A highly significant factor that affects Afghan women's rights and freedom has been the emergence of the Taliban. The Taliban emerged in Afghanistan in 1994, when their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Yousufi). The Taliban claimed that they would purify society and defeat the corrupt Mujahideen groups (Yousufi). The Mujahideen groups had caused a civil war in Afghanistan and prioritized religious education over modern education (Saleem Mazhar and Goraya). However, the Taliban established a strict regime that discriminated against women and persecuted Shiite Muslims and non-Muslim communities (Yousufi). The Taliban also had ties with Al-Qaeda and sheltered their leader after the September 11th attacks (Yousufi). In 2001, the Taliban was overthrown by the U.S. after refusing to give up the Al-Qaeda leader. In December 2001, a new democratic government emerged, but the Taliban refused to accept this new government and violently revolted in 2003 (Yousufi). It wasn’t until 2018 when the Taliban entered into peace negotiations with the U.S (Yousufi). In August 2021, the Taliban took over Afghanistan once again and has brought global economic sanctions, economic collapse, and draconian restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, work, political participation, and education (Yousufi).
According to the International Human Rights Law, everyone has the right to get free, compulsory primary education and free from discrimination (United Nations). However, statistics show that an estimated 3.7 million children do not attend school in Afghanistan, and 60% of this population are girls (UNICEF). The educational system for women in Afghanistan has been destroyed due to political instability, wars, torment, human rights abuses, and security threats frequently occurring in the country (Saleem Mazhar and Goraya). Factors such as forced marriages, gender norms, geographical barriers, sexual harassment, and poverty have decreased Afghan women's ability to receive a proper education (Saleem Mazhar and Goraya).
Afghanistan as a country contains dominant patriarchal codes, meaning that women are not allowed to hold leadership roles in the family, community, and church. In addition, the deep-rooted patriarchy in Afghanistan normalizes the discrimination against women. This gender discrimination begins even before birth due to discriminatory gender norms among the Afghan communities (Saleem Mazhar and Goraya). These ideologies view women as less significant than men, causing the importance of education to be instilled in men rather than women.
Ever since the Taliban’s reign, women have been banned from being in the public and they have been banned from going to school and working. Women who have been caught going to school or teaching have been punished by being beaten (Yousufi). There have also been threats made against women not to go to school by throwing acid in their faces and posting warning letters stating that women will be killed if they continue to be sent to school (Yousufi). The Taliban has also put into place strict codes of conduct that women need to follow, or else they are beaten by their husband, brother, or father in front of the Taliban (Yousufi). For instance, only women who are doctors or teachers can be employed but it’s required that they’re accompanied by a male family member (Yousufi). Female teachers or doctors cannot work with other males; they must work only with other women. Employed females are also prohibited from working in Afhan government or military institutions (Yousufi). In order to receive medical attention, women can only be seen by female physicians as well (Yousufi). Consequently, women that do not have any male family members are forced to become prostitutes or beg for money in order to provide for their families (Yousufi).
Female politicians and other women who have spoken out about gender equality have also been targeted by the Taliban. Malalai Kakar, Sitara Achakzai, Zakia Zaki and Safia Amajan, are examples of women who have been killed due to their activism (Yousufi). These women were murdered during a crucial time, when Afghan women had finally achieved freedom after the fall of the Taliban (Yousufi). The murders and threats against female politicians continue to occur in Afghanistan in order to silence the empowerment of women.
Not only have Afghan women’s access to education and employment been deteriorating but their access to healthcare has declined. Specifically, maternal and child healthcare have been affected since the return of the Taliban in August 2021. The Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health surveyed 131 Afghan health workers and interviewed 10 health workers from February to April 2022 (Glass et al.). The 10 health workers participated in in-depth interviews, of which all but one were female (Glass et al.). The surveys reported deteriorating working conditions, a lack of supplies and salaries, and Taliban harassment (Glass et al.). Extreme poverty, the requirements of a Mahram (male family member), a lack of availability of medications, and poor health quality remain severe obstacles for women seeking care (Glass et al.). One consequence is that many women do not seek prenatal care and give birth at home instead of in a facility, causing premature births and high maternal and child mortality (Glass et al.). This is also the case for Afghan women refugees, who have immigrated to Iran. Iran has been the second country with the highest number of Afghan refugees and immigrants during the last decades (Dadras et al.). Afghan female refugees have experienced financial constraints and a lack of adequate health insurance. Some women live far from clinics and lack access to transportation, meaning they cannot receive prenatal care or other types of medical attention. Other times women experience of discrimination and stigma living in a different country that they aren't used to. Cultural and religious norms also influence their health decisions, and illegal immigration status instills fear of deportation for refugees (Dadras et al.). The patriarchal Afghan culture and the need for husbands' approval also impacts access to care for some women (Dadras et al.). Continued international pressure is needed to protect Afghan women's rights and sustain health funding.
Afghanistan has made efforts to combat violence against women over the past decade since enacting the landmark Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law) in 2009 (Hakimi). While the EVAW Law and Constitution have established important protections, violence against women remains rampant and pervasive (Hakimi). State actors have failed to meet their due diligence obligations to prevent, investigate, and punish such crimes (Hakimi). Criminal cases are often illegally mediated through informal dispute resolution mechanisms instead of the formal justice system (Hakimi). Women have also been excluded from the ongoing peace negotiations with the Taliban (Hakimi). The history of women's rights in Afghanistan indicates stronger action is needed to enforce the laws and address the systemic factors perpetuating gender-based violence in Afghanistan.