What follows is a guest blog by Tahmina Sobat and Roqia Samim, two human rights defenders from Afghanistan.
We are both old enough and young enough to remember the brutality of the Taliban’s rule in the 90s. We still remember our struggle to stay strong in a society that didn’t give girls the same value and opportunity as boys – merely for their gender – and the weight it placed on girls and women at a very young age to exist in the shadows. For the five-year-old Roqia, it was an all-time disappointment not to be able to carry her little red backpack and a constant fear that the Taliban might take it from her on the way to the secret school where she was attending classes with her sisters. For Tahmina, still, there is no word to describe the heavy burden of keeping the joy of learning a secret. Tahmina studied from first to third grade in an underground school that her mom (a former school teacher who was forced to become a stay-at-home-mom during the previous Taliban regime) had created to teach the neighborhood girls and her. Hence, having these lived experiences, we promised ourselves and our families that we would always fight for equality and women’s human rights. As the dark history of the Taliban in Afghanistan repeats itself with the Taliban back in power, banning and depriving women of their rights to education and employment, our anti-war feminist and human rights vision for Afghanistan keeps us invigorated to keep that promise.
On August 15, 2021, after the Taliban forcibly overturned the democratically elected Afghan government, the status of women’s rights was decimated in Afghanistan. The constitutional, legal, and policy commitments to ensure women’s rights are currently being expunged by the Taliban, ultimately denying women and girls most of their hard-won fundamental rights. Despite initially promising a more moderate rule – implying respecting rights for women and minorities – the Taliban have implemented their restrictive interpretation of Sharia law since they seized power in Afghanistan in the broadest possible manner. This started with an initial ban on secondary schools for girls; followed by depriving women of participation in almost all spheres of society and public life, including restaurants, parks, and gyms; and imposing hijab rules and gender segregation in the few institutions that were supposed to provide educational and employment opportunities for women. On top of these, in another cruel and inhumane step, following decrees dated December 20 and December 25, 2022, the Taliban officially banned girls from universities, and deprived women of their right to employment at all levels, with immediate effect. Once again, an imposed isolation and removal from society has been forced on Afghan women and girls.
Analysis of the Situation
We strongly believe that the Taliban’s actions against women contravene Islamic rules, national laws of Afghanistan, jus cogens or peremptory norms of international law, human rights, and human and ethical values and standards, which can not be derogated from under any circumstance or situation. More importantly, as Afghan women, we can state that it is against the culture and beliefs of the people in Afghanistan to forcibly isolate us from having a meaningful participation in society. It is particularly difficult to witness, given women’s long-standing advocacy and hard work in the past two decades to reappear in society and reclaim their place and identity. With the recent decrees, the Taliban, unfortunately, have made Afghanistan the only country in the world where women are deprived of their basic and fundamental rights and totally erased from society. We can undoubtedly say that Afghan women are facing the world’s worst human and women’s rights crisis. This crisis needs immediate attention and concrete action from the United Nations to support Afghan women and uplift the voices of their activism and resistance. The Taliban’s indefensible restrictive rules on women’s rights not only magnify the gender rights gap and deepen inequality in a way that will have a lasting effect on current and future generations, but also increase instances and acceptance of already normalized violence against women in Afghanistan.
A simple glance at the international human rights law instruments reveals how these systematic and intentional oppression imposed on Afghan women undermines the integrity of the basic principles of human rights law. Afghan women are deprived of their fundamental human rights while these rights, among others, are protected by several universal and regional human rights instruments. The principles of non-discrimination and equality are among the core principles of human rights, and both together provide the foundation for the enjoyment of human rights. The principle of “non-discrimination” is a key provision in the UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, and many more instruments, serving as a foundational principle that informs the reading of all other human rights in the UDHR, as well as a substantive right itself. Article 1 of UDHR states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 2 of the UDHR proclaims that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or another status.” Listing these tools highlights the terrible truth that the Taliban flagrantly disregard and make it apparent that they do not believe in or respect these rights. It is important to emphasize once more how brutally the Taliban have attacked the most fundamental human rights, which are well-protected by both these mechanisms and the consciousness of humanity.
