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Global gender politics faces its greatest challenge in Afghanistan

As the Taliban moves to take over power from the Americans, the worst nightmare of the Afghan women might be returning. The world will not be able to look away.

Sketches from the drawing book of one of the girl students killed in the most recent bomb attack in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy: Arab News.

Who killed around 85 girls, school children almost all of them, in a bomb attack in Afghanistan? Who would knowingly place bombs outside a secondary school in Kabul? It is widely suspected, the Taliban.

Taliban rebels are angling to take over the Afghan government as the American troops leave the country after two decades, having the lost the war, as the Soviets before them, and the British, to Afghan mercenaries. The Sunni Islamist Taliban, ostensibly a movement of conservative students, have not been defeated, and they are raring to make a comeback.

But in conversation after conversation, interview after interview, Afghan women have said that they are petrified of the return of a regime that – last time they were in power, between 1996-2001 – normalized the daily occurrence of public trashing, ban from any educational or professional activity, and everyday torture of women for the slightest deviation from the most stringent application of the sharia or Muslim personal law (including a rigorous enforcement of the hijab that only left two slits for the eyes to see, and that too usually under a netted screen).

It was a bullet of the Pakistani Taliban, a sort of brethren of the Afghan Taliban, which almost killed Malala Yousufzai as she was returning home on a bus after a school exam. The Afghan Taliban kept women, under the threat of extreme violence, under house arrest, and off the streets.

Gender equality and women’s rights were enshrined in the 1964 Afghan constitution, which the country was still ruled by a king, and when the first non-royal prime minister was sworn in.

For some time, it seemed at least some (elite and upper classes) of Afghanistan were modernizing in the Western way. It was a time remembered these days in before after comparisons through images on social media where the ‘before’ in a photo like this of Afghan women in Western clothing including short skirts (as seen below),

and others slightly more modestly, though modernly, dressed in Western-style scarf head coverings…

… and the ‘after’, in top-to-bottom shrouded images from the Taliban years.

This comparison is a tad simplistic because only a small fraction of the women, even in Afghanistan’s most Westernised years, led the kind of life the first image above suggests.

But it would be accurate to point out that even during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (between 1979-89), opportunities especially to study and work for women were ample compared to the horrors of the Taliban years.

Afghan women at a technical school in the years the country was occupied by the Soviet Union.

What are even more remarkable examples are these instances,

Just to understand how complex the problem is, consider that the head of this team was a girl, Khalida Popal, who risked death under the Taliban to play football, and then faced death threats again, years later, when she was the main whistleblower in exposing sexual abuse in women's football in the country. She now lives in asylum in Denmark. Even in relatively peaceful times, without Taliban control, women's rights in Afghanistan, as seen from Popal's example, are nebulous. When the Taliban comes to power, it becomes exponentially worse.

(b) The second example is the first yoga centre in Kabul, started in 2016, and whose founder Fakhria Momtaz expressed the hope in a conversation with Global Order’s sister platform, Grin, that the return of the Taliban would not be so barbaric (a hope is seeming increasingly belied following bombings like the latest one). That the bombing happened in an area largely populated by the minority, and heavily discriminated against, Hazara community. The Hazara are Shia as opposed to the Sunni Taliban; Shias and Sunnis, the two main sub-sections among Muslims, have a violent history of conflict.

As the quest of gender justice gathers strength around the world, not the least in America with its first ever woman vice president in Kamala Harris, Afghanistan is looking increasingly like it will prove to be one of the toughest challenges for the global community in seeking equity and freedom for women.

If the Taliban, upon its return to power, start acute oppression of women, countries around the world would be compelled, not only through the norms of global justice, but also through increasingly vocal women leadership and female voter bases to act stringently.

This is currently not discussed enough as a major area of friction, swamped as the Afghanistan debate is on matters of geopolitical security, and further ‘Great Game’ jousting, this time between America and China in the mineral resource-rich country.

That the gender angle is so under debated is already one of the most shameful aspects about the ongoing deliberations on Afghanistan’s future.

In 2020, Afghan police-woman-turned-filmmaker, and a vocal critic of the Taliban’s oppression of women, Saba Sahar, was shot by three assailants, and barely escaped with her life. She took four bullets and was in coma for almost a full day.

This puts a deep question mark on the future of young girl scientists in the country, like the three teenage girls in Herat, who have developed a low-cost ventilator to fight Covid-19. They are part of something called the Afghan Girls Robotics Team.

Such questions are going to increasingly haunt the world about Afghanistan.


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