Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the country has become the most repressive in the world for women and girls, deprived of virtually all their basic rights, the United Nations said in grim assessments on International Women’s Day.
The U.N. Mission said in a statement Wednesday that Afghanistan’s new rulers have shown an almost “singular focus on imposing rules that leave most women and girls effectively trapped in their homes.”
Despite initial promises of a more moderate stance, the Taliban have imposed harsh measures since seizing power as U.S. and NATO forces were in the final weeks of their pullout from Afghanistan after two decades of war.
Girls are banned from education beyond sixth grade and women are barred from working, studying, traveling without a male companion, and even going to parks or bath houses. Women must also cover themselves from head to toe and are barred from working at national and international non-governmental organizations, disrupting the delivery of humanitarian aid.
“Afghanistan under the Taliban remains the most repressive country in the world regarding women’s rights,” Roza Otunbayeva, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general and head of the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
She later told the U.N. Security Council in New York that “the Taliban claim to have united the country, but they have also severely divided it by gender.” The Taliban tell the U.N. “that this gender segregation is not a significant issue and is being addressed” and “they say they should be judged on other achievements,” she said.
At a time when Afghanistan needs to recover from decades of war, Otunbayeva said, “half of the country’s potential doctors, scientists, journalists, and politicians are shut away in their homes, their dreams crushed and their talents confiscated.”
“It has been distressing to witness their methodical, deliberate, and systematic efforts to push Afghan women and girls out of the public sphere,” she added.
The restrictions, especially the bans on education and NGO work, have drawn fierce international condemnation. But the Taliban have shown no signs of backing down, claiming the bans are temporary suspensions in place allegedly because women were not wearing the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, correctly and because gender segregation rules were not being followed.
As for the ban on university education, the Taliban government has said that some of the subjects being taught were not in line with Afghan and Islamic values.
“Confining half of the country’s population to their homes in one of the world’s largest humanitarian and economic crises is a colossal act of national self-harm,” Otunbayeva said.
“It will condemn not only women and girls, but all Afghans, to poverty and aid-dependency for generations to come,” she warned. “It will further isolate Afghanistan from its own citizens and from the rest of the world.”
At a carpet factory in Kabul, women who were former government employees or high school and university students now spend their days weaving carpets.
“We all live like prisoners, we feel that we are caught in a cage,” said Hafiza, 22, who goes only by her first name and who used to be a first-year law student before the Taliban banned women from attending classes at her university. “The worst situation is when your dreams are shattered, and you are punished for being a woman.”
Another worker at the factory, 18-years-old Shahida, who also uses only one name, said she was in 10th grade at one of Kabul high schools when her education was cut short.
“We just demand from the (Taliban) government to reopen schools and educational centers for us and give us our rights,” she said.
An Afghan women’s rights campaigner, Zubaida Akbar, told the Security Council that since the Taliban seized power “the rights of Afghan women and girls have been decimated through over 40 decrees.”
“The Taliban have sought not only to erase women from public life, but to extinguish our basic humanity,” said Zubaida, who spoke on behalf of the rights group Freedom Now that deals with 20 mostly women-led grassroots movements inside Afghanistan. “There is one term that appropriately describes the situation of Afghan woman today — gender apartheid.”
Alison Davidian, the special representative for UN Women in Afghanistan, said: “The implications of the harm the Taliban are inflicting on their own citizens goes beyond women and girls.”
No officials from the Taliban-led government were available for comment.
At the Security Council, the U.N.’s Otunbayeva said there is a faction in the Taliban that doesn’t agree with the crackdown on women and girls and understands that attention must be paid to the real needs of all Afghans.
“Perhaps it can eventually execute a change of direction,” she said. “But time is running short. Global crises are multiplying. Demands on donor resources are multiplying as the availability of those resources diminishes.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s observances of International Women’s Day, about 200 Afghan female small business owners put together an exhibition of their products in Kabul. Most complained of losing business since the Taliban takeover.
“I don’t expect Taliban to respect women’s rights,” said one of them, Tamkin Rahimi. “Women here cannot practice (their) rights and celebrate Women’s Day, because we cannot go to school, university or go to work, so I think we don’t have any day to celebrate.”
Ten of the 15 Security Council members issued a joint statement demanding that the Taliban immediately reverse all its oppressive measures against women and girls.
“Recovery in Afghanistan cannot happen without women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in all aspects of political, economic and social life,” said the statement by Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Gabon, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom.