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Status of Women in Afghanistan

The Taliban seemingly moderated its views on some issues, such as the education of girls and the use of modern technology and digital platforms. Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in February 2020 that the Taliban would “build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam—from the right to education to the right to work—are protected.” But the Taliban had a well-documented record of repression, intolerance, and human rights abuses against women, foreigners, ethnic minorities, and journalists. The Taliban’s persecution of women is particularly concerning. Women who are victims of domestic violence have little recourse to justice in Taliban courts, and the Taliban discourages women from working, denies women access to modern healthcare, prohibits women from participating in politics, and supports such punishments against women as stoning and public lashing.

There are debates within the Taliban over the role and participation of women in public life. While some members support a hardline view, many others are in favor of greater participation by women based on evidence from Islamic theology and history. They have been pushing for a more inclusive government with women in various positions. There are provisions within Hanafi jurisprudence for women to be judges and hold other senior public offices.

Some hardliners cannot substantiate their position from an Islamic legal perspective and their views are rooted in culture. It is not easy to abandon a position that has been held by your forefathers.

When it comes to girls' education, hardly anyone in the Taliban could deny the clear statements of Prophet Muhammad on the obligation of seeking knowledge for men and women. Aisha, one of the wives of Prophet Muhammad, was a prominent scholar of Islam and a teacher to many prominent companions of the prophet. Some hardliners pushed for the suspension of girls' education until strict measures are applied to practice gender-based segregation.

Many senior Taliban figures, especially those who have lived abroad over the last few years, take a more lenient view on this matter. While they are opposed to the suspension of girls' education, they believe that Afghan society is by nature fairly conservative and the overwhelming majority of people will abide by the Taliban's policies.

What are frequently described as “the gains of the last 20 years” were often gains limited to a minority of women and girls from among the minority of Afghans who are urbanised, whereas the losses imposed on Afghan women by a relentless and brutal war – in deaths, injuries, trauma, insecurity, economic loss – were more broadly shared.

Western powers prominently used the cause of women’s rights as a justification for continuing war, and by so associating and tarnishing women’s rights with the occupation, ensured they would become unnecessarily controversial and vulnerable once the mood of society turned against that occupation.

Regressive attitudes to women in Afghanistan neither originated with nor are limited to the Taliban; in many places, they simply reflect the cultural norm, and the work of changing that norm is a much more challenging and arduous process that can only occur over time within Afghan society.

The Taliban’s rapid-fire advance through Afghanistan in August 2021 left women and girls, a whole generation of whom have grown up with rights and freedoms, among the most vulnerable. They stood to lose those hard-won gains as the Taliban seized control of Kabul. Afghan women have been targeted for speaking out against attacks by the Taliban or simply for holding positions of authority. Since the start of 2021, civilian deaths had risen by almost 50 percent with more women and children killed and wounded in Afghanistan than in the first six months of any year since records began in 2009, the UN reported in July 2021.

As the capital city fell into the hands of Islamist insurgents, numerous reports emerged of the Taliban going door-to-door, drafting lists of women and girls aged between 12 and 45 years who were then forced to marry Islamist fighters. Women were told they cannot leave home without a male escort, can no longer work or study or freely choose the clothes they want to wear. Schools, too, were being closed.

The treatment of women across Islamic countries worldwide is very different. For example, Pakistan, which neighbors Afghanistan, had female prime minister, but in Saudi Arabia, the government only recently allowed women to drive. It is therefore unrealistic to expect the Taliban, if it assumes power in Afghanistan, to have a better record in terms of women's rights than other existing Islamic emirates in the Middle East, said analysts. There was no chance that Afghanistan will have a new government that is more moderate than Saudi Arabia, it's just impossible.

For a whole generation of Afghan women who entered public life – the lawmakers, journalists, local governors, doctors, nurses, teachers and public administrators – there was much to lose. While they strove, working alongside male colleagues and in communities unused to seeing women in positions of authority, to help build a democratically-run civil society, they also hoped to open up opportunities for later generations of women to succeed them.

When the fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 they imposed Sharia law, a strict interpretation of Islamic law which meant women could not work, girls were banned from attending school and women had to cover their faces in public and always be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to leave their homes. Women who broke the rules sometimes suffered humiliation and public beatings by the Taliban's religious police. The Taliban also carried out public executions, chopped off the hands of thieves and stoned women accused of adultery.

The achievements of women over the past two decades will be difficult to erase, even if the Taliban succeed in their takeover. Improving the quality of life and the status of Afghan women had been a key goal of the United States and the international donor community since 2002. The United States had committed at least $1 billion for gender-related programs in Afghanistan and spent another $1 billion on programs for which the advancement of women was a component. Since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, millions of Afghan women have voted; and some women now occupy prominent positions in Afghan society. Sixty-three women were members of parliament (out of 320 seats); 68,000 women were instructors in schools and universities; 6,000 women serve as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, and soldiers; about 10,000 women were doctors, nurses, or other health care professionals; and 1,150 women entrepreneurs have invested $77 million in their businesses.

Even so, Afghanistan remained one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman: In 2018, the United Nations ranked Afghanistan 153rd out of 160 countries for gender equality—despite a constitution that nominally protects women’s rights.

Women in Afghanistan used to be active participants in society. Before the Taliban took over in 1996, in fact, 70% of the teachers in the capital city, Kabul, were women. Forty percent of the doctors were female. Women were engineers, architects, lawyers, and judges. During the long years of war, the economy of many families became dependent on women's income.

