The Taliban’s effortless takeover of Kabul last summer perplexed many as, after two decades out of power, the militant group initially seemed shy to turn back the clock on the country’s transition to democracy. As militants posed in front of artwork that they once would have defaced and parleyed with former President Hamid Karzai over a statue of a horse they once would have smashed, it was hardly surprising that the ice cream vans of Kabul reappeared to cool the dusty fighters who had once banned their trade.
However, this new face has been lost on the country’s women and girls, whose long-awaited return to school lasted only hours before edicts mandating male guardianship and specific clothing heralded the return of the brutal theocracy that the Taliban had kept under wraps.
In April last year, US President Joe Biden announced he would withdraw all American troops before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though US Intelligence reports expected an eventual Taliban takeover, they did not factor in the speed with which a vacuum would be created and how rapidly the Afghan National Army and the other vestiges of the state would fade.
The swift assurances that women “will be able to work and go to university” by Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen reassured some, but the reality was that few knew what sort of government would emerge from the huddles of Taliban negotiators after a decade of talks in Doha and Kabul. For those present at the talks, however, the fundamentalist nature of the group was never in doubt. As the pianists in their Doha hotel would suddenly stop playing in the presence of Taliban negotiators — upon pain of derailing the talks altogether — the Taliban were unequivocal; they certainly had not changed their ways.
Former US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad led the international voices claiming that the Taliban had changed. He justified his conclusion of a peace deal on the grounds that the Taliban had acknowledged their past mistakes on women’s education and harboring terrorists. Though the “new Taliban” clearly appeared more pragmatic and politically savvy, their supposed renaissance has not transferred to their policies toward women.
The initial prevention of some women returning to work and then a ban in November on their acting in television dramas raised eyebrows. In December, the Taliban imposed restrictions on women travelling farther than 72 km without a close male relative. It took several months before girls resumed primary school, while the access to higher education that the Taliban promised remains elusive.
Secondary schools last month finally opened their doors to young women, to the relief of many who feared, as The Economist stated, that the Taliban hoped to “shackle half the Afghan population.” However, within hours, the Taliban broke their promise by not only barring girls from school but also imposing male guardianship on women leaving their homes, segregating public parks and obliging traditional dress in the public sector.
The list of edicts came as a political earthquake to many who had seen the reopening of schools as a positive step. Street protests have erupted since the decision. Heather Barr, associate director at Human Rights Watch, sees it as part of a “long list of broken promises.” The ruling came after a meeting of senior officials in the southern city of Kandahar, the movement’s conservative spiritual heartland. The volte face confirmed what has long been suspected by many: That the hurried union brought about by the Taliban is fraught with ideological and political tension. Where the replacement of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was welcomed by some, there are others within the Taliban who realize that they must seek a working relationship with the West.
The US has now canceled planned talks with the Taliban that were set to address key economic issues following the schooling ban. The message would not have been lost on the Taliban that their recent moves on women’s rights and inclusivity would directly affect the international community’s willingness to help Afghanistan. The Taliban has struggled to revive the aid-dependent economy, which has all but collapsed due to sanctions and exclusion from international financial institutions.
With half of the population facing hunger, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in January warned of the “scale of the despair” as the organization launched its largest-ever humanitarian appeal for a single country. He warned that “virtually every man, woman and child in Afghanistan could face acute poverty.”
For Afghanistan’s women, the economic crisis engulfing the country has been compounded by Taliban restrictions on their employment, education and even movement. With a pen stroke, the Taliban have limited their access to healthcare and forced the country’s 2.5 million widows into housebound destitution.
Economically sidelining half of the country’s population will only serve to exacerbate the difficult living conditions in Afghanistan. The Taliban originally came to power on an anti-corruption platform, keen to rebuild a country ravaged by war and invasion. Seemingly unaware of the continual studies that illustrate educated women drive economic growth and become mothers to children who earn more and live longer, the Taliban will continue to lose public support and ultimately become as shambolic as the government they replaced.
Zarifa Ghafari, formerly Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor, called on the international community “to do everything you can to take our people out of this predicament, and to raise your voices in support of humanity.” While accepting the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy’s International Women’s Rights Award last week, she added: “The solution is not for all to just sit and send statements. We need action.”
The US decision to suspend economic discussions with the Taliban is a step in this direction. The world must not indulge the Taliban’s draconian policies with aid to mask their failures of governance.