Education, employment and travel curtailed, barred from parks, gyms, and other public spaces, torture for those that disobey, the oppression of women in Afghanistan grows daily and amounts to “gender apartheid.” Foreign Editor David Pratt reports.

Their observations are both searing and disturbing. “Day by day, the walls close in”. “Suffocated”. “Without hope”. These are just some of the descriptions by Afghan women of the relentless announcement of restrictions imposed on their lives and rights since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.

The quotes come from interviews with women across at least 11 of Afghanistan’s provinces conducted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (ANN), an independent non-profit policy research organisation that describes itself as ‘impartial but not indifferent.’

For many years now the ANN has carried out detailed and invaluable reports that ensure Afghanistan stays on the international agenda. Never has their work been more important than it is right now in a country where the suppression of women’s rights under Taliban rule is now the harshest in the world even though much of the global community looks the other way.

Such is the sustained severity of the Taliban’s onslaught that some leading human rights observers have called it “intentional cruelty”, “gender apartheid” and a “war on women.”

The Herald: A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in KabulA Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul (Image: free)

It was all meant to be a very different story back in 2021 when after seizing power a spokesman at the Taliban’s first press conference announced that women would be “very active” in Afghan society.

But many Afghans and those outsiders – me included – who have had a long engagement with Afghanistan were sceptical that “Taliban 2.0” would be any different from the cruel regime that previously ran the country from 1996 to 2001. Warnings were afoot that the Taliban would quickly act to reverse the advances in women and girls’ rights gained over two previous decades. It did not take long for those warnings to be borne out by events on the ground.

Today, in a country where women make up almost half the population, the evidence speaks for itself as the Taliban far from reforming have in fact doubled down on its persecution.

If there ever were any ‘moderate’ voices within the Taliban’s ranks they were quickly drowned out by diehard mullahs in Kandahar, the group’s southern stronghold. The signs were early and obvious, nowhere more so than in Afghanistan’s towns and cities including the capital Kabul, where it often appeared as if women had almost been airbrushed out of existence.

Suddenly the all-enveloping burqa was now worn by some women through necessity rather than by choice. It had become the only ‘safe’ dress code acceptable in a country under the edicts of the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Such was the fanatical implementation of such edicts that even female mannequins in shops were covered up or defaced.

“The women of Afghanistan went from existence - from being part of society, from working, from being part of every aspect of life as doctors, judges, nurses, engineers, women running offices - to nothing,” is how Mahbouba Seraj, a 74-year-old journalist and women’s rights activist summed up the situation as the Taliban again bore down.

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“Everything they had, even the most basic right to go to high school, was taken away from them,” added Seraj, a 2023 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

The scale and intensity of the persecution is appalling. Afghanistan is now the only country where it is illegal to be female and study beyond secondary- school age, or to work in most professions. According to UN figures a staggering 80 % of Afghanistan’s 2-5 million school age women and girls are not being educated. And it doesn’t stop there - far from it.

A whole deluge of edicts, decrees, declarations and directives have limited, restricted, suspended or banned basic freedoms for women and girls. The result has meant that most Afghan female staff have been prevented from working at aid agencies and the United Nations have been instructed not to employ Afghan women. Female aid workers are indispensable in Afghanistan where women especially in rural communities are loathe to let unknown men into their homes, or to discuss topics such as their health.

Women are also barred from parks, gyms, and other public spaces while travel is curtailed for women in the absence of a male guardian.

Recently the Taliban’s vice-and-virtue department closed the Band-e-Amir national park to women, saying female visitors were failing to cover up. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 110 miles west of Kabul, was once known for having employed the country’s first-ever female park rangers and is renowned for its striking blue lakes surrounded by sweeping cliffs.

Situated in Bamiyan province Band-e-Amir is a popular spot for domestic tourism and is regularly visited by Afghans who relax at the shore or paddle the waters in rented boats.

“Not content with depriving girls and women of education, employment and free movement, the Taliban also want to take from them parks and sport and now even nature,” says Heather Barr, Associate Women’s Rights Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) adding that the decision to ban women was “cruel in a very intentional way”.

The Herald: In this picture taken on February 11, 2023, Afghan women's activist Mahbouba Seraj poses for a photograph after an interview with AFP in KabulIn this picture taken on February 11, 2023, Afghan women's activist Mahbouba Seraj poses for a photograph after an interview with AFP in Kabul (Image: free)

This latest restriction comes nearly a month after women were banned from beauty salons in Afghanistan, further diminishing their freedom in what was also a harsh economic blow to families who relied on them for income. Many of the women running the salons are the main breadwinners and are facing destitution.

“This isn’t about getting your hair and nails done. This is about 60,000 women losing their jobs. This is about women losing one of the only places they could go for community and support after the Taliban systematically destroyed the whole system put in place to respond to domestic violence,” says Barr of HRW.

In one of its very latest punitive actions the Taliban have now prohibited female students from travelling to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to start their university studies. One student known only by her first name, Laila, said their scholarships were their “only hope to go abroad to continue our education”.

“This was an amazing opportunity for us, but like everything else, this opportunity was taken from us,” she told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

The 22-year-old was due to start a law degree in Dubai, having been forced to abandon her journalism studies under a Taliban government ban.

Effectively imprisoned within their own society women are seeing two decades of hard won progress rapidly unravelling under the Taliban. Some though at great risk to their well-being and lives are courageously determined to defy the Taliban’s edicts.

