UPDATE (4/1/22): The Taliban announced on March 23 that it would not reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade, according to the AP. The Taliban has previously promised it would allow girls and women in Afghanistan to continue their studies. The original story continues as published below.
The Taliban is now shaping Afghanistan’s next government after its Aug. 15 capture of the nation’s capital, Kabul, and the continuing withdrawal of American forces.
Immediately following the capital’s fall, the international community began to express concerns about women’s rights within the country. Women in Afghanistan have also reportedly feared the changes the Taliban could bring to their lives, worried about a return to decades-old restrictions. One of the most common concerns is that the Taliban could once again ban education for women and girls.
Did the Taliban deny women the right to education when they last ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Yes. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban prohibited women from getting an education as part of a number of oppressive restrictions on women’s rights.
WHAT WE FOUND
The Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996 after ousting the country’s previous government in a civil war. They ruled Afghanistan until 2001 and have maintained an insurgency in the country between then and now.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the Taliban’s “continuing grave violations of the human rights of women and girls” during their rule.
An Oct. 2001 report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) produced shortly before the Taliban’s five-year reign of Afghanistan ended said, “The Taliban have sought to erase women from public life.”
During this time, girls over 8 years old were not allowed to attend school and women were banned from work outside the home, except for in healthcare. HRW said these were on top of edicts that forbid women from going out in public without a close male relative and requirements that women wear special clothing that concealed their entire body while in public.
An Amnesty International public statement from May 2021 added that the group enforced its rules “through public corporal punishment, or even death penalty or public execution.”
The HRW said these laws followed “years of deteriorating conditions for women” in Afghanistan. A blog post from Ohio State Central Asian history professor Dr. Scott Levi and an article from San Diego State women’s studies professor Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh explains that Afghanistan underwent several cycles of reform followed by traditionalist backlash on women’s rights throughout the 20th century. Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government of the 1980s made education for girls compulsory, but traditionalist Mujahideen fighters from rural areas came to power during a civil war that came soon after the Soviet Union’s collapse. These fighters began eroding rights for women and girls.
Then, “the Taliban had taken the most misogynistic elements” of Afghan society when they ousted the Mujahideen in Sep. 1996, Levi explained in his blog, and “institutionalized them as law.”
A 2004 Human Rights Watch report on early changes in women’s rights in post-Taliban Afghanistan found there were “notable improvements” for women and girls, even guarantees of women’s equal rights in the new constitution, but still obstacles for gender equality in the country. Women still faced dangers and restrictions from regional leaders — including leaders allied with and brought to power by the U.S.-led coalition, Human Rights Watch said.
Amnesty International noted more than 1,000 Afghan women had started their own businesses within the country by 2019 and 3.5 million girls were enrolled in Afghan schools at the time. However, Amnesty International also said women still faced obstacles such as harassment, violence and discrimination at local and regional levels. Despite the gains in school enrollment among girls, more than 2 million Afghan girls remained without access to education.
By that time, a significant amount of Afghan territory was in control of the Taliban. Amnesty International said women “mostly remain deprived of their rights to education and freedom of movement” in Taliban-controlled areas and “are subject to almost the same draconian rules that applied during the Taliban era from 1996-2001.”
A 2020 Human Rights Watch report said the Taliban no longer officially oppose girls’ education, but very few Taliban officials actually permit girls to attend school past puberty, some not permitting girls’ education at all. That’s because individual commanders largely determine education policies in areas they control.
But, HRW noted, some local communities have successfully pressured Taliban commanders to change policies and allow girls to attend schools to sixth grade and beyond.
In a press conference held by the Taliban on Aug. 17, a Taliban spokesperson said, “We are guaranteeing all of [women’s] rights within the limits of Islam.”
This included reassurances they would allow women to work and study “within those frameworks” and that women would be very active in society. The Taliban did not clarify what the frameworks entailed.
A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (UN OHCHR) acknowledged in a press release the Taliban’s recent promises that women’s rights would be protected but noted the international community is viewing these promises with skepticism given the Taliban’s history.
“Nevertheless, the promises have been made, and whether or not they are honoured or broken will be closely scrutinized,” the OHCHR said.
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