This article was originally written and published in Bahasa Indonesia on 2 March 2022.
Women should have agency over their rights and be able to make their own decisions. However, in the other part of the hemisphere, that is not the case.
On August 15, 2021, political turmoil occurred in Afghanistan as the country was battling the Covid-19 pandemic. The Taliban have returned to power by taking back government control from President Ashraf Ghani. The political turmoil began to cause many problems in various sectors, from economic and humanitarian crises to gender inequality.
In the humanitarian sector, the threat of starvation began to emerge since the Taliban took control of the government. The head of the UN’s humanitarian agency for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, stated that the food stocks sent by the UN were expected to run out last September. According to a top official at Afghanistan’s central bank, Shah Mehrabi, the Taliban government has been struggling with the threat of famine, forcing them to request disbursement of state assets from the US Federal Reserve and various European central banks. In addition to wanting to disburse state assets, the Taliban has also opened up thousands of jobs to the community by offering grain as a reward instead of cash.
Gender and sexuality are among the political targets of the Taliban. The Taliban emphasizes that its ideology and norms of gender and sexuality are impeccable. The Taliban’s actions in affirming the ideology of gender and sexuality can be seen since their reign recently. Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement after the Taliban retook Kabul that Afghan women and men have equal rights. He also stated that the Taliban wanted to build Afghanistan’s future and forget the past. He also ensures that women can work and participate in government while adhering to Islamic law.
However, after a few weeks, the opposite happened. The Taliban ordered Afghan women to stay home for safety and close state universities. Although they claim to act in the interests of women, the Taliban regime abandoned Afghan women and children, making them impoverished, in poor health, and uneducated. It proves that what the Taliban did was not under Islamic principles (Tomar, 2004).
Islamic perspective does not distinguish a person’s position based on gender. Thus there is no gender bias in Islam. Islam is a religion that protects women’s rights. One of these protected rights is the right to education. Prophet Muhammad himself guaranteed women’s right to read, thus women would be capable to protect themselves. This protection was continued again at the time of the caliph eras. The protection of women’s education provided by Islam provides opportunities for women to develop their careers according to their interests. A career requires education. Indeed, at the beginning of the development of Islam, women’s education was not done formally. Nevertheless, it did not prevent Muslim women from becoming reliable career women in their fields, such as Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, who was successful in the trading business. Thus, Islam does not prevent women from getting an education and a career following their education (Arisandy, 2016).
Restrictions on Women’s Rights by the Taliban
With the Taliban regime prohibiting women from leaving the house, Afghan women are worried about the re-enactment of repressive rules against women, similar to a policy enacted by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban’s history of restricting women’s rights is still neatly stamped in their collective memory. These restrictions are widespread in sectors such as education, legal protection, and health.
The Taliban has been enforcing regulations that oblige Afghan women to wear the burqa. They also ban women from going to school and work. The Wall Street Journal reported that there were also forced marriages in some areas under the control of the Taliban. The women returned to wearing the veil and trying to erase the trace that they had education from their previous life in the pre-Taliban era. These are some of the misfortunes that Afghan women have to face after the Taliban are back in power.
Two factors limit Afghan women from getting a proper education. These factors are political and sociocultural that negatively affect women’s education. It is proven by the assumption from the Taliban that women do not need to get an education, which will put women’s development at risk. This assumption has been passed down from generation to generation; thus, it is waved into the fabric of Afghan society (Reddy, 2014).
In the health sector, Afghan women face various problems related to the low quality of health facilities. A survey conducted by WHO in four provinces estimates that the maternal mortality rate during childbirth is 638 per 10,000 births. Many of them give birth at home without the presence of a nurse. Many hospitals do not have essential services for children and pregnant women and do not have adequate equipment to perform cesarean sections.
Afghan women also face many restrictions in accessing legal services and protection. The rule that men must accompany women when traveling out of the house makes it difficult for women to come to court independently. Women’s testimony in court is only worth half that of men’s testimony (Reddy, 2014). Most women who become defendants in a legal case have difficulty proving their innocence in court.
Women who do not comply with the rules will be punished by beatings, whipping, and stoning to death if they are proven to have committed adultery. A report said that in the year 2000, Afghanistan had the highest female mortality rate, with as many as 1,450 people. In July 2000, the United Nations reported that the number of women and girls injured and killed in half a year was more than twice as high as in the same period the previous year.
