The question​ of women’s status has been central to the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, with more than eighty edicts curtailing their rights since the movement returned to power almost three years ago. The Taliban prohibits women from going to secondary school or university, from working in the public sector or for NGOs, from leaving home uncovered and unaccompanied, from visiting bathhouses, the gym, beauty salons, parks – the list goes on. Taliban policy, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan said on 18 June, is ‘motivated by and results in a profound rejection of the full humanity of women and girls’.

Afghan women have often been used as an emblem for a particular position: do you stand for modernity or for tradition? King Abdur Rahman Khan, who reigned from 1880 until 1901, improved the legal status of women, in opposition to conservative tribal law. King Amanullah Khan and his wife, Queen Soraya, who ruled between 1919 and 1929, campaigned against veil-wearing and polygamy, and encouraged girls’ education, as part of the wave of modernism also seen in Iran and Turkey at the time. But the brief reign of Habibullah II, between January and October 1929, saw most of Afghanistan’s gender equality laws abrogated. Later rulers were cautious about reform, worried about antagonising tribal leaders. Things changed slowly until the communists took over in 1978. After that, women wore short skirts, went to and taught at university, worked as doctors and nurses and became members of parliament. That period came to an end in 1992 when the mujahidin took over and the civil war began.

The Americans justified their invasion of 2001, five years after the Taliban first took Kabul, in part by the need to ‘save’ Afghan women, and invested heavily in empowerment programmes designed to achieve quick and visible results. The 2004 constitution set a quota for women in parliament: at 27 per cent, it made the Afghan parliament more progressive than that of the UK or France. But as the sociologist Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam wrote in 2022,

the removal of the Taliban had not automatically led to the shedding of burqas and overnight emancipation, and, therefore, there was no easy public relations victory for the military. The aid/media complex stepped in and, using Afghan women as mascots, began the process of creating a troupe of high-profile ‘activists’ who would be trained, publicised and feted.

During the two decades of US-sponsored government, progress failed to trickle down to the countryside. Many of the women I interviewed who lived outside the cities saw the Taliban’s arrival as a positive thing: they had never had girls’ schools in their areas anyway, and they always had to wear the burqa, even when Afghanistan was home to more than 100,000 American troops. At least now there is peace.

The Taliban’s policies are laid down by the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, who is based in Kandahar and surrounded by ultra-conservative advisers. But a large part of the Taliban movement, including some ministers in Kabul, supports girls’ education and women’s right to work – as long as they follow Sharia law. As a result, the implementation of the emir’s edicts varies widely from one area to another, depending on the local commander’s willingness to look the other way and tolerate some freedoms. However, there is a strong tradition of centralisation and loyalty inside the movement, built over decades of war, which means that there is little chance that internal differences will lead to a wider policy change any time soon.

Fatimah and Gulsom, who are seventeen and fourteen, are sisters who live in the Hazara neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in Kabul. I sat with them in their living room, while in the other room their mother and aunt recited prayers following a Shia ritual. Their parents are uneducated, and wanted better for their four daughters. The day the Taliban took over, Fatimah was in hospital in central Kabul. Her school had been attacked by suicide bombers, and a piece of shrapnel had hit her in the back of the neck, causing nerve damage. The doctors told her she might be permanently paralysed. Her family managed to find a car and find shelter for them all at her aunt’s house. They stayed for ten days, not risking going outside: there were rumours that the Taliban were taking single women and marrying them off to their fighters. When things calmed down they went home, and Fatimah started going to an underground school, first in her wheelchair, and later, as she recovered, on foot. ‘I wanted to study law after school, but now I don’t want to as knowing the law doesn’t help secure your rights any more. Now, I want to become a good journalist. I write articles; one was published. I write what I hear from girls.’

Gulsom reacted differently. She went back to school too, but when the Taliban grew more violent and women in their neighbourhood started being arrested, she dropped out. ‘My biggest fear is that I go out and something happens to me, and others blame my family because of me. At checkpoints, the Taliban make problems if there’s anything wrong with our clothes. I’m afraid of them taking me.’ She estimates that she has left the house only five times in the last two years (one of these was for the anniversary of the explosion at their old school). Fatimah tried to persuade her sister to start studying again, but Gulsom doesn’t see the point. ‘I lost my interest in studying. When you see the Taliban and this situation, it would be useless.’

