What the Return of the Taliban Means for Women and Girls in Afghanistan

Afghan women flee as their rights and freedoms diminish overnight

In 2018 Zarifa Ghafari made history when she became the first female mayor in Afghanistan, governing the Maidan Wardak province. As U.S. troops began exiting Afghanistan in droves about three weeks ago, she told i newspaper that she remained hopeful for the future of her country. Now she’s watching from her apartment as the Taliban advances on Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

“I’m sitting here waiting for them to come,” she said. “There is no one to help me or my family. I’m just sitting with them and my husband. And they will come for people like me and kill me. I can’t leave my family. And anyway, where would I go?”

For women and girls in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s quick return to power puts their rights and lives in jeopardy. Harrowing scenes from Kabul have been circulating around social media, including videos of Afghans clinging to planes at Kabul’s international airport, and pictures of people painting over images and advertisements of women because the Taliban forbids showing women adorned or without coverings. The city, bracing itself, has been preparing for the Taliban return, many without means to flee. Afghanistan’s president fled the country with suitcases full of cash in a hasty and corrupt exit, leaving his people stranded.


The Taliban last held power from 1996 to 2001, when women weren’t allowed to go to school, work, or leave the house without a male escort and without a body and face covering. If a woman didn’t comply, the punishment could range from a beating to execution. 

Since 2001, women’s rights and freedoms have increased in Afghanistan: more girls have gone to school, mortality rates among children have decreased, and women have pursued careers and higher education, such as mayor Zarifa Ghafari. But as the Taliban returns, Reuters reported that women are already being forced out of banking jobs around the country.

NPR reported that 80% of the nearly 250,000 people in Afghanistan who have fled their homes since May have been women and children. A U.N. report released last month said that the number of women and children killed and injured also increased in May and June, as U.S. troops were abruptly called home. 

A Taliban spokesperson was asked by a journalist if they would accept the laws of Democracy and allow female governors who were elected, and he erupted in laughter. The progress made in the last 20 years is dwindling  before our eyes. 

The Conversation reported, in early July, that Taliban leaders who took control of the provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar issued an order to local religious leaders to provide them with a list of girls over the age of 15 and widows under the age of 45 for “marriage” with Taliban fighters. It’s unknown whether the religious leaders complied.

If these forced marriages do take place, women and girls will be taken to Pakistan to be converted to “authentic Islam” and re-educated to comply with Taliban law. The sexual enslavement of women and girls is a crime against humanity, one that the Taliban uses to lure militants into joining their cause.

In the last 20 years, the New York Times noted that girls and women have defied the odds and joined the military and police forces, held political office, competed in the Olympics and on robotics teams — things that once seemed unimaginable under the Taliban. But as hundreds of thousands of women and children flee, many are forced to give up their hard work and dreams in order to simply survive.

“I worked for so many days and nights to become the person I am today, and this morning when I reached home, the very first thing my sisters and I did was hide our IDs, diplomas and certificates,” a woman from Kabul told the Guardian. “It was devastating. Why should we hide the things that we should be proud of? In Afghanistan now we are not allowed to be known as the people we are.”

Today the Taliban told news outlets that they wouldn’t be taking rights away from women this time around, however Afghans believe it’s all talk. CNN reported that the Taliban killed a mother of three on July 12 in a remote town because she wasn’t able to cook a meal for 15 Taliban fighters, explaining that she was too poor and didn’t have the resources.

People have been sharing images of Afghan women in the 1970s compared to 2021, highlighting how the culture has been depraved and restricted under Taliban rule.

Many women’s rights advocate groups and organizations are staying put amidst the chaos, such as Women for Women International.

Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security is spreading the word about how to donate.

Melanne Verveer, the institute’s director, recently co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post that called on the U.S. government step up to the plate to protect Afghan women. She and Tanya Henderson of Mina’s List demanded the U.S. to hire direct evacuation flights for Afghan women activists and fund relocation efforts with money the Biden administration appropriated for Afghan refugees.

“It is a perilous moment for Afghan women and girls,” the institute wrote on its website. “Every day, the Taliban is gaining ground, assassinating women leaders, attacking girls at school, and rolling back women’s rights in the process. We are running out of time to prevent the worst from happening.”





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