by SIMA SAMAR
1994 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee | Afghanistan
The past year, since Taliban took over Afghanistan by force on August 15, 2021, has been a very difficult year for the majority of Afghans, including myself. To be writing about Afghanistan now is very painful. This tragic dismantling of the progress on women’s rights and other human rights over the past two decades is a collective failure of the Afghan government, Afghan people, and the international community, including the United States and the United Nations. The return of the Taliban to power seems surreal. My country is now experiencing a repeat of how the Taliban abolished the basic rights of all Afghans, especially Afghan women, girls and minorities, when they were last in power in 1990s. I did not think I would see this history repeating itself in Afghanistan twice within my own life time.
This article explains how the Taliban project is nothing less than a rejection of international law values, including human rights and women's equality. In stark contrast to the important, though imperfect, nation-building of the past, the Taliban is deconstructing the nation, its institutions and legal frameworks, in the field of women’s rights in particular. Hence, it is inherently incapable of complying with international law, as well as its norms on women’s equality. The Taliban must be effectively countered by principled and coordinated international action, informed by international legal obligations and by lessons from Afghanistan’s past. To make this case, the article surveys the relevant Afghan history, reviews some of the incomplete, but essential, legal and institutional achievements of the 2002-2021 period, especially with regard to the status of women, and charts their undoing by the Taliban, and critiques the current international response.
This article is based on my first-hand observations as a medical doctor who was in training at Kabul University when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, who fled to the central part of the country for my safety and to practice medicine, and who was a refugee in Pakistan for 17 years where I treated women in refugee camps and established a hospital and a non-governmental organization to provide health care, education, and training, particularly for women and girls, inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan. With the fall of the Taliban in 2001, I returned to Afghanistan as the Deputy Chair and Minister for Women’s Affairs of the Afghanistan Interim Administration, and then established the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which I led for 17 years.
The mistakes by Afghans and the international community that led to the Taliban’s takeover on August 15, 2021 and the return of gender apartheid occurred in the context of forty-four years of protracted conflict that involved both super powers and regional actors. Afghanistan has always been a poor country, where the majority of the people are Muslim and live within a patriarchal system. However, we never before had the version of patriarchy and interpretation of Islamic law that Taliban has forced upon the people.
The war in Afghanistan started with a coup d’etat by leftist groups supported by the Soviet Union in 1978. Without any support from outside, people resisted the puppet regime with stones, sticks and very rare shotguns in response to arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and violations of human rights. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support the regime and indiscriminately bombed and destroyed villages. Millions of Afghans were forced to become refugees to neighboring countries. With the Soviet invasion, the US, UK and Saudi Arabia waged a proxy war, providing conservative groups with training, weapons and assistance and supporting the use of religion as a weapon of war to defeat Communism. This was the first of many short-term policy decisions that prolonged the war and empowered those who sought to severely restrict women’s role in society.
After the Soviet withdrawal and collapse of the regime, the international community lost interest. The Mujahidin took power in 1992, and began fighting among each other, committing war crimes and crimes against humanity and violating IHL widely. Women bore the brunt of these human rights violations. Respect for Afghan culture and religion was used as an excuse not to support even the basic human rights for women. Afghan refugee women had no access to reproductive health and contraception, and no ability to plan their families. The birth rate increased, which exacerbated poverty and produced millions of uneducated and unemployed men.
Afghan children’s access to formal education was denied, and replaced with madrassas (religious schools), which were supported by Saudi Arabia, U.S., and U.K. in coordination with Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan boys were taken to these madrassas and kept in complete isolation from their families and brainwashed. Taliban emerged from these madrassas, ready to kill and be killed.
The Taliban first came to rule the country from 1996 to 2001, filling a power vacuum in the civil war. Under the first Taliban regime, Afghanistan became known as the biggest prison for women in the world. Women’s basic rights and freedoms were abolished. Afghanistan became the only country with an official ban on girl’s education. Many other rights also were violated, including freedom of expression and media. Watching TV, taking photographs, and listening to and playing music became crimes. Taliban engaged in arbitrary killing, torture, disappearances, and the mass killing of Hazaras, one of the ethnic groups, which is predominantly Shia. Taliban also targeted the country’s historical sites, such as the Bamyan Buddhas and across the country. Afghanistan became the worlds’ biggest producer of opium, and a safe haven and training ground for extremist Muslims from around the world. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban government.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States removed the Taliban from power. An interim government was installed, on December 22, 2001 which included the first Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the establishment of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. As a result of tremendous sacrifice by Afghans and the international community, remarkable achievements in the country on human rights and women’s rights were made between 2002 and 2021. Women became active in the social, economic, cultural and political aspects of Afghan society, after complete invisibility during Taliban’s first regime.
