Late last December, the Taliban announced plans to ban women from attending universities and girls from attending schools in Afghanistan, one of the most dramatic rollbacks of civil liberties since the militant group seized power in Afghanistan following the U.S.’s withdrawal in 2021. Clearly, this decision will have an immense impact on Afghan citizens, particularly women and girls. But the swift condemnation from Western democracies means this decision could also have major implications on relations between the Taliban and the rest of the international community as the group strives to have its government in Afghanistan formally recognized.
We talked with the following Fellows from the Afghanistan Policy Lab at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs to hear more about their reactions to this extraordinary decision from the Taliban and what it might mean for women and girls in Afghanistan:
- Adela Raz, Director of SPIA Afghanistan Policy Lab and Afghanistan’s Former Ambassador to the U.S. & the U.N.
- Muqadasa Ahmadzai
- Naheed Farid
- Gran Hewad
- Lutf Ali Sultani
- Storai Tapesh
Q. Since the Taliban’s decision in December to ban women from attending universities, what are some of the other actions that have recently been taken against women in Afghanistan?
Raz: Besides banning girls from schools, the Taliban decided to ban women from attending universities, as well as from working outside of their homes. Women are formally banned from being in any formal setting without a male mahram (chaperon) and in some cases, the Taliban even closed businesses that had recruited women at home.
Sultani: Women have also been banned from vocational schools such as tailoring and hand crafts, art schools.. Even the midwifery department of universities, which is very specific for women, has also been closed.
Ahmadzai: In Afghanistan, women do not have access to their basic rights. Despite the ban on education and work, they aren’t allowed to leave the house without a male guardian, and if they raise their voice to defend their rights, they are either brutally tortured or killed.
Farid: In the last 16 months, women of Afghanistan have suffered from clear violations of human rights, fundamental civil rights, restrictions of freedom, and repression of basic rights, not least of which affects women and religious minorities. Women protesters have disappeared, women have been lashed in the public, and some have even been executed.
Religious freedom conditions in Afghanistan have severely deteriorated since the Taliban seized control of the country.Although Taliban officials claim to have reformed certain elements of their organization and ideology, Afghans who do not adhere to the Taliban’s harsh and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam and adherents of other faiths or beliefs face a grave threat. The Taliban consider a conversion from Islam to another religion apostasy, which could be punishable by death according to their interpretation of Shari’a or Islamic law.
Q. What are some of the immediate and long-term implications of these decisions?
Raz: These decisions are arriving at a time when the country is in dire need of humanitarian aid. Banning women from working and not bringing income is a severe challenge for the economy of the country and in the overall humanitarian situation. Humanitarian agencies are greatly impacted by these decisions as they can’t deliver aid effectively anymore. These decisions also impact the willingness of the donor community to continue sending additional funding to Afghanistan.
Sultani: The consequence of depriving girls and women from work and education will be disastrous. In the short term, it can cause early and forced marriages. As a result of being deprived of education, many Afghan women have suffered from acute mental illnesses such as depression, which in some cases have led to suicide.
A large number of women, especially in cities, are the sole breadwinners of their families. Now, with the ban imposed by the Taliban, they can no longer work and are practically at risk of starvation. The long-term effect of women's exclusion from work and education will be more disastrous. Uneducated women with severe psychological injuries will deliver defective children to the society. With the method Taliban have adopted and the educational curriculum they intend to adapt, the group will practically turn Afghanistan into a country with terrorist and misogynistic thoughts, which could be a potential and serious threat to the international order and security.
Tapesh: The recent decisions and edicts had devastating impacts on women and girls. It already jeopardizes the very basic rights of women. Excluding women and girls from education sector, universities, and employment is creating a wider gender gap and will have lifelong impacts on the present and future generations. It will erase women from social life and it will push the people towards further poverty and starvation. Meanwhile, it will force more families and youth to cross the borders as refugees and reside in neighboring countries.
Ahmadzai: If this situation continues, the short term will result in the worst consequences. When the female half of the current generation is deprived of their basic rights, not attending schools and not going to work will bring complications such as poverty, which will lead to cut ties between people and government, and then people will start psychological and physical action against the Taliban. Finally, this situation will end the Taliban's regime.
In the long term, the implication will be not only for Afghanistan and its people but also for the whole world, when the women of a society do not have access to their basic rights and illiterate and weak children are raised in the society. Poverty and illiteracy are something that people do anything for in order to make a living or feed their family. If the world is going to save millions of people from terrorism and then save the world from these terrorists, then there must be a trustworthy and responsible alternative government.
Farid: UNDP studies shows the work-capacity of women with the same education level is the same as men. This is a level we didn’t arrive at easily. Imagine what happens to this figure once uneducated women don’t have the capacity to compete in the workforce. The data is striking and scary. We are talking about 700,000 jobs lost only in 6 months since the Taliban takeover.
