Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been the subject of debate and conflict for more than a century, with efforts to improve their status followed by moves to roll them back. As the country comes to terms with yet another era of rule by the Taliban, rights advocates fear a return to the darkest days of the past. The Taliban have said that the group has moderated, yet there’s not a single woman in the new cabinet and officials have announced that women will only be allowed to study at universities in gender-segregated classrooms. Islamic dress is compulsory. 

Under the monarchy 

King Amanullah Khan, who ruled for a decade starting in 1919, pushed for Western-style reforms intended to modernize the country. Inspired by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, he introduced a new constitution that sought to guarantee rights for women as well as men. Child marriage was banned, polygamy discouraged, and the jurisdiction of religious leaders narrowed. Women were no longer required to wear the veil. Queen Soraya, who opened the first girl’s school in Kabul, became a champion of women’s rights. The fast pace of change was lauded abroad but rattled conservatives in the largely tribal society, provoking revolt. The king was eventually forced to abdicate in 1929. His successor, Mohammed Nadir Shah, repealed the most progressive policies, but the backlash was short-lived. Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973 and was the last king of Afghanistan, reintroduced many of Amanullah’s initiatives, albeit more cautiously. In 1964, women helped draft a new constitution, which gave them the right to vote and allowed them to seek elected office. They got jobs, ran businesses and entered politics. Tensions with traditionalists never went away, but women protested any attacks on their rights. 

After the monarchy

In 1979, the pro-Soviet general who’d overthrown Zahir Shah was killed in a coup, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed a Marxist puppet regime. The status of women began to erode when the state descended into civil war between the communist troops and their opponents, including Islamist fighters called mujahedeen. After the Soviets retreated in 1989, the Taliban, which formed in the early 1990s as a movement among pious youth, eventually gained the upper hand. They marched through the country promising peace and modern government, but the reality was different under their rule from 1996 to 2001, especially for women. They were banned from school, work, speaking in public and even from leaving their homes unless escorted by a male, and they were forced to cover themselves in the burqa, a one-piece garment that covers the entire head and body. Penalties for violations included public lashings and death by stoning. The suicide rate among women rose. Their access to health care dropped because of the restrictions on their movements and a requirement to use women-only hospitals and wards. Women were excluded from political life, including all kinds of governance. 

The U.S. presence

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his group’s Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. When bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the U.S. mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking, with improving the lives of Afghan women and girls a central focus. The country’s 2004 constitution contains specific provisions guaranteeing women’s rights and quotas to ensure they’re part of the political process. Girls and women joined the army and police forces, trained as surgeons, judges and prosecutors, and worked as journalists, translators and television presenters. 

Gaps in progress

Despite these advances, Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Polls suggest that almost 90% of Afghan women experience abuse in their lifetimes. According to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, the justice system largely ignored a 2009 law that makes 22 acts toward women criminal offenses, including rape, battery, forced marriage, preventing women from acquiring property, and banning a woman or girl from going to school or work. Reforms didn’t spread to rural areas, where they were often seen as un-Islamic and counter to traditions. The absence of an effective central government meant that in territory controlled by conservative military commanders and religious leaders, women’s rights continued to be severely curtailed. Cases of rape and sexual abuse by militia members were common in rural areas, human rights groups have reported. Women have faced restrictions on their movements and have been required to wear the burqa. Rights groups also say the practice of exchanging girls and young women to settle feuds or to repay debts continued in these areas, as have high rates of early and forced marriage. 

The new Taliban regime 

Taliban leaders, who’ve been promoting a softer image of the group, say they will respect women’s rights within the framework of sharia, or Islamic law. However, sharia is subject to the interpretation of jurists, clerics and politicians, and the Taliban justified their previous policies toward women on the basis of it. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said that his organization was “receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” throughout the country and that he was particularly concerned by accounts of mounting violations against women. Militants in northern areas told some female employees of Afghanistan International Bank, the country’s largest by assets, to leave and go home, a bank official said. Reports have emerged of forced marriages. As the Taliban began laying out the policies of the new regime, an official said women would be banned from playing sport. Female students have also been told they’re only allowed to be taught by women and the subjects being offered at universities would be reviewed. 

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