With the establishment of Afghan Interim administration, people were very hopeful. But the truth was the international community and the new Afghan government lacked the strong political will to build a democratic peaceful society. Instead of a long-term, multi-dimensional strategy, planning was missing and the approach was incoherent.
The international community did not fully understand the history and culture of Afghanistan and its ethnic and religious diversity. Every country that was involved in reconstruction implemented projects in their own way, rather than based on the needs of the people. Contracts were given to companies from their own countries, which then subcontracted to Afghan companies. Most of the projects were designed by men and were not gender sensitive. For example, the contract to build the main road between Kabul and Kandahar, which is about 450 miles in length, was given to an American company for more than $700 million. Not a single public toilet was built for women who had to travel on this long road. Rather than employing young Afghans in a labor-intensive project and promoting community ownership of the project, the contractors used machinery and the profits enriched a few individuals.
Unfortunately, US viewed its intervention in Afghanistan as a success story and in 2003 invaded Iraq. Not only did the US lose its focus on Afghanistan, but it also fueled the recruitment of young Muslim men by terrorist groups and spread of more militant tactics such as suicide bombings. In Afghanistan, corruption and nepotism took hold in the highly centralized government, including in elections and democratic institutions.
The Taliban never fully disappeared from the country’s political reality after removal from power, rather they spent the next 20 years fighting against the people, the newly formed government, and particularly against modernity and democracy in Afghanistan as represented by women’s participation in society. The lack of international coordination and problems within the Afghan government allowed the Taliban to exploit the deprivation in remote provinces to recruit children and unemployed young men to join the “holy war.”
The US peace deal with Taliban on February 29, 2020 and lack of effective management by President Ghani and his corrupt exclusive team allowed Taliban to take control of the country. In August 2021, all of the progress that we had made in establishing institutions, rule of law, and women’s participation in economic, political, and social sectors of society was lost in a matter of a week.
Taliban has not changed as some have claimed. To mention all of the violations of human rights that they have committed would require books. I want to mention a few examples of their destruction and elimination of women from public life. The Taliban did not have a strategy for governance. Instead, they issued more than three dozen decrees and statements in their first year that violate human rights and restrict women’s freedom (Voice, 2022). Their actions erased gains for women and the institutions that made these gains possible. It is clear that the Taliban believe women are their main enemy in the country. To destroy the nation, they have made the female half of the population inferior and property of the male. This policy exacerbates inequality in the family and legitimizes gender discrimination.
While the Afghan government and international community had attempted nation-building, the Taliban did the opposite, seeking to deconstruct the legal and institutional bases of the nation. First on the chopping block was the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWa). Although MoWA could not solve all the problems of Afghan women and cross-cutting actions to promote gender equality were needed in all departments, MoWA became an important symbol of the promise of women’s equality. When the Taliban abolished MoWA, they replaced it with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue.
The second institution that the Taliban abolished was the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which played a central role in the promotion and protection of human rights generally and women’s rights specifically. The Taliban’s next step was to destroy the nation was to undermine the entire concept and value of human rights. One of the basic tenets of Islam is that all human beings are born with equal dignity. However, the Taliban do not respect this equal dignity and view themselves as superior to all. They closed the Election Commission, Election Complaint Commission, Constitution Oversight Commission and all other institutions necessary for democracy and good governance.
Rule of Law:
The Afghan government had sought to create a legal framework in compliance with the country’s international legal obligations. The new constitution ratified in 2004, guaranteed equal rights for men and women. It was the first iteration of the Afghan constitution to contain the word “women.” The constitution also provided for religious liberty, allowing Shias in the country to exercise their personal law. Many other laws were reformed. Importantly, for the first time domestic violence was criminalized with the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law.
The Taliban have made clear through words and actions that they do not respect any of these laws. Taliban Prime Minister publicly proclaimed that all the laws made by people are not good enough for the people, and that we need to implement the “Law of God.” Afghanistan is now the only country without a constitution (Gul, 2022).
Women in Judiciary:
Access to justice is a basic human right guaranteed by conventions and treaties to which Afghanistan is a party. In the last 20 years, some reform in the judicial system was achieved. Women were very much a part of this progress. They served as prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and police officers, often risking their lives to do so. A special prosecutor’s office was established for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. With Taliban’s takeover, women in the system were not only removed from their positions, but that office was abolished as well.
