In the early months after their takeover of Afghanistan last year, the Taliban appeared to have turned over a new leaf, making surprising statements that seemed to support gender equality and education for women.
“Our sisters, our men have the same rights,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the world, in the group’s first press conference after the capital fell.
“The Taliban is on a charm offensive,” Heather Barr, associate director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, wrote shortly after the incursion.
“Having swept to power at a speed that astonished almost everyone, they now seem eager to convince the world that they are statesmen, ready to be a responsible member of the global community of nations.”
But the illusion of a modern Taliban, that embraces human rights more than their earlier spell in power 20 years ago, was short-lived as the group’s grip on state institutions tightened and reality reared its head.
Rights have been reversed in various areas.
Access to education
Initially, the Taliban’s Minister of Higher Education Abdul Baqi Haqqani said universities would continue to allow women to study in their classrooms as long as the two sexes were segregated.
“Afghan girls have the right to study but they cannot study in the same classrooms with boys,” he said in August last year.
Delays in implementing this decision were tied to what the Taliban viewed as the lack of a secure environment for girls and women to pursue their education.
In March, the Taliban officially announced high schools would remain closed until a plan was created to allow them to re-open in accordance with “Islamic law and teachings”. They are still yet to re-open, a year after the takeover.
“Teachers and students from three high schools around the capital Kabul said girls had returned in excitement to campuses … but were ordered to go home,” Reuters reported at the time.
“Many students left in tears.”
After US forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, there was a spike in attendance among schoolgirls. By 2018, more than 3.6 million girls were enrolled in school; 34 per cent more than in 2003, Unicef said.
Women also pursued higher education studies in law, journalism and medicine. Education was so progressive, in fact, that Kabul university launched a master's degree programme in gender and women's studies in 2015.
In June, the Taliban held a meeting to discuss the situation in women’s education, but no women were present at the event.
Freedom to work curtailed
On employment, the Taliban made similar promises of allowing women to continue in the workplace. However, soon after their takeover, they said those steps would need to wait until women could work in what they considered a safe environment.
“In Afghanistan, 20 years of progress towards enhanced protection and promotion of women’s rights was rolled back overnight,” Amnesty International said in a recent report.
“Girls' access to education was severely restricted, and women human rights defenders, journalists, judges and prosecutors faced threats and intimidation. Protests in support of women’s rights were met with violence by the Taliban.”
It remains unknown whether girls and women will ever be allowed to study, work and experience healthy social lives under the Taliban.
“The Taliban have made it very difficult and expensive for offices to hire women. For instance, they order that there should be gender-segregated spaces for women to work, there is no support within departments for women, and women should not be allowed without a mahram (male guardian),” an Afghan woman told The National in May.
“Added to that, women aren’t allowed to represent the organisation in meetings, or conduct outdoor activities such as purchasing and processing documents. So you can see why an organisation will not want to hire women.”
Under the new government, there are no women in the cabinet and the Ministry of Women's Affairs was shut down.
Following the group’s takeover of the country, more than 200 media outlets were shut down — leaving room for little to no freedom of expression.
Protests against the Taliban’s oppressive views on education and other issues were met with violence, including live ammunition, tear gas and physical beating and lashing of protesters.
Amnesty International says a September protest including more than 100 women calling for their inclusion in government was “dispersed by Taliban special forces reportedly with tear gas and electroshock weapons. Women protesters were beaten”.
One protester who was detained this year told Amnesty: “[The Taliban guards] kept coming to my room and showing me pictures of my family. They kept repeating … ‘We can kill them, all of them, and you won’t be able to do anything … Don’t cry, don’t make a scene. After protesting, you should have expected days like this’.”
A number of protesters, activists and schoolteachers were also killed and several others injured.
That same month, the Taliban’s interior ministry ordered a ban on all mass demonstrations “until a policy of demonstration is codified”.
As with women’s rights to work and study, it is not known when or if the Taliban will set up a framework allowing people to express their concerns through protest.
Additionally, media coverage of demonstrations was quashed as the group confiscated cameras and other equipment, and harassed, threatened and beat journalists.
In May, the Taliban officially announced that a dress code of sorts will be mandatory for women.
“They should wear a chadori [head-to-toe burqa] as it is traditional and respectful,” Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada said.
The chadori, or burqa, is not obligatory in Islamic law — except in specific extremist interpretations that many scholars do not consider to be legitimately sound.
“Those women who are not too old or young must cover their face, except the eyes, as per sharia directives, in order to avoid provocation when meeting men who are not mahram [adult close male relatives],” the decree said.