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Political diary | World must protect Afghan women

Afghan women activists admit that the fear is there.

Kalyani Shankar | New Delhi |

Women have suffered deeply during Afghanistan’s decades of war. Violence against women and their suppression remained the most severe human rights issues during the earlier Taliban regime. Now that the Taliban has captured the country again, will the new regime provide gender justice or suppress women ruthlessly as they did in their earlier rule from 1996 -2001?

The world should be concerned about the fate of Afghan women. Of the total population of 34 million, women constitute 14.2 million. Almost a whole generation of women, including lawyers, lawmakers, doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators, fear their future as they are the most vulnerable now. Historically, women’s rights in Afghanistan have seen ups and downs but they got equality under their 1964 constitution.

This assured universal suffrage and the right to run for office. Afghan women had the right to vote as early as 1919, just one year after women in the UK. Gender segregation was abolished in the 1950s. The sixties saw a new constitution that gave women opportunities to participate in political life. From the seventies onwards, due to instability in the region, these rights began to recede.

During the communist era, both the Afghan government and the Soviets supported equal rights for women. But they were taken away in the 1990s. The Taliban rule was the worst period for women. The life of an Afghan woman under the Taliban regime was not easy. They were primarily confined to their homes. Education and jobs were denied. They had to wear the burqa from the age of eight; a male relative had to accompany them even to go to a doctor.

High-heeled shoes were not allowed. The Taliban carried out public executions, and stoned women accused of adultery. Until 17 September 2020, legally only the father’s name could be recorded on I.D. cards. However, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women’s position began to improve slowly and steadily. In the past two decades, women had access to education and jobs in all fields.

The New York Times points out this week that “Girls and women joined the military and police forces, held political offices, competed in Olympic games and scaled the heights of engineering on robotic teams – things that once seemed unimaginable under the Taliban.” There are more than 200 women judges in Afghanistan, and over 4,000 women in law enforcement.

Two-thirds of the population of Afghanistan is under the age of 30, and they have never experienced what it was to live under Taliban control. Their concern is that progress of women could vanish under the new regime. In fact, the US justified its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 partly based on denial of women’s rights. No doubt the world has supported the women’s cause in Afghanistan. The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, said that the UN was receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights.

“I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan,” he said this week at an emergency meeting of the Security Council. The US has released a joint statement signed by about two dozen nations. They have the new administration to guarantee the protection of women.

“Any form of discrimination and abuse should be prevented. We in the international community stand ready to assist them with humanitarian aid and support, to ensure that their voices can be heard.” The first signals from the Taliban are pretty positive. “All their rights within Islam” is the phrase Taliban spokespersons have used when it comes to the new regime’s attitude towards Afghan women.

They claimed, “We are going to allow women to work and study within our frameworks”. Analysts say the Taliban is running a sophisticated PR campaign to win over both Afghans and the international community. Taliban needs funds and international recognition which is why they show this liberal face to the world But women are adopting a ‘wait and watch’ attitude.

Afghan women activists admit that the fear is there. There are reports that while the top leaders say one thing, the soldiers on the streets continue to behave as before. One might argue that the status of women varies widely across the Muslim world. Some Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have had women prime ministers, while Saudi Arabia only allowed them to drive recently.

Gradually, many Muslim countries have been steadily increasing gender equality. The world has to speak up for Afghan women. Taliban should remember that 2021 is not 1996. The world has moved forward and so have the women of Afghanistan.