From the beginning of peace negotiations with the Taliban, we, as human rights defenders and most Afghan women, were never optimistic and hopeful about a joint future where the Taliban would respect and preserve women’s rights. Despite the Taliban’s many assurances of respecting and protecting human rights, their exclusionary policies, which include eliminating all legal and protective structures and mechanisms (which were set up and established based on provisions in Afghanistan’s Constitution to protect and promote human rights and women’s rights – give lie to the idea that they ever changed their extremist ideology and hardline laws on women and human rights. What many feared, that any reintegration of the Taliban into society would mean a repetition of past horrors or an invitation to even darker days, is coming to pass. Yet, women bravely raised their concerns against any peace deal with the Taliban on many occasions. What is especially deplorable is that these voices – the voices of those who would be most affected – were never heard in the US-led negotiations with the Taliban, in the intra-Afghan peace talks, and by the regional and international actors involved in the process. Regrettably, the erasure of women’s voices by the negotiating parties mirrors the current condition of the country and women.
The Taliban’s bans on the education and employment for women serve to establish gender apartheid and to enact a policy of animosity, discrimination, and oppression against women in Afghanistan. The destructive impacts of these policies are not only limited to women’s identity and situation; rather, by excluding half of the population, the Taliban have undermined the development of the whole country and its people at large. Once again, the Taliban’s despicable policies against women have proven to be extremely threatening to all aspects of Afghan people’s lives, from the structures of the family to the social, economic, political and legal foundations of Afghanistan, as well as regional and global peace and security. For instance, as a result of the ban on women’s employment, some national and international human and women rights organizations, such as the IRC, NRC, CARE, Save the Children, and many others, have had to suspend their programs in Afghanistan because it is impossible for them to function properly and to reach all groups of people in need without their female staff. It is evident that it negatively impacts many Afghan female employees (including human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, and humanitarian service providers) who will lose or have already lost their jobs, given the employment ban and suspension of work in these organizations. Also, not to forget the female breadwinners under the poverty line who would be deprived of their incomes and of their right to contribute positively to the well-being of their families and fellow citizens. Over and above that, these unjustifiable restrictive rules have created unimaginable levels of uncertainty for women and girls, which massively damages their mental health and self-confidence. It is mainly because the loss of one’s future is unimaginable, and this is the impact of the Taliban’s policies against women and girls as every door closes to them.
Our analysis of Afghanistan’s current situation suggests that the Taliban authorities’ main motive for the exclusionary policies against women and for taking their rights hostage is to use it as a bargaining chip to gain international recognition. It should be noted that the current Taliban de facto authorities have no recognition, place, or legality to the people of Afghanistan, specifically women, and should have no standing in the international community. We remind all that given the Taliban’s clear violation of human rights and international norms, any support or recognition of the Taliban de facto authorities by regional and international powers is a recognition and acceptance of these breaches of human rights that can only be followed by international responsibility and accountability for all involved. Therefore, in order to drive possible solutions for the current crisis, a transnational discourse should be held, and an urgent and robust mechanism for restoring human rights in Afghanistan should be initiated. Hence, we call on the United Nations and other advocates of humanity to take action beyond mere condemnation of the Taliban’s inhumane acts and to meaningfully engage and support Afghan women’s movements and resistance against the unfathomably restrictive rules of the Taliban.
In addition, it is unfortunate to remind all that throughout history, Afghan women’s meaningful participation and their contribution to creating their future in Afghanistan have continually been impacted by the bio-political policies (in Michel Foucault’s words) and politics of rightful killings (in Dr. Sima Shakhsari’s words) implemented by the national, regional and international powers involved. So, their narratives and figures have been deemed surplus and unimportant, allowing the Taliban to further promote this erasure of women through their policies. For us, this absence of Afghan women’s narratives is the ghost that has been haunting us. Thus, for once, we aim to convey Afghan women’s direct and immediate demands about their lives and future to the world. Doing so, we invite the world’s women’s activists and human rights defenders to critically raise the questions which Afghan women boldly ask: whose life is worthy? And whose death and marginalization from a meaningful life are justified? What does justify the rightfulness of Afghan women’s death and suffocation under the inhumanity of the Taliban’s illegitimate regime?
