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Taliban takeover: Death to gender equality

Monday, 23 August 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
© Belga

“They are just chanting ‘Death to America’, but they seem friendly at the same time, it is utterly bizarre,” CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported from Kabul, after the city’s sudden fall to the Taliban. 

The above-quoted sentence is a telling summary of nowaday’s cause célébre, as most of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban forces without a fight. 

The military organisation — which used to rule most of the country between 1996 and 2001 with a particularly draconian interpretation of Islamic law — has recently portrayed itself as reforming its views and policies — provided they have any since overall they only managed to pledge some vague and hard-to-ascertain plans. 

Besides granting amnesty to all those who served in either government or military positions, Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, reassured that they are “ready to provide women with an environment to work and study, and the presence of women in different structures according to Islamic law and in accordance with cultural values.” He also urged women to join the new government.

The exact interpretation of Islamic law and cultural values has not yet been specified, but there are a few first glimpses on which we can conclude the new reality Afghan women might face. 

In an interview, a group of insurgents asked US reporter Clarissa Ward to step aside because she is not fully covered — even though she was, only her face was visible. After complying, she asked a group member if women would still be able to participate in public life, to which he responded yes, as long as they are wearing a hijab. Ms Ward then asked if he means the hijab she is currently wearing. The answer was no; women will be required to cover their faces as well. That is, well, not the hijab. 

The hijab covers the head and neck but leaves the face visible. The niqab covers the face partly and leaves the area around the eyes free, while the burqa is the most concealing of all, covering the entire face and body, leaving the wearer with only a mesh to see through it. Most probably, the latter two, but even more so, the burqa was what the interviewee was referring to as hijab. The sudden and steep increase in burqa prices in Kabul seems to support that conclusion.

Other elements to this hard-to-believe makeover might point us to a more sceptical perception of Taliban 2.0.

Earlier in July, during the seize of Kandahar, female employees of Azizi Bank were escorted home from their offices by insurgents and were advised to have their positions filled in by male relatives. The same happened in Herat a few days later. Indeed the inclusive new Afghan government will encompass women, but first, they chase them away from their offices with weapons. 

Only two days after the Taliban takeover in Kabul, storefronts and advertisements of uncovered females were painted over with thick white paint. Just as women were absent from public life during Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, now their visuals are also being erased from the city. 

Taliban fighters denied female students and lecturers to enter the campus of Herat University, while their male counterparts were free to enter. Gender segregation and the already incredibly low literacy rates — with a shocking disparity between men and women — will not be significant contributors to the country’s peace and stability that the Taliban claims to provide.

Many female journalists — unable to flee the country — went into hiding, and those who are at all capable of sharing their take on the situation to Western media outlets, are doing so anonymously or under pseudonyms for safety concerns. Female judges are facing the same difficulties. According to anonymous sources, the Taliban already gathered information on their whereabouts, and now they are feared to face severe consequences.

Another form of the organised persecution of Afghan women is forced marriages. In the captured areas, the Taliban ordered local religious leaders to provide lists of girls over the age of 15 and widows under 45 to be married to foot soldiers and taken to Pakistan to be converted to “authentic” Islam. As to what “authentic” might mean in this context, the Taliban did not reveal.

Mosque loudspeakers — commonly used to convey messages aimed at the public — are now blaring announcements that women are required to only leave their homes wearing a burqa and escorted by a male chaperone.

By comparing statements and events taking place on the ground, it is evident that the Taliban still rejects the notion of gender equality. As their delegations included no women during the peace talks, they remain fundamentalist towards women, and their pledges towards reformist considerations are merely tactical propaganda. 

Debating the success of the US’s 20-year occupation and the pertinence of its withdrawal is not the purpose of this article. Consciousness-raising is. 

Between 2001 and 2021, Afghan women gained access to education, healthcare, and public life. Many of them found their occupation in the fields of politics, law, and medicine. Today, their rights — fundamental, universally acknowledged — rights are being rolled back, and they are facing systemic persecution. 

Discussing the could haves and should haves of the past two decades of US foreign policy decisions is essential in learning from past mistakes and drawing conclusions for a better future. But we cannot turn our backs on the current reality of Afghan women.

Once more, they were used as bargaining chips for geopolitical interest. They were sacrificed on the altar of propaganda.

After trillions of US dollars spent and 20 years of Western efforts made, the Taliban’s blitz-like takeover of Afghanistan might prove a failure. But ignoring the cries for help by Afghan women would be the absolute defeat. 

What you can do:

Raise awareness — speak up; you do not have to be a social media influencer or a celebrity to make your voice heard. 

Join the conversation — educate yourself and own the facts and figures to participate in the public debate.

Donate — charities, fundraisers, even petitions, every little count.