The Afghan women, maybe more than anybody else, have dreaded the Taliban’s return. There have been many advances in women’s rights over the last 20 years, which appear to be set to erase nearly overnight.

A quick lesson from history…

The Taliban, a political and military force, is said to have started in Islamic schools in Northern Pakistan in the early 1990s. Its aim was to restore order in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, as well as to impose a harsh form of Sharia law. By 1998, the organisation had seized 90% of Afghanistan’s territory.

Once in control, the organisation garnered worldwide condemnation for a slew of human-rights violations. The ban on female education above the age of ten as well as harsh limitations on day-to-day liberties, were among the stringent mores imposed on women and its influence has frequently threatened to expand beyond, to places like Pakistan, where the organisation memorably shot teenager Malala Yousafzai in 2012. Women were treated worse than at any previous period or by any other culture throughout its rule (1996–2001). They were prohibited from working, leaving the house without a male escort, seeking medical assistance from a male doctor, and being compelled to cover themselves from head to toe, including their eyes. Women who had previously worked as physicians and teachers were compelled to become beggars or even prostitutes in order to feed their families during the Taliban’s rule.

Following the 9/11 attacks, it was thought that the Taliban were harbouring Al-Qaeda soldiers, thus an US-led international operation was started against Afghanistan. As a consequence, the Taliban were deposed from power, an Afghan government was established, and soldiers occupied the country for 20 years. It destabilised several regions of the nation due to battles with US and UK forces on a regular basis, and Afghan people were continued to be assaulted. Many would agree that the political and cultural status of Afghan women had improved significantly since the Taliban’s collapse in late 2001.

The Bush administration’s acceptance of women’s rights and empowerment as rationale for its assault on the Taliban is long gone. So it was under the Barack Obama administration, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the Taliban’s repudiation of al-Qaida and promise to support the Afghan constitution and safeguard women’s rights were preconditions for US discussions with them. The rejection of al-Qaida has yet to be declared openly and publicly less than 10 years later; the constitutional order and women’s rights are still subject to intra-Afghan talks and will be influenced by the changing balance of military power.

In February 2020, US-Taliban peace talks were concluded, with the US pledging a quiet departure in exchange for an end to hostilities. Afghan leaders and top military generals have warned that the government will collapse without foreign assistance. It looks like the worst has transpired only weeks before Biden’s deadline of September 11th.

The Taliban rule wreaked havoc on the institutions and the economy, which had already been ravaged by decades of conflict and the Soviet scorched-earth counterinsurgency policy.

The post-Taliban constitution of 2004 granted Afghan women a wide range of rights, and the political epoch brought social and economic progress, which greatly improved the socioeconomic situation. From a crumbling health-care system with almost no healthcare available to women during the Taliban years, the post regime built 3,135 functional facilities by 2018, giving more than 80 percent of Afghans access to a medical facility within two hours’ drive.

 Less than 10% of females were enrolled in elementary schools in 2003; by 2017, that figure had risen to 33%, while female secondary school attendance increased from 6% to 39%. As a result, 3.5 million Afghan females were enrolled in education, with 100,000 of them enrolled in academic institutions. Women’s life expectancy increased from 56 to 66 years in 2017 and maternal mortality fell from 1,100 per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 396 per 100,000 in 2015. By 2020, women made up 21% of Afghan public workers, including 16% of top management positions, and 27% of Afghan parliamentarians.

 These benefits for women have been dispersed inequitably, with women in metropolitan areas benefiting considerably more than women in rural regions. Despite formal legal empowerment, life for many rural women has not improved much since the Taliban era, notably in Pashtun regions but also among other rural minority groups. Many Afghan males are staunch conservatives. Families often let their daughters to complete a primary or secondary education before proceeding with planned marriages. The burqa is worn by the majority of Afghan women in rural regions without any pushing from the Taliban.

What is the situation for women in Afghanistan now?

Women’s rights in Afghan had arguably maintained pace with many other Western countries prior to the 1970s. Women were granted the right to vote in 1919, one year after women in the United Kingdom. In the 1950s, gender segregation was eliminated, and in the 1960s, a constitution was enacted that included women in political life. As the region became more unstable in the 1970s, these rights were steadily eroded.

Only 38% of the international humanitarian response plan for Afghanistan is financed as of August 2021. This gap might result in the loss of specialised protection services for 1.2 million children, putting them at risk of abuse, recruitment, child labour, early and forced marriages, and sex abuse. About 1.4 million females, many of whom are survivors of domestic abuse, would be left without access to safe spaces where they may receive full care.

Females, who have experienced life with rights and freedoms, are among the most exposed as a result of the Taliban’s fast progress in Afghanistan. As the Taliban capture control of Kabul, they risk losing their hard-won achievements.

Those cries for aid may be too late as the capital city falls into the clutches of Islamist rebels. There have been several stories of the Taliban going door-to-door and compiling a list of women and girls aged 12 to 45 who are then compelled to marry Taliban warriors. Women are told that they cannot leave the house without a male escort, that they cannot work or study, and that they cannot wear anything they want. Schools are also being shuttered.

There is a lot to lose for a whole generation of Afghan women who entered public life – legislators, journalists, local governors, physicians, nurses, teachers, and public administrators. While they worked alongside male colleagues and in communities that were unfamiliar with people in positions of power to help establish a truly democratic civil society, they also wanted to pave the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps.

The Taliban offers itself a broad range of possibilities by claiming that they will “protect” women’s rights under sharia but refusing to explain how women’s rights and life in Afghanistan will alter if they achieve their goals. Even if the government did not openly adopt as cruel a system for women as in the 1990s, the Taliban’s dispositions are quite likely to undermine women’s rights, impose cultural prohibitions on women, and reduce socio-economic possibilities for them.

In summary, even with this change in behaviour, the Taliban in power would almost certainly strive to curtail Afghan women’s legal rights, exacerbating their social, economic, and political circumstances. How much and in what manner, is the question.