thousands of jobs amid an enormous economic crisis. Whilst we gain clarity on this announcement, we are suspending our programmes, demanding that men and women can equally continue our lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan.” Three other organisations—the International Rescue Committee, Afghan Aid, and the United Nations (including its various agencies) put out similar but independent statements.
Like many previous suspensions, it can be argued that the wording has been deliberately kept vague, to allow the Taliban the benefit of interpretation. Two key ambiguities exist—first, whether the ban applies to only Afghan women or all women in Afghanistan (as previous similar bans applied only to Afghan women). Second, there also seems to exist a lack of clarity within the various ministries of the Taliban, with the Ministry of Economy stating that they would cancel work permits of any agencies in violation of the new policy, but the Ministry of Health telling the United Nations that women could continue to work in health-related services.
The suspension of humanitarian assistance would not just aggravate the problem at large, but even if work were to continue sans female aid workers, a significant part of Afghan society would remain impoverished.
As severe winter engulfs Afghanistan and a humanitarian crisis continues to exacerbate since the August 2021 withdrawal of the United States (US) troops; the timing of the ban and consequential suspension could not be more unfortunate. The Afghan economy contracted by 20.7 percent in 2021—leading to a drop in public spending, an increase in food insecurity and widespread deprivation at large. The suspension of humanitarian assistance would not just aggravate the problem at large, but even if work were to continue sans female aid workers, a significant part of Afghan society would remain impoverished. In highly conservative societies such as Afghanistan, often women and children only feel comfortable speaking to or working with other women, especially when it comes to medical conditions. Taliban rules also do not allow men to work with women, and orthodox Islamic law disallows men and women from engaging with each other unless related. For many female aid workers, these jobs also offered a crucial level of financial and societal security, including a space to use their skills, to earn (in many cases often as the only breadwinner in the household) and in times of great uncertainty, a constantAfghanistan’s women and children were perhaps the greatest victims of the policy of the first Taliban period in Afghanistan. Women in pre-Taliban Afghan society enjoyed equality and the right to vote, with many working as schoolteachers, government workers, and doctors. Unfortunately, once the Taliban came to power in the mid 1995’s, these rights were taken away, citing the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. Girls only had access to schools till eight years of age; any female had less than basic access to healthcare (including the fact that doctors—male doctors since women couldn’t work—were only allowed to run a medical examination on fully clothed women). Windows in houses were painted over, and a thick full body veil was mandated. The female movement was allowed only with male guardianship. Punishment was severe – including public flogging, rape and sexual assault, and the death penalty for violations of these rules.
Denied education, employment, or even access to public spaces, several generations of Afghan women grew up quite literally behind a purdah, as the world developed around them. Educational rates improved in the period between the two Taliban regimes, with UNESCO data recording a twenty-fold increase in the rate of female attendance in higher education. During that period, although there was limited funding for development, institutional corruption, and security was prioritised over development by the government —it was still a better off than the present Afghanistan.
Once the Taliban came to power in the mid 1995’s, these rights were taken away, citing the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.
Just as an entire generation of Afghan women lost out on educational and other opportunities, today, their descendants stare grimly at a similar fate. When the Taliban came back to power in 2021, they stated that their rule would be softer in many aspects compared to their previous stint. But they have gradually changed their stance on this, taking away many liberties allowed to women. While the present Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his factions are against modern education in general and for women in girls in specific, several sections of the Taliban have had a more moderate take on the same issue. While there has been inter-factional friction on the subject, female rights have still been taken away.
In August 2021 some believed that this era of the Taliban would be different—Taliban 2.0. There was a certain buy-in to the Taliban’s promises of being both more moderate and more modern than its 1990s regime. As a result, many countries around the world have waited to establish formal diplomatic ties or even engage with the “new Taliban, hoping that this bargaining chip would play into efforts of moderating the Taliban’s stances on issues of female rights, humanitarian aid, and violence. But it seems such a strategy has backfired. Countries such as India have engaged with Taliban without formal diplomatic recognition but kept their stance clear on key issues of difference, premised on a recognition that Taliban 2.0 may not be too different from its predecessor. India and these countries are proving to be right.
This article originally appeared in Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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