However, the Taliban changed everything. As one journalist put it, "Imagine waking up and discovering that overnight Congress had outlawed television, movies, video games, music, dancing, tape recorders and cassettes, children's toys including dolls and kites, card and board games, wedding parties, New Year celebrations, picnics, mixed sex gatherings of any kind, cameras, photographs and paintings of people and animals, cigarettes and alcohol, magazines and newspapers, and most books -- even pet parakeets."

But for women, the list gets even worse. The Taliban banned: any form of female education, from kindergarten through graduate school; wearing makeup, nail polish or jewelry; plucking your eyebrows or cutting your hair short; wearing colorful or stylish clothes, sheer stockings, white socks or shoes, or high heels; laughing, talking or walking loudly in public. In fact, one of the Taliban's dictates read, "Women, you should not step outside your residence." If women did venture outside, it had to be for an essential, government-sanctioned purpose. They needed to be escorted by a male relative. And they had no choice but to wear a garment that covered them completely -- from head to toe -- known as a burqa.

The Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) presidential decree--commonly referred to as the EVAW law--obliges police to arrest persons who abuse women. Implementation and awareness of the EVAW law was limited, however. Forced virginity testing remained legal, and police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order virginity tests in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subject to virginity tests.

Police and legal officials often charged women with intent to commit “zina” (extramarital sex) to justify their arrest and incarceration for social offenses, such as running away from home, rejecting a spouse chosen by her family, fleeing domestic violence or rape, or eloping. The constitution provides that in cases not explicitly covered by the provisions of the constitution or other laws, courts may, in accordance with Hanafi jurisprudence (a school of Islamic law) and within the limits set by the constitution, rule in a manner that best attains justice in the case. Although observers stated this provision was widely understood to apply only to civil cases, many judges and prosecutors applied this provision to criminal matters. Observers reported officials used this article to charge women and men with “immorality” or “running away from home,” neither of which is a crime. Police often detained women for zina at the request of family members.

Certain factors appear central in relation to marriage: The marrying parties have little influence on the choice of partner; local tradition and religion govern the institution of marriage; the institution of marriage is marred by number of discriminatory and oppressive practices; there were no adequate registration routines put in place by the authorities, and formalities were of subordinate importance for whether a couple is considered married. Irrespective of kinship group, ethnicity and geographical region, most of the marriages in Afghanistan were arranged, in the sense that they were entered into following an agreement between families/groups. The extent to which the parties themselves were involved in the process leading up to an agreement tends to vary.

The marriage contract is thus an agreement between two families and not a confirmation of an emotional relationship between two individuals. In Afghanistan, arranged marriages were part of a complex set of traditions, loyalties and authorities. The marriage institution plays a key role in the establishment of alliances between families or in strengthening pre-existing networks. Marriage agreements have strong political and economical aspects.

The tradition had always been that a girl or two should be exchanged, or money or a piece of land should be given to the family of the victim in order to remove enmity. Therefore, the sister of the murderer automatically appeared before the jirga without any hesitation and accepted a marriage into the family of the victim in order to finish the hostility between the families.

The marriage tradition is endogamous, which in this context means that partners from one’s own kinship group, tribe or ethnic group were preferred. There were no reliable marriage statistics available for Afghanistan, but some surveys indicate that approximately half of all marriages involve persons in close kinship. Marrying a cousin is considered optimal, both cross and parallel cousins.

The bride price is the sum which is paid to a woman’s parents in return for the right to marry their daughter. It is perceived as compensation to the woman’s family for having raised her. The bride price is an accepted custom which is practised in large parts of the country. The tradition of paying bride price remains strong in rural Afghanistan, where it can constitute an important source of income for poor families.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a total of 57 per cent of all marriage agreements concluded in Afghanistan involve girls under 16 years of age. A study conducted in 2008 on the basis of approximately 200 marriages, shows that in more than 25 per cent of these marriages the age difference between the spouses exceeded 16 years. Approximately 40 per cent of the marriages were agreed when the bride was 10-13 years old; in 32.5 per cent of the cases she was 14 years old, and in 27.5 per cent of the cases she was 15 years old.

Polygyny, a man’s right to be married to several women at the same time, is legal both under Sharia law and Afghan civil law (a man can be legally married to four wives). The prevalence of polygyny had increased during the last three decades, because the conflicts in Afghanistan produced a growing number of widows. The increase of this form of marriage first and foremost takes place within a population segment consisting of wealthy illiterates.

When an unmarried girl elopes with a boy (“kidnapper”), his family and the villagers call for a Jirga and the Jirga decides the amount of the dowry to be given to the girl’s father so that the two can marry. The boy must also pay a fine to the village in the form of the cow or sheep. When a married woman consents to be “kidnapped,” the council urges the husband to divorce her, and she is then married to the other man. Her husband receives back the dowry he previously paid. The other man must give two cows and two sheep to the husband, as well as two cows and five goats to the village.

The Taliban sought to reassure Afghan women. At the Moscow peace talks in February 2019, the Taliban delegation said, “Islam has given women all fundamental rights, such as business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health, and right to good life.” Nevertheless, many questions regarding the Taliban’s stance remain, particularly around their interpretation of women’s rights according to Islam. In the same statement, the Taliban also denounced “so-called women’s rights activists” who, in their view, were encouraging women to violate Afghan customs. Thus, specic Taliban positions on women’s rights were difcult to ascertain, catalyzing much concern among Afghan women.

A June 2018 report published by Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) on life under Taliban shadow governance appeared to validate such fears. The report’s author could identify no instances in which girls’ secondary schools were open in areas under heavy Taliban inuence or control. Girls’ education in these areas, the report said, generally terminated at the age at which girls reach puberty (between grades 4–6), when more restrictions were placed on their lives outside the home. Taliban rules also prohibit women from going to bazaars unaccompanied.



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Page last modified: 03-10-2021 15:39:39 ZULU