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What hope for women and girls under the Taliban?

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LAST year, even before the US and its allies signalled their intention to quit Afghanistan and leave it to the tender mercies of the Taliban, it was the second most dangerous country in the world to be a woman; only the hell that is Yemen ranked worse.  

Most of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks of 2001 were products of training camps in Afghanistan run by fundamentalist Muslims.

In Misogyny, the World’s Oldest Prejudice, Jack Holland records that Mohammed Atta, who flew American AirlinesFlight 11 into North Tower of the World Trade Center, stipulated in his will that ‘no woman would be permitted to touch his body or attend his last rites’. (Atta’s misogynistic intent was frustrated, his remains for ever mixed with those of his victims, male and female.)

Misogyny is endemic in Afghanistan. In 1959, a reforming government legislated to free women from the veil: Islamic fundamentalists rebelled. In 1964, women were given the right to vote, and some older girls went to school unveiled: ‘Holy warriors’ led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were there to abuse them and throw acid in their faces.  

In 1978, pro-Soviet socialists backed by the Soviet Union staged a coup and in one of the worst foreign policy decisions in history, the Reagan administration began funding Muslim fundamentalists headed by Hekmatyar. A terrible decade of war ensued followed by the Soviet withdrawal in 1989: out of the chaos rose the Taliban.

Robert D Kaplan’s splendid chronicle, Soldiers of God: With Islamic warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan, details how the Taliban was formed from pious students studying in Pakistan madrassas. They were influenced by Deobandism – an ultra-austere strain of Islam that insists on a strict, literalist reading of the Koran. Misogyny appears to have been a fundamental tenet of their developing ideology, ‘what anti-Semitism was to the Nazis’.

When the Taliban came to power in 1995/6, they inflicted a dreadful interpretation of Shari’a on the country. Women could leave their homes only if chaperoned by a male relative and were required to wear a burqa – ‘a dark veil of opaque cloth, attached to a close-fitting cap which completely encloses a woman’s body. Only a peephole at eye level allows any light into this walking tomb.’ The size of this peephole was the subject of constant monitoring and debate, according to Jack Holland.

Under Taliban rule, women were prohibited from speaking to males other than family members. They were told not to speak loudly or laugh in public, under threat of punishment. They could not work or attend male doctors; shopkeepers were ‘forbidden to sell female undergarments’ and education for girls aged over ten was banned.  

Music, singing, dancing and most forms of art were declared unlawful, as were videos, films and television. No female voice was to be heard on radio and women were to be erased from the public sphere.

Men did not escape the new rules: they were instructed to grow beards ‘long enough to protrude from a fist clasped at the point of the chin’ and had to wear Muslim clothes, with white caps or turbans: whistling was illegal.

‘Moral police’ from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (perhaps Orwell was on the Taliban reading list?) patrolled the streets. A woman whose nail polish was spotted under her burqa had her fingers cut off, while others were publicly whipped for wearing makeup under their veils.

It was common for women to be beaten for minor transgressions and they could be stoned to death for more ‘serious matters’ such as sex outside of marriage or adultery.

One woman who lived through the madness said, ‘Even though they seem to follow one another without rhyme or reason, these decrees have a certain logic: the extermination of the Afghan woman.’ 

The Afghan population today numbers about 40million:  the percentage of females is statistically low relative to other countries, almost the same as China at 48.6 per cent and India at 48 per cent. All three nations arenotorious for misogyny, with long histories of female infanticide, abandonment, widespread neglect of girls, and institutional and social discrimination.

The average life expectancy in Afghanistan is 65.29 years  compared with 81.52 in the UK and 78.99 in the US. The median age in Afghanistan is 18.4 years, which means that millions have no knowledge of what it is like to live under the Taliban.

Even during the Taliban’s ‘absence’, Afghan women continued to suffer oppression and violence. Forced marriage is still common and girls as young as 12 are regularly married off to men three or four times their age. According to UNICEF at least 15 per cent of all Afghan girls are married before they are 16 and about one-third by the time they turn 18.

Afghan marriage is rarely a partnership of equals and women experience extremely high rates of domestic violence according to the World Health Organisation. Polygamy is legal, and one husband can have up to four wives. A man can divorce a wife at any time for any reason, by simply announcing that he has done so, but a woman must go to court to seek a divorce: with more than 80 per cent of women illiterate, this is rarely a viable option.

Sexual abuse, rape, and exclusion from healthcare persist, with political, legal, and economic inequalities rife. The ‘virginity examination’ remains a routine part of criminal proceedings, especially when women are accused of ‘moral crimes’ such as drug use or running away. Women who dare bring a charge of rape are often found guilty of adultery and punished.

Violence towards women is deeply embedded in Afghan culture but the US invasion two decades ago permitted some fragile glimmer of hope allowing record numbers of girls to pursue their education. Women took part in politics and joined the professions, even the police and the Afghan Army; now all are betrayed.   

The ‘new’ Taliban is media savvy and has promised a global audience an ‘inclusive Islamic government’. Subject to Islamic Law, it says women will be permitted to ‘participate in public life and society’. Unfortunately, the message has not got through to its foot soldiers, and a woman found without a burqa was recently shot and killed by Taliban fighters.

The New York Times reports school closures and women’s health clinics shuttered. There are reports of women being lifted off the streets and sold as sex slaves and girls of 12 being abducted from their homes to be ‘married’ to fighters.

Afghanistan is sinking into a deep morass that will overwhelm its women and girls again unless the international powers who hold the purse strings stand by them and withhold billions in funding pending verifiable protection of women’s rights.

President Joe Biden seems unconcerned about the fate of Afghan women and there has been little comment from his ‘feminist’ vice president. Even former President George W Bush admits he fears the coming terror, saying, ‘I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm.’

The US and its allies promised to remove the Taliban and protect women’s rights. They failed on the first part; now Afghan women are begging for their lives.

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Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop is a mediator.

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