Last year a campaign called End Gender Apartheid was launched in response to proposals for a new Crimes against Humanity treaty which are under discussion at the UN’s Sixth Committee. The aim is for the draft text to go before the General Assembly in September. Apartheid is legally defined as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’. The crime of gender apartheid currently does not exist. There is a crime of gender-based persecution, but – according to a former UN special rapporteur, Karima Bennoune – it ‘fails to adequately implicate the institutionalised and ideological nature of the abuses in question or reflect on the responsibilities of other international actors to respond appropriately’. If the definition were expanded, activists argue, states would have to take action, as they did in the 1990s over South Africa, where the international response included diplomatic and economic sanctions. This sustained pressure weakened the increasingly isolated regime to the point where it was forced to change.

If codified as a crime, and applied to Afghanistan, gender apartheid would create an obligation for states to take action. If they failed to do this it would further weaken international law, already undermined in recent years by governments’ failure to implement it to prevent atrocities in South Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Ukraine or Gaza. One European diplomat confessed to me that many countries are concerned about the political consequences of recognising gender apartheid, especially because it would bring pressure to grant unconditional asylum to Afghan women and girls. This is despite the fact that gender persecution is already a legitimate basis for asylum, and that Afghan women are acknowledged to be victims of it. Although some states, including Malta and Iceland, already describe the Taliban as perpetrating gender apartheid, other diplomats question the usefulness of this approach, noting that condemnation, sanctions and public pronouncements have so far left the Taliban unmoved.

The international community bears a heavy responsibility for the situation faced by Afghan women, having left in 2021 knowing that the country was being taken over by the group they took arms against twenty years earlier. They have allowed the Taliban to become gradually normalised in the extended region. Many states have ambassadors in Kabul: Pakistan and India, of course, but also US clients and allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Latifa, an ex-prosecutor living in Herat, told me that ‘a lot of positive things happened to women’ during the twenty years of US occupation – the job she had being one of them. After the takeover, she was told to stop working but continued to receive her salary for ten months before she was officially terminated. She now teaches Islamic law in a private institute. I met her in her friend’s clothes shop, hidden on the second floor of a building. She is one of very few women I have spoken to who says she wants to stay in Afghanistan to fight for Afghan women. ‘A lot of women came out and got to learn about their rights. But it happened too quickly, and sometimes women would go from being at home to being in very high-level positions. If it had been done gradually, it would not have collapsed like it did. These changes did not get injected step by step into society.’ She argued that just as women were the only thing the Americans cared about, the same was true of the Taliban. ‘Each is too extreme … They each brought something not adapted to Afghan society.’

There are two schools of thought about how the international community could influence the Taliban’s policy on women: isolating the regime, or pursuing conditional engagement. While parts of the Afghan diaspora push for sanctions and isolation, the majority of governments and civil society organisations are in favour of conditional engagement, with human rights always part of the discussion. Engagement, which does not equate to formal recognition, is seen as the only way to ensure long-term influence over the Taliban. Diplomacy takes time, it’s argued, and is needed most when you’re talking to people you don’t agree with. As the country’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, has repeatedly insisted, the Taliban do care about being reintegrated into the international community. It’s true that discussions and engagement have so far brought no concrete results – but neither have the financial sanctions and travel bans on individuals imposed by the US and EU. The Taliban play for time, observing that their regime is slowly being accepted without their making a single concession on women’s rights. Activists, of course, object to the soft-pedalling pragmatism of international bodies. In November the UN Security Council, under the leadership of the Turkish diplomat Feridun Sinirlioğlu, laid out a roadmap for engagement with the Taliban, which depends on its upholding its obligations under international law. In response, 71 human rights groups issued an open letter condemning the Security Council for ‘reducing human rights and women’s plight to second place’.

The Taliban like to remind foreign states that they are upholding their promises under the Doha Agreement of 2020, which laid down conditions for US withdrawal, and that other countries have no business interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, certainly not after being responsible for twenty years of war. As a result, the gap is growing between countries which insist on principle that they won’t engage with the Taliban without concessions on women’s rights and pragmatic neighbouring countries which prioritise regional stability – these countries increasingly occupy the diplomatic space in Kabul.

With all parties entrenched in their own corners – and with the proposed codification of gender apartheid as a crime unlikely to make much difference – it’s hard to see who or what would enable a breakthrough. Afghan women don’t expect anything to change. ‘In the last two and a half years,’ Latifa said, ‘every media organisation, every UN agency has been doing their independent research on women’s rights. They know exactly what is going on, and yet what have they done for us?’

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