I am hearing more and more stories from Afghanistan of women choosing to take their lives out of hopelessness and despair. This is the ultimate indication on how bad the situation is for Afghan women and girls, that death is seen as preferable to living in today’s Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Q. Currently, 97% of the population of Afghanistan lives in poverty, two-thirds are in needs of humanitarian assistance. Are there any actions that are being taken — or should be taken — by the US or other countries to challenge these decisions and address the humanitarian crisis?
Raz: There is not an immediate solution to these challenges. There has to be a continued pressure on the Taliban from the international community, but practical solutions that could change the lives of girls and women in Afghanistan should be carved, such as girls’ online education.
Sultani: After the Taliban imposed serious restrictions on women, hundreds of Afghan girls have fled to neighboring and regional countries such as Pakistan, Iran, India, and Central Asian countries. They have yet to find their way and struggle with financial issues and many other challenges. Some of them have been admitted to universities, but due to not knowing local languages such as Russian and Kazakh (for example), so they cannot continue their studies as they should. Thus, donor countries, on top the United States can:
- Help girls navigate the path they have taken more easily by launching English and local language training courses in these countries.
- Launch short-term training programs for learning skills such as working with basic computer programs.
- Organize workshops on how to apply for scholarships in other countries. Create networks of Afghan women in these countries to support each other and use each other's experiences.
- Ask any training participants once they complete their courses to additionally train at least 10 other girls in Afghanistan virtually. Although virtual education could not be count as an effective alternative to traditional education, it is better than doing nothing.
- Negotiate with the universities in the region, such as the American University for Women in Kyrgyzstan, India, and Bangladesh, to provide scholarships for Afghan girls, as well as work with these countries to issue visas for Afghan girls and their male companion so that they can travel.
- Put more pressure on Afghanistan to reverse from its position by sanctioning Taliban officials. Since the group is trying to gain international legitimacy, banning their high ranked officials from traveling could be an impactful tool. However, it is crucial to continue humanitarian aid in a way that the Taliban do not benefit from it. Because currently 97% of Afghanistan's population is poor, if these aids are cut off the world will witness an unprecedented humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.
Tapesh: In the short-term, the U.S. and other countries who provide aid to Afghanistan should allow female staff to work remotely and pay their salaries on regular basis.
The international community must urge Taliban to reconsider and reverse this directive and allow women to participate in aid delivery and provide other essential services to those in need.
Ahmadzai: The United Nations and other international organizations should continue and increase their assistance, because stopping humanitarian assistance is not a solution to the current situation in Afghanistan.
Farid: The international community was good at holding up statements of solidarity or putting up resolutions these past 16 months. But for the most part they are symbolic gestures. The U.S., U.N., EU and other international players have not yet fully committed to putting substance behind that symbolism and putting advocacy on action, whether it is an individual sanction, utilizing the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction human rights offenders, supporting human rights advocates or tackling any result-oriented process that improves the situation for women on the ground.
It’s important for all democracies in the world to join in persuading for a better and more equitable and democratic world.
Q. Is there anything else you want to add?
Ahmadzai: A trustworthy and responsible alternative government is the solution to the current situation in Afghanistan, one that can control and manage the tough economic situation of the region for the benefit of Afghanistan and the world. This is a very good time for such an action. Looking at the current situation and the harsh rules of the Taliban, it can be said with certainty that the Taliban cannot be sustained, so to save Afghanistan from this isolated situation, it is absolutely imperative that an alternative political framework exist.
Hewad: One could say, Afghanistan has been going through apparently stable but critical processes of its being. An absolute majority of the population is victim of the repression that the Taliban have been practicing. However, women and girls are the direct and most affected layer of the society. Engagement and sustainable dialogue with the Taliban are inevitable. Despite the fact that the efficiency of before mentioned approaches is unmeasurable, wait and see hasn't helped either. Persistent engagement and dialogue, however, could maximize awareness of the United States regarding the frequency and parameters of unpredictable moves of the Taliban.
Farid: All Afghan women, regardless of where they are, feel abandoned by the international community, feel like their voices are unheard and their demands not reflected in any of the discussions and policies impacting the future of their country.
The news about Afghanistan may fade away from the headlines, but history proves that turning a blind eye will only result in disaster. Moral hazard also arises from ignoring Afghan suffering, particularly the suffering of Afghan women and girls who already feel abandoned and betrayed by the international community.
From a United Nations Security Council standpoint, as we face having different member states on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) front and acting as a pen-holder for Afghanistan, new members must show a renewed commitment to maintaining sanctions, denying the Taliban a representative in the National Assembly and furthering sanctions and travel bans on top leaders. It remains to be seen if additional moves are successful in persuading the Taliban to be more amenable to the demands of the international community, or whether this will be another instance of the Council’s inability to address a fragile situation of peace and security.
SPIA Reacts is a series of interviews with SPIA experts addressing current events.