Afghan women resist Taliban curtailment of rights

Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani announces the segregation of women in classrooms and the imposition of Islamic dress
A veiled girl holds a Taliban flag

AFP/AAMIR QURESHI  -   A veiled girl holds a Taliban flag while at a gathering of female students before a pro-Taliban rally at Shaheed Rabbani University of Education in Kabul on September 11, 2021

A month after the Taliban takeover, civil liberties are vanishing by leaps and bounds in Afghanistan. The final fall of Kabul to insurgents on 15 August marked the beginning of a two-decade rollback of rights. A step backwards that aims to dissolve the role of women in society and re-impose the Sharia law that governed the Central Asian country between 1996 and 2001, during the first Taliban mandate.

On coming to power, the fundamentalist militia promised to reform its discipline in order to gain external legitimacy. The insurgents' pledges ranged from the formation of an "inclusive" government to an amnesty for all collaborators of the previous executive and respect for women's rights and freedoms. However, the promises remained a dead letter in the face of the benefit of the doubt given by some observers and international institutions.

Mujer con niqab en la Universidad de Kabul
AP/FELIPE DANA  -  A woman walks down from the stage inside an auditorium at the Kabul University education centre during a demonstration in support of the Taliban government in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021

After breaking their promise of inclusion in the government with the appointment of an iron-fisted Taliban structure and breaking their amnesty pledge by persecuting dissidents, the insurgents are trying to deal the final blow to women's rights after 20 years of discreet progress. After banning them from playing sports, the next step has been segregation in the classroom. A timid step forward in light of the 1996-2001 education ban on women.   

Acting Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani announced on Sunday that women will not be excluded from schools, but will operate within the "Islamic framework". "We will not allow female and male students to study in the same classroom," Haqqani said, noting that co-education "opposes the Sharia". The minister added that co-education prevents women from concentrating on their studies and that Islamic dress will remain compulsory, although he did not specify whether women should wear the hijab, niqab or burqa.

Red Haqqani
PHOTO/FBI via REUTERS  -  The "Information Wanted" poster issued by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the newly appointed acting interior minister of Afghanistan

The Education Minister, a member of the so-called "Haqqani Network", a faction considered terrorist by the United States and the European Union, made the announcement to the media. The announcement is a relative step forward from the last Taliban regime. Between 1996 and 2001, women were banned from studying and working, but Haqqani said that this time they intend to "start building on what already existed".

Equal rights in Afghanistan have thus received a new setback just when the number of female university students had reached record levels. Universities such as Herat University and Ghalib University in Kabul had previously had more women than men. However, after the fall of the capital, classes have only resumed in private institutions, where women must wear the niqab and attend segregated classrooms or, failing that, be separated by a curtain.

Manifestación mujeres Afganistán
AFP/AAMIR QURESHI  -  Armed Taliban fighters escort veiled women as they march during a pro-Taliban demonstration outside Shaheed Rabbani University of Education in Kabul on September 11, 2021

Public universities remain closed as they await the new Taliban government's long list of impositions. The main challenge is that of segregation, a task for which they are logistically unprepared due to lack of space and teachers. In principle, only women are allowed to teach women and, failing that, teachers could teach behind a curtain or via video conferencing. In addition, the content of classroom teaching will also undergo major changes.

Shortly after the takeover of Kabul, the Taliban dismissed women working in ministries and banned women from working. Women were also banned from walking the streets unaccompanied by men, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons told Security Council members. The new rules have led to dissatisfaction among women, especially young women, who have not experienced similar oppression in the country.

Evento mujeres Universidad de Kabul
AFP/AAMIR QURESHI  -  Veiled students hold Taliban flags as they listen to a speaker before a pro-Taliban rally at Shaheed Rabbani University of Education in Kabul on September 11, 2021

These developments, coupled with the appointment of a cabinet lacking in women's profiles and the abolition of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, prompted hundreds of demonstrators to take to the streets in protest. In many cases, women demanded a place in the government, in others, full respect for their rights. The rallies have been repeated in various parts of the country, always violently repressed by the Taliban.

"The Taliban fighters have lived all their lives in some remote places, far from civilisation, and have only learned to fight. They can barely read or write. Many of them have no idea of city life. Afghan society has changed in the last 20 years. We will not allow the Taliban to take away our rights," Basira Taheri told the German media DW during a rally in Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city.

Evento mujeres Universidad de Kabul
AFP/AAMIR QURESHI  -  Pro-Taliban rally at Shaheed Rabbani University of Education in Kabul on 11 September 2021

In response, the Taliban held a rally at Kabul University's Faculty of Education on Sunday. The hall, packed with mostly niqab-clad women and international correspondents, was intended to demonstrate the broad support of the female sector for the fundamentalist regime. The speeches and proclamations in favour of the new Taliban society by female teachers and madrassa students contrasted with the inhumane appearance of women covered in full hijab in the style of Salafi fundamentalists, without even a slit to show their eyes.

The international community continues to denounce the events while showing its inability to influence the drift in the country. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on the Security Council to take "bold and forceful measures, commensurate with the gravity of this crisis [in Afghanistan], by establishing a specific mechanism to monitor the evolution of the human rights situation throughout the country", while women see their freedom disolved.