Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Mothers & the Disappeared

The Signal

How bad is the Taliban’s recent clampdown on women? Heather Barr on a new catastrophe for human rights in Afghanistan.
Isaak Alexandre
Isaak Alexandre
The Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued the decree on behalf of the Taliban on Saturday, May 7: The women of Afghanistan must now wear head-to-toe coverings whenever they’re in public—and should generally not be in public at all. The order represents a dramatic intensification of the Taliban’s already extreme patriarchal rule in the country, where the militant Islamist group retook power following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last August. On Tuesday, May 10, women marched through the streets of the capital, Kabul, to protest the new restrictions. Western leaders voiced their opposition. And the U.S. State Department called the Taliban’s treatment of women generally “an affront to human rights” that would continue to hinder Afghanistan’s relationship with other countries. Where is this going?
Heather Barr is the associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Barr says the government’s current policy and conduct represent an almost complete reversion to what life was like for women and girls when the Taliban was originally in power between 1996 and 2000—leaving many women and girls feeling they have nothing left to lose, and in some cases possibly nothing left to live for. It’s a disaster compounded by the fact that a generation of women and girls were able to take advantage of greater freedom and educational opportunities over the past two decades. As Barr sees it, there’s still an opening for free countries around the world to pressure the Taliban meaningfully on women’s rights, but these countries have yet to show a real commitment to the kind of unified, strategic action that would take.
Graham Vyse: What has the Taliban done to implement the new decree?
Heather Barr: Taliban decrees are largely self-implementing. People tend to comply automatically, because the Taliban has such a fearsome history of terrorizing the Afghan public. Taliban supporters and sympathizers also take an active role in enforcing their orders, even without specific orders. One of the most pernicious aspects of this latest decree is that it forces all men to be complicit in its enforcement, making their female family members prisoners in their own homes.
What’s most important about the decree isn’t the rules about clothing; it’s that rule saying women shouldn’t leave their homes unless it’s necessary regardless of what they’re wearing—and it’s unclear whether the Taliban considers going to school or going to work necessary. All this represents a serious escalation in what was already horrifying, growing oppression by the Taliban since they took full control of the country on August 15.
Vyse: What do we know about the public reaction in Afghanistan to the decree?
Barr: We know there’s been at least one protest by women. It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously brave you have to be to protest an order like this. Women began protesting immediately after August 15, and the Taliban’s response has been brutal from the start. They beat protesters; they beat and detained journalists who covered the protesters. That kind of abuse escalated early this year, when they pepper-sprayed protesters in Kabul, beat them, threatened them, and followed some of them home. They detained a group of protesters for several weeks, too, releasing them only after coercing confessions from them.
Vyse: What do we know about the women who’ve been protesting?
Barr: After August 15, the Taliban made a concerted effort to track down known human-rights activists. Many of the best-known activists fled the country, but then a whole new group emerged. They’ve tended to be younger women and, in many cases, weren’t involved in women’s-rights activism in the past. The impact of Taliban abuses on their lives has been so extreme that many feel they have nothing left to lose. They’re ready to face whatever retaliation comes, risking their lives by going into the streets and speaking out. It’s very moving and inspiring, and also frightening, to watch them. I have such fear for their safety.
The Afghan activist Pashtana Durrani gave an interview after Saturday’s decree in which she said, “There is nothing left to ban.” That’s a good summation of where things are. The Taliban appointed an all-male cabinet. They abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replaced it with a reinstated Ministry of Virtue and Vice. They banned girls’ secondary education and put restrictions on universities that made it very difficult for most women to continue to attend. They banned women from most professions and dismantled the system built in recent decades to deal with gender-based violence, including domestic violence. They’ve imposed new regulations making it much more difficult for women to get health care—a requirement, for example, that women can only see female health-care providers or, in some places, banning women from going to a health-care facility without a male family member chaperoning.
Joel Heard
Joel Heard
More from Heather Barr at The Signal:
The Taliban enforce their rules through violence. We’ve gathered reports of women beaten on the streets by Taliban officials who thought that the women didn’t have their faces covered when they should have, or decided that their scarves weren’t pulled down far enough, or noticed that someone was wearing lipstick. We’ve also documented reports of the Taliban seeing a woman on the street who they deem improperly dressed, demanding to know where she lives, and then going immediately to her house and beating or threatening a male family member. These responses are ferocious and immediate, with no due process.”
When they retook power last year, the Taliban said that they fully respected women’s rights—including the right to work and study—and that they didn’t intend to put any restrictions on them. Women’s-rights activists and women who’d previously lived under the Taliban never believed these assurances. They thought they were nonsense. But a lot of diplomats—from the West in general and the U.S. in particular—were eager to believe them. The only significant difference I see between the 1996-2001 policies and today’s is that the Taliban are currently allowing girls to go to primary school.”
The Taliban seems more interested in their own status—in being respected—than in having the financial system of their country functioning or the people in their country able to eat. They seem to be concerned about travel restrictions and sanctions on their leaders. They seem to be very focused on being allowed to occupy Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations. The way a senior diplomat put it recently was that the Taliban want to be congratulated. That’s shocking to us, but they see themselves as having defeated the world’s greatest military power—as having won this glorious victory—and they don’t understand why they don’t hear any cheering.”

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