Women in politics:
Over the past 20 years, women were ministers, deputy ministers and other high-level positions. The new constitution requires that 25% of the members of Parliament and provincial councils be women. Women stood for election, and they voted. For example, during the 2004 presidential election, an 80-year old woman in Bamyan walked through extreme cold and snow to cast her vote. This was first time and most probably the last time in her life. Though she might have voted for a person who a male family member told her to vote for, it is still heartbreaking that people’s desire to participate in the political system is now thwarted. Women were part of the Loya Jirga to adopt the constitution. In contrast, when the Taliban had their big gathering few months ago, no women were present. The Deputy Prime Minister said in his speech, “women are our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, we represent them. There is no need for them to be present in the Jirga.” (Scollon, 2022)
Women and Education:
Access to quality education is a human right guaranteed by international law. Education is the strongest tool to change the mentality of a society and to build sustainable peace, reduce poverty, promote development, equality and human rights. Although not all Afghans had access to a good quality education due to insecurity, budget constraints and corruption, more than 3 million girls attended education facilities. In August 2021, Taliban immediately closed down girls’ schools; they promised to reopen them on the March 23, 2022. Unfortunately, when girls attempted to go to school on that date, they were sent home in tears because the school doors remained closed. Now the girls’ schools for 1-6 grades and the universities are open, but grades 7-12 are closed. Afghanistan again has become the only country in the world who officially bans girls from attending secondary school. The Taliban claims that their education ban is Islamic. However, the first message to the prophet Mohammad was “Iqra” (Read). To terrorize the people, on September 30, 2022 a suicide attack in a Kabul training center killed 56 young Hazara girls and injured 110. In response to that it was protest in some of the cities in the country and outside of the country, Taliban dismissed the Hazara girls from the universities.
Women and Health:
Women are allowed to work in the health sector. However, Afghanistan already had a shortage of female health workers. In the past year, those who could left the country. Due to the grave economic crisis, hospitals and clinics lack enough supplies. Before 9/11, Afghanistan had the second highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. In last 20 years the mortality rate reduced to 50%. Unfortunately, since under Taliban the maternal and child mortality rates have again increased. More premature babies have been born due to stress, poor diet, anemia, increases in domestic violence, and lack of healthcare. Women lack of access to reproductive health and contraception, forced them to give birth to unhealthy and more children which increases further the poverty of already poor families.
Women in Security Forces:
More than 3000 women were working as police, which facilitated women’s access to justice. About 1700 women were members of the National Army, including as special forces, pilots and officers. All were forced out of their jobs; some were even killed or disappeared. Those who remain in the country continue to face grave danger to them and their families.
Women and freedom of movement:
Taliban’s decrees empowered patriarchy in the family and in the public sphere. The movement of women is now greatly restricted. They cannot travel more than 70 km without a male relative, cannot go to the parks or eat in restaurants even with a male relative. If women do not cover their faces, the Taliban punishes male relatives. If a taxi driver carries a female passenger who is not fully covered, the driver is punished. As a result, violence against women has increased at home and in public, including child marriage and forced marriage. In short, women have been removed from all aspects of public life, from walking on the streets to participating in journalism, sports, or running small businesses.
The Taliban’s return to power was the result of the 20 years where the international community and Afghan government ignored accountability, allowed impunity for international crimes and violations of IHL by all parties, especially related to women, and tolerated corruption.
Some people argue that the Taliban brought peace and security and that the humanitarian crisis must be addressed before human rights and women’s rights. They forget that the Taliban were the reason for insecurity and the high number of civilian casualties from 2002- 2021 and the humanitarian crisis. It is not peace when half of the population face violence at home and in public, and suffer from hunger. Peace and security mean to live with dignity free from fear and wants. The Taliban wants a graveyard peace in Afghanistan.
Human rights are neither a luxury, nor an exclusively Western value. The international community would do well to remember that if it does not learn lessons from past failures and respond effectively, history could well repeat itself outside of Afghanistan’s borders.
SIMA SAMAR is an Afghan medical doctor celebrated for her extensive work to provide protection and safety, health care, shelter, education, self-reliance and support for Afghan refugee children, girls and women. She received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's premier prize and highest honor, in 1994 for "her acting courageously to heal the sick and instruct the young among the Afghan refugee community in Pakistan and in her war-torn homeland."
Gul, Ayaz. (2022). Taliban PM: Government, Nor Anyone Can Dare Amend Human Rights Set by God. Voice of America. Accessed at https://www.voanews.com/a/6652117.html.
Scollon, Michael. (2022). Taliban’s Handpicked 'Grand Gathering' No Place For Diverse Opinions -- Or Women. Accessed at https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-grand-gathering-women/31923501.html.
Voice. (2022). Taliban Policies Restricting Women’s Rights since August 2021. Accessed at https://voiceamplified.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Talibans-restrictions-on-womens-rights-since-August-2021-updated-0822.pdf.