Afghanistan During the United States Occupation
In 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to avenge the September 11 terrorist attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda. During the Taliban reign, women struggled to access education, employment, and justice. However, during the US occupation, Afghanistan finally had women MPs with a percentage of 28%, which put Afghanistan in the highest rank in terms of women’s representation in parliament at that time. The 2004 Afghanistan constitution served as the basis of this change, which requires at least 25 percent of the parliamentary quota to be filled by women. As a result, the 2005 elections became a significant opportunity for Afghan women to participate in the political arena in their country. Women at that time held several important positions such as ambassadors, ministers, governors, members of the police, and security forces.
The year 2003 became a bright spot for Afghan women because, in that year, the Afghan government also ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This convention requires countries to incorporate rules regarding gender equality into their legal regulations. Then in 2004, the Afghan constitution stated that Afghans, men, and women, have equal rights and obligations before the law. Then, in 2009, a law was issued to protect Afghan women from forced marriage, underage marriage, and violence.
Human Rights Watch, a US-based non-governmental organization, argues that the 2009 law significantly impacts reporting and investigating violent crimes against women. With the existence of this law, the complainants have a more robust legal basis to prosecute perpetrators of law violators. The law is also one of the steps to prevent violent crimes against women.
The fall of the Taliban after the US invasion also pushed various changes in the education sector. Afghanistan recorded the highest number of students enrolled in primary schools, with more than 4.3 million students in 2003. In the 7 to 12-year age group, there are 40.5% female students. The number of schools has also increased significantly, from only 3,800 in 2002 to 7,134 in 2014. At Kabul University, more than 18,000 prospective new students took the college entrance examinations in early 2002.
During the US occupation, Afghanistan has gone from having almost no females in school to having tens of thousands of female students at university. However, the data show that the progress is slow and unstable. The slow growth rate can be seen from the low increased percentage in the number of women accessing education in the last ten years, which only increased by 4.2%. The instability can be seen from UNICEF data which reports that of the 3.7 million children in Afghanistan who drop out of school, 60% are females.
The fall of the Taliban in 2001 caused the welfare of women to improve drastically. However, the increase is partial and fragile because it does not cover all women due to limited facilities. Improvements in welfare seem easy to fall back on because, at that time, women in Afghanistan were still not wholly free from the influence of the Taliban leadership.
Women’s Resistance against Taliban Policies
After the Taliban took over Afghanistan from the US in 2022, they began enacting regulations regarding restrictions on women’s movements. The restrictions on movement imposed by the Taliban caused various reactions, particularly from women. Most women feel that the Taliban are trying to make women invisible by forbidding women from work and school.
Most women who are against the regulations imposed by the Taliban, restrictions to education, work, and dressing that resemble the western style, make various efforts to regain their rights. They took various efforts ranging from lawsuits, and demonstrations, to murals to show their discontent. Not only in Afghanistan, efforts so that Afghan women can regain their rights are also being carried out by feminist groups in other parts of the world.
In addition to the actions carried out by Afghan women, women’s rights organizations from other countries have also started to act. They are concerned about the effect of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan on women’s welfare. Gesa Birkmann of the women’s rights organization Terre des Femmes said she was worried that something would happen to women’s existence, experiencing abuse and forced marriages like 20 years ago.
Femen, a feminist group from Germany, also held a protest at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. They wore a black burqa, which covered the body from top to toe, leaving the eyes open, then they took off the burqa and showed off the body, which was only covered with a thin net. They carried posters that read “Taliban wants to make women invisible” in three languages: Arabic, English, and German.
A woman wrote anonymously in The Guardian that they did not expect to lose their basic rights and go back in 20 years. They did not expect that after 20 years of fighting for rights and freedoms, they would return to wearing the burqa and hiding their identity again. In other words, their days of freedom were over.
However, not all women in Afghanistan are against the regulations imposed by the Taliban. Some revealed to the media that they were happy with the return of the Taliban. They feel more satisfied with following all the rules imposed by the group. They also say those who fled Afghanistan when the Taliban returned to leadership did not represent all women. Women who are pro-Taliban believe that the Taliban can guarantee their safety with Islamic rules and supervision.
Although there were groups that sided with the Taliban, it did not stop the Taliban from repressing Afghan women’s rights in general. Experiencing various restrictions and deprivation of rights by the Taliban does not make Afghan women feel subdued. Various efforts have been made so that the situation of Afghan women can return to normal or at least better than what they are living now. Some knew that their attempts would be in vain, but at least they had tried. Worries cannot be separated from their minds, but worrying alone will not improve the situation. With hope and based on an equal rights spirit, Afghan women continue to strive until one day, a bright spot emerges that can restore their rights.
Authors: Aqil Fatih Ni’ami, Fitriana (Intern)
Editor: Fandy Arrifqi
Illustrator: Leo Reynaldo
Translator: Refina A. Puspita
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