As Taliban Return, a History of Afghan Women’s Rights

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tags: Islam, Afghanistan, Taliban, womens history

Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been the subject of debate and conflict for more than a century, with efforts to improve their status followed by moves to roll them back. As the country comes to terms with yet another era of rule by the Taliban, rights advocates fear a return to the darkest days of the past. The Taliban have said that the group has moderated, yet there’s not a single woman in the new cabinet and officials have announced that women will only be allowed to study at universities in gender-segregated classrooms. Islamic dress is compulsory. 

Under the monarchy 

King Amanullah Khan, who ruled for a decade starting in 1919, pushed for Western-style reforms intended to modernize the country. Inspired by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, he introduced a new constitution that sought to guarantee rights for women as well as men. Child marriage was banned, polygamy discouraged, and the jurisdiction of religious leaders narrowed. Women were no longer required to wear the veil. Queen Soraya, who opened the first girl’s school in Kabul, became a champion of women’s rights. The fast pace of change was lauded abroad but rattled conservatives in the largely tribal society, provoking revolt. The king was eventually forced to abdicate in 1929. His successor, Mohammed Nadir Shah, repealed the most progressive policies, but the backlash was short-lived. Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973 and was the last king of Afghanistan, reintroduced many of Amanullah’s initiatives, albeit more cautiously. In 1964, women helped draft a new constitution, which gave them the right to vote and allowed them to seek elected office. They got jobs, ran businesses and entered politics. Tensions with traditionalists never went away, but women protested any attacks on their rights. 

After the monarchy

In 1979, the pro-Soviet general who’d overthrown Zahir Shah was killed in a coup, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed a Marxist puppet regime. The status of women began to erode when the state descended into civil war between the communist troops and their opponents, including Islamist fighters called mujahedeen. After the Soviets retreated in 1989, the Taliban, which formed in the early 1990s as a movement among pious youth, eventually gained the upper hand. They marched through the country promising peace and modern government, but the reality was different under their rule from 1996 to 2001, especially for women. They were banned from school, work, speaking in public and even from leaving their homes unless escorted by a male, and they were forced to cover themselves in the burqa, a one-piece garment that covers the entire head and body. Penalties for violations included public lashings and death by stoning. The suicide rate among women rose. Their access to health care dropped because of the restrictions on their movements and a requirement to use women-only hospitals and wards. Women were excluded from political life, including all kinds of governance. 

Read entire article at Washington Post