It was in August last year one year on from the Taliban takeover that a group of women demonstrated in front of the Education Ministry in Kabul, carrying a banner which read “15 August is a black day” and chanting their demands for “bread, work and freedom.”

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“Justice! Justice! We’re fed up with ignorance,” they chanted, many not wearing face veils. Taliban fighters wasted no time in chasing down and beating the women with their rifle butts. Since then there have been other sporadic demonstrations, even if the risks are enormous.

Behind the scenes too, female activists have steadily been building support networks for marginalised women, creating grassroots organisations, documenting cases of gender-based violence, and opening safe spaces for women in various parts of the country.

The courage required to engage in such activism cannot be over overemphasised given the harshness of the penalties when the Taliban regime responds.

Activists point to a growing pattern of arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and enforced disappearances against those who have tried to question the Taliban by way of peaceful protests or by exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Last November three women were flogged in a football stadium in Logar province in front of thousands for what the Taliban called “moral crimes.” According to monitoring groups similar floggings have been reported in Nuristan, Takhar, Kabul, Laghman and Bamiyan provinces.

One report by Khaama Press published on October 15 last year, detailed how one woman who ran away from home after being accused of a “moral crime” was going to be stoned, but the night before the sentence was to be carried out the woman was found dead.

According to a Taliban security official in Ghor province, Abdul Rahman, the woman was sentenced to public stoning due to the lack of a women's prison and she had strangled herself with a scarf.

Earlier last year four women activists, Tamana Paryani, Parwana Ibrahimkhel, Zahra Mohammadi, and Mursal Ayar, went missing after attending an anti-Taliban rally in Kabul. Though the Taliban repeatedly denied detaining them all four were later released after a month missing and unaccounted for. At a safe house some months later Paryani, spoke with the American broadcast network CBS News about her ordeal.

The Herald: Head of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission Shaharzad Akbar speaks during a press conference in Kabul on September 29, 2019. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images).Head of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission Shaharzad Akbar speaks during a press conference in Kabul on September 29, 2019. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images). (Image: free)

Paryani was arrested, she said, because the Taliban believed she was organising protests around the country against their decree that all women must wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, outside their homes.

Paryani’s experience is one that likely mirrors those of other Afghan women detained by the Taliban as are the horrors she underwent during incarceration.

“They tortured me … using cables, pipes and whips … As they were torturing me, they would record it. It was a terrifying experience in that prison,” Paryani said, months after her release and evacuation to Europe.

Confronted with such an onslaught on their rights and lives the toll it takes impacts in other ways too. In the series of interviews conducted by the ANN brought together under the title: What Do Young Afghan Women Do? A Glimpse Into Everyday Life After The Bans, some spoke of the incredible emotional stress they are undergoing.

One young woman, a 24-year-old high school graduate who has lost her job at a private company said, “I feel desperate because I can’t foresee my future. Even if I read or do something useful, I can’t see my place in the future… sometimes, when there’s no work at home, I move the furniture around to cope with the mental stress”.

According to a UN report released in June, across Afghanistan many women and girls are now struggling with a deep sense of despair and mental health challenges.

Reports of depression and suicide are widespread, especially among teenage girls who’ve been prevented from pursuing an education. Almost 8% of people surveyed knew a girl or woman who had attempted suicide, the report said.

Restrictions imposed outside the home and economic hardship had resulted in “significant tensions” inside homes and a rise in domestic violence, and there was “notable evidence” of a “significant increase” in forced marriage of girls, the report found. This is country too with one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. According to UN estimates every two hours an Afghan woman dies during pregnancy or while giving birth.

But two years on from their takeover of power, the Taliban shows no signs of letting up on its crackdown on women. As activist and Nobel Peace prize nominee Mahbouba Seraj says, “the women in Afghanistan are being slowly erased from society, from life, from everything – their opinions, their voices, what they think, where they are.”

Faced with such a prospect what should the international community do? Broadly speaking in terms of any response this usually boils down to two often conflicting schools of thought. The first is that the only way to help is for the international community to engage with the Taliban.

By doing so - while not formally recognising the Taliban - the international community would be able to not only deliver humanitarian assistance but enable it to leverage much-needed influence on an insular and hostile regime.

Such a view has some support from within Afghan civil society itself as well as outside actors. But others argue that the West’s strategy of aid conditionality by asking the Taliban to moderate their behaviour on women’s rights and other issues in return for funding has clearly failed.

Shaharzad Akbar former chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and executive director of Rawadari an Afghan human rights organisation is of the view that “Afghan women and girls have repeatedly affirmed the importance of withholding formal recognition of the Taliban.”

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine this month Akbar underscored the position that engagement should be guided by human rights principles and must be viewed as distinct from formal recognition.

“If our policy is shaped by Afghan women’s recommendations and our commitments to civil society, accountability, and inclusivity, we will signal to the Taliban that no amount of time will weaken our resolve to restore the rights of Afghan women and girls,” Akbar said.

Others meanwhile believe that the West has been guilty of turning its eyes away from Afghanistan ever since its ignominious withdrawal from the country.

That very point was made in the Financial Times last week by Mark Malloch Brown president of Open Society Foundations and former co-chair of the first official donors conference for the post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2002.

“In the US and Britain, many are all too keen to brush the policy failures the country represents under the proverbial carpet; best forgotten before the next elections,” observed Malloch Brown.

Afghanistan has already experienced enough betrayal and there is no easy answer here. But turning our backs on those women who daily face persecution at the hands of the Taliban is certainly not one of them.