Consequently, to ensure the respect and protection of the rights of all Afghan women and to meaningfully support their advocacy and resistance against the Taliban, we recommend the following concrete actions:
- The urgent intervention of the United Nations and other human rights organizations and defenders and women’s rights advocates to demand the immediate reversal of the recent edicts of the Taliban de facto authorities concerning women’s rights as well as immediate restoration of all denied rights.
- Initiating a transnational negotiation with the Taliban de facto authorities regarding Afghanistan’s political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis, with due attention to all Afghans’ needs and red lines. These negotiations must result in the formation of an inclusive government based on elections and a pluralistic society.
- Closing the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, which has given a sense of political recognition to the Taliban since the time of its emergence.
- Refraining from any de facto or de jure recognition of the Taliban by the United Nations and all States, as well as denying any credentials to the Taliban as the official representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations. We firmly believe that the egregious, open, and unapologetic erasure of all forms of women’s rights in Afghanistan is more than enough justification to deny the Taliban’s bid for formal recognition at the UN Credentials Committee.
- Implementing new or additional sanctions on all Taliban members currently in power (not just previously black-listed Taliban leaders), prohibiting bank accounts, air travel, and international transactions for themselves and any immediate family members.
- Bringing transparency to the process of international humanitarian aid to ensure it reaches the Afghan people in need and to avoid financing the Taliban.
- Providing funding, educational opportunities, and scholarships to girls and women from Afghanistan suffering from extreme oppression.
- Accepting Afghan students in their last university semesters to online courses and programs leading to the conferral of the completion certificates and relevant degrees. Due to the economic crisis in Afghanistan and lack of or uneven internet access, this should definitely encompass the issue of finding ways and means for students to join these online programs. Also, the UN should facilitate multilateral coordination for regional and international powers to invite Afghan students to study in different institutes and universities in member states.
- Appointing a United Nations representative to lead a renewed push to promote women’s right to education while executing an international policy highlighting the Taliban’s failed promise to support Afghan women’s access to education.
- Establishing an independent international monitoring and investigation mechanism to monitor the human rights situation in Afghanistan as well as investigate, document, and record human rights violations in a comprehensive database in order to hold the Taliban accountable for the egregious human rights violations going on in Afghanistan.
- Addressing the need for urgent attention to the economic crisis that has been enormously triggered by the recent women’s employment ban and threatens the economy’s collapse in Afghanistan, affecting all Afghans’ lives.
#AllOrNone #LetHerLearn #LetAfghanGirlsLearn #StandWithAfghanWomen #StopGenderAparteid
Tahmina Sobat is a women’s human rights lawyer from Afghanistan. She obtained a law degree from the Herat University of Afghanistan in 2015. She earned her LLM degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame in 2020 and her second master’s degree in Gender and Women Studies through the Fulbright Scholarship at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Currently, she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Feminist Studies in the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Minnesota. She has also been through a fruitful career path. She started her professional experience working as a Monitoring and Evaluation Assistant for Women Empowerment Program at Zardozi Organization, followed by her next position as Ombuds-person deputy at Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. During her Ph.D., she aims to conduct research titled “The Role of Grassroots Feminism in Demilitarization and Peace-Building in Afghanistan.”
Roqia Samim works as a senior research associate for Notre Dame Law School’s LL.M. Program in International Human Rights Law and leads the program’s institutional collaboration with the Afghan Peace and Development Program at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for Peace Studies. Samim has an LL.M. degree from Notre Dame Law School and an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Law and Political Science, Herat University, Afghanistan. She worked with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) from 2019 to 2020 in the Political Affairs Service and Human Rights Service to promote Sustainable Development Goals for Gender Equality, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Samim’s recent publication is on the State of Women’s Rights and Freedoms after the Taliban’s Takeover of Afghanistan.