Afghan Women Call Bullshit on the Taliban’s New ‘Pro-Women’ Rebrand
Newly in power, the Taliban is making big promises on women’s rights. But these Afghan women aren’t counting on it.
KARACHI, PAKISTAN—As reports of gross women’s rights abuses and general chaos among the Afghan people flood in, the Taliban is responding with an all-out rebranding campaign, casting itself in the media as more moderate, peaceful, and pro-women than ever before.
“The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of sharia. Our sisters... have the same rights, will be able to benefit from their rights,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced in a Tuesday press conference in Kabul. “They can have activities in different sectors and different areas on the basis of our rules and regulations, educational, health and other areas. They are going to be working with us, shoulder to shoulder with us, and the international community. If they have concerns, we would like to assure them that there is not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have.”
The Taliban’s claims that it will allow women to work and the group’s declaration of general amnesty across Afghanistan may provide some relief to the nervous people of Afghanistan, particularly those in the capital city of Kabul, which was captured by the Taliban on Sunday after president Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
But is this really a new Taliban? Have its members learned from the blunders they made in their previous regime, between 1996 to 2001? Will they change their ways, particularly when it comes to the rights of women?
Many Afghan citizens, particularly women, are skeptical about this narrative. Older generations of Afghans, who have lived through the Taliban's ultraconservative ways and their theocratic approach to Islam, find it hard to believe too.
“We are still fearful. We think it is a ploy to get social acceptability,” one Afghan woman, a former lawmaker, told The Daily Beast. “The Taliban has been going house to house to take cars. They visited my house too.” Like all the other sources mentioned in this article, the former politician spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Another woman, a 23-year-old who now works at an NGO in Kabul, described similar concerns to The Daily Beast.
“We have lost everything so fast, I can't recognize the city of Kabul anymore,” she said. “Yesterday, I went out and I sensed the chaos. Lads with messy dirty long hair filled the public space. They either stand at the end of streets or drive armored Humvees. They are looking for an opportunity to show that they are in control. They are uneducated and… you simply have to obey them."
A female political science student and a civil society activist, 25, from Herat city, told The Daily Beast that her whole family felt threatened under Taliban rule because they belong to the Shia sect of Islam.
“It is shocking for us to see the arrival of the Taliban. We have fear because we are Shia and a local cleric has always been against us. Now we feel even more threatened,” the student said, adding, “Women like me have all disappeared from public space. A group of women went to meet the new governor of the province, but he refused to meet them and asked them to stay home and just do their job: babysitting.”
The student, who said that all the beauty parlors in her area have been shut down, told The Daily Beast that another fear her family has is that her little sisters may be being forcibly taken and married off to Taliban members. “We have heard that the Taliban take young girls by force and marry them… both my sisters have vowed to commit suicide if they are taken by force. They are under immense stress."
Speaking with The Daily Beast, another female social activist in Herat expressed her fears that the Taliban may “may come and take me with them.”
Female journalists, too, are skeptical of the Taliban’s claims to a gentler approach. Amie Ferris-Rotman, a former Washington Post correspondent and the founder of Sahar Speaks, a program for Afghan female journalists, told The Daily Beast that reporters “are terrified for their own lives.”
While the hope is that the regime will “not target female journalists,” she added, “What we are seeing today is they are already replacing them at work.” Afghan state TV anchor Khadija Amin, for example, was replaced by a Taliban official this week, telling The New York Times that her boss said the Taliban banned women from working at the network.
Shabnam Dawran, a female anchor at state-owned RTA Pashto also announced that the Taliban had prevented her from returning to work. “The regime has changed, go home,” she said officials told her.
“Several Afghan women reporters I spoke to are both scared they will be harmed, and at the same time they are mourning the end of their working lives,” Ferris-Rotman told The Daily Beast. “This combination is absolutely awful. My heart aches for them.”
“There is a high possibility that the Taliban is going to kill and torture journalists. They have killed journalists, women journalists in particular, even before this whole takeover,” said Kiran Nazish, a co-founding director of the Coalition for Journalism in Women. “We think they are going to target female journalists. The United States has been ineffective in getting these journalists out of Afghanistan. If they don't allow them out, there is going to be bloodshed.”
The Taliban’s invitation to women to join the government stands in stark contrast with its treatment of women under the group’s last regime. Under their last rule, women were barred from attending schools, working in public offices, and going outside without a male relative. The harsh governance still haunts those who faced the Taliban's tyranny 20 years ago, and easing the fears and reservations of ordinary citizens will require visible, tangible changes by the group. Promises made in press interviews won’t cut it.
“Most of the women have expressed fear of persecution, denial of education and work space,” a prominent researcher, development expert, and civil society activist in Kabul told The Daily Beast. “The people in Kabul are still ruled by a sense of chaos. Those who can afford it are trying to run away… it’ll take a lot of outreach to remove fear in people's hearts.”