Afghan Women’s Rights in Turmoil as US Troops Withdraw
(1) On July 8, President Joe Biden announced in a White House speech that US troops will finish withdrawing from Afghanistan by August 31, ahead of the original September 11 deadline he set in April. The withdrawal marks the end of America’s longest war, but it also poses severe risks for Afghanistan’s progress over the last two decades — particularly in the sphere of women’s rights, which the Taliban has notoriously obstructed.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan have always fluctuated. As a kingdom in the bulk of the 1900s, Afghanistan largely promoted women’s rights, from education, unveiling, and lessened patriarchal control; throughout the reigns of different leaders, women generally gained greater freedom and protections. However, after taking power in 1996, the Taliban imposed strict, brutal policies based on its interpretation of the Islamic Sharia law, forcing women to wear a burqa at all times in public, prohibiting women from receiving education or pursuing a job, and introducing gender segregation. Further, women couldn’t go outside without a male companion, couldn’t appear on television or at public gatherings, and couldn’t speak loudly in public areas, otherwise facing public beatings and potential execution. Child marriage and domestic violence were common, not only during the Taliban’s reign but also after the Taliban’s fall—the World Health Organization reported that in 2015, 90% of women in Afghanistan have experienced at least one form of domestic violence. A 2011 international poll from BBC found that Afghanistan ranked as “the most dangerous country for women.”
Women have regained their basic rights since the Taliban's fall in 2001, but many still face severe challenges and discrimination. According to UNICEF, only 19% of women under 15 years old in Afghanistan are literate, and of the almost 4 million children who are not in school, 60% are women. Women in rural areas particularly, where roughly 76% of Afghan women live, have seen little to no improvements since the Taliban’s fall. All across Afghanistan, more and more women have been forced to seek education in underground classrooms due to the Taliban’s growing power. (3)
In February 2020, the US and the Taliban signed a historic deal to first withdraw US and NATO troops from Afghanistan—leaving the fate of Afghan women in the hands of the Taliban and Afghan government, which, since September of last year, has been conducting arguably shaky peace talks. Notably, no women are included on the Taliban’s delegation team, and only four women are included on the Afghan government’s team of 21 members. (4)
Despite its statements on negotiation and peace, the Taliban has captured what it says to be more than 200 districts, almost half of the 421 total districts in Afghanistan, claiming that the advances were bloodless. Analysts such as Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network , say that “the Taliban have used the peace talks as a tool for the war” to gain legitimacy in their territorial advances. The group’s most recent advances centered on northern Afghanistan, originally a stronghold of the US and NATO, and the Taliban has since ordered residents to follow policies similar to those imposed during the Taliban’s last rule, dashing hopes of any change in the Taliban’s ideology. Ross Wilson, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, said in a tweet last Wednesday that “the Taliban offensive is bringing hardship to communities across Afghanistan already grappling with drought, poverty & COVID.” Experts say that the Taliban is now stronger than at any point since its downfall. (2)
According to analysts, Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan benefits the US in terms of money —over $2 trillion was spent on the war—and in terms of being able to focus on other national interests such as security and infrastructure, especially with a majority of Americans favoring the withdrawal. However, with the Taliban’s growing power and brutality, the risks and moral issues still stand. In an interview with DW, Former President George W. Bush criticized Biden’s decision, saying that “Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm. They're just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, [the Taliban,] and it breaks my heart.”