Understanding the Taliban’s War on Women
The Taliban’s Regressive Ideology Lies At The Heart Of Its Political Program. It Was Naive To Believe The Group Would Ever Give It Up.
Before the Taliban’s August 2021 return, Fatima Wojohat, 19, grew up learning of her mother’s dark life under the Taliban in the 1990s. After their return to Kabul, Wojohat began living that same life in 2022.
Wojohat was raised in a Kabul without the Taliban in power. She painted blast walls that stood between Afghan government facilities and Taliban suicide bombers in Kabul. Once Taliban fighters rode their motorbikes into Kabul in August 2021 and officials emptied the facilities behind the walls, Wojahat faced the Taliban on her own.
“I was terrified,” she said of the time she looked at a Taliban from a vehicle’s window in September 2021.
As months elapse, Wojohat’s life has grown more like her mother’s as the Taliban have closed public space to her.
She retreated to her smart phone and taught herself virtual painting. One of her paintings is of a faceless woman in a colorful dress, dancing in a busy street of ruined Kabul.
“I paint my feelings,” said Wojohat. “I am only one person but carry feelings of thousands [of] girls.”
Her paintings offer a glimpse into the lives of women under the Taliban. Just as the Taliban waged a 20-year war to grab power, the Taliban wages war on women. First, the Taliban banned women from work; when women protested the work ban, the Taliban dispersed their protests and locked them up. Later, the Taliban banned teenage girls from school. It was followed by an order of gender-based segregation in public places, an order that forced veils on women, and an order for women to stay indoors.
The orders trace back to the Taliban ideology, deeply rooted in a specific brand of political Islam and in Afghan tribal codes. As the Taliban’s rule continues, a Taliban emerges that is focused on rigidly following and expanding its own ideology, rather than governing the country. This reality is in sharp contrast to the expectation, held by some, of a different Taliban: a modern Taliban, slightly more respecting of women’s basic rights, a less brutal Taliban, a Taliban willing to compromise and to engage with non-Taliban Afghans and the world alike.
Over the course of negotiations with the Taliban over a U.S. troop withdrawal from the country in Doha, Qatar, U.S. officials pinned their hope on the Taliban’s willingness to move past its ideology with the aim of governing Afghanistan. Even after the Taliban toppled the Afghan government, killing many Afghan soldiers and pushing the rest to surrender, U.S. representatives kept their hope high for a “different” Taliban to emerge out of the insurgency.
The mutual desire for a U.S. troop withdrawal generated this hope. U.S. officials developed an approach toward the Taliban that rested on the belief that the insurgent group wanted to govern Afghanistan, rather than control the population, and that the Taliban wanted its Afghanistan to be a modern state. The Taliban, which desired a U.S. withdrawal, didn’t argue with that conclusion.
“No academic study has been conducted that showed the Taliban had changed,” said Mohammad Moheq, a former Afghan ambassador to Egypt. The assumption that the Taliban had changed “was just a political reflection. The U.S. government wanted to cover up its failure by pushing the narrative that there is a better Taliban returning to power.”
Members of the Taliban who conducted the informal talks and communicated with U.S. officials boosted these high hopes: They spoke in fluent English and shook hands behind closed doors with officials in Doha. They sounded passionate about governing Afghanistan. These figures represent the rising second generation of Taliban leadership that has been able to portray a softer version of the Taliban for the international community, without taking concrete action.
“The second generation of Taliban does not believe in women rights but want to play with it,” said Moheq. This second generation took over as the public face of the Taliban, allowing the first generation to focus on controlling and ruling the group itself and the country. The Taliban’s prime minister, Mohammad Hasan Akhund, for example, is a first generation Taliban like Mullah Omar, the father of the Taliban. “He just does not care about international recognition, just like Mullah Omar didn’t,” said Moheq.
In an audio speech attributed to Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s top leader, said that even a nuclear attack on Afghanistan cannot change Taliban’s position. “We don’t listen to the infidels, even if we come under nuclear attack,” said Akhundza, referring to the U.S. and European countries that have been demanding that the Taliban respect women’s rights. His speech was delivered at a religious gathering in Kabul on July 1.
The biggest achievements of the Taliban’s second generation, by far, have been the U.S. troop withdrawal and gaining a little foothold: the U.S., EU, and the U.N. have treated the Taliban as the de facto rulers of the country, even if they withhold official recognition. For example, EU officials have met the Taliban repeatedly and maintain official communication channels and offices in Kabul. Such engagement, however, has not pushed the Taliban to respect the most basic rights of women, such as access to public spaces and education.
As a new generation of Afghan girls grow up uneducated, the Taliban has plans to expand its ideology. The group announced the construction of one large religious school in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and two to three smaller religious schools in each district, focused on teaching boys the Taliban’s ideology. These decisions – made at a time when Afghans struggle for jobs and simply access to enough food – signals that the Taliban’s ideology continues to be its first and only concern. Everything else is an afterthought.
The Taliban’s ideology, known formally as Deobandi, goes back to ideologies developed by political Islamists in response to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, an Islamic empire that ruled from today’s Turkey and stretched across the Middle East and North Africa at its height. The dissolution of the empire and the rise of homegrown movements focused on women’s rights in Islamic countries led to a backlash: First the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, later Hizb ut-Tahrir in 1953. These two-pan Islamic groups promoted a particular interpretation of sharia and spread it throughout the Islamic world.
“The Taliban and al-Qaida are the ideological continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir,” said Moheq, also one of the most influential Afghan Islamic scholars today. “The Muslim Brotherhood was against a wave of movements that supported natural and citizen rights of people [including women.] Women’s rights made up the central piece of the dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and these new movements” in the Arab world in the early 1900s.
Those Islamists who followed Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, spread arguments that women were “polluted” and that gender equality “destroyed families,” said Moheq, slogans still used by the Taliban a century later.
Throughout the 20th century, core fragments of this ideology prevailed in Islamic countries. In the late 1900s, a breeding ground was found: The jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Groups supported financially by the U.S. and other anti-Soviet states carried with them their ideology, allowing it to take root in Afghanistan at a tumultuous time.
Out of the chaos and bloodshed in Afghanistan, the Taliban rose to power, beating other rival militant groups. Once in power, the Taliban cracked down on women in the 1990s. “Their first priority is grabbing power and authority over all aspects of society,” said Moheq of the Taliban. “Controlling women symbolizes their authority over the entire society. Freedom of women means a decrease in their authority over society.”
“What sets the Taliban apart from other Islamic groups,” Moheq added, “are the tribal codes of Afghanistan also embedded in the Taliban’s ideology.” A fundamental part of the tribal codes is defining a narrow place for women: They exists as the property of men and for the honor of men. For example, Moheq explained, “the rape of a woman is not seen as wrong because she was raped, but because she represents the honor of a man,” and that is what was violated.
The Taliban’s ideology was strong enough to draw manpower from the country’s tribal areas for long enough to outlast the United States and the Western-backed government in Kabul. In return, as the primary manpower of the Taliban comes from tribal areas of the country, they further reinforce the Taliban’s conservative culture, including the continued exclusion of women.
For 20 years, as the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and Afghan liberals promoted women’s rights, the Taliban portrayed that very promotion of women’s rights as an attack on the honor of Afghanistan’s men. This was demonstrated and reinforced by Taliban propaganda, such as the narrative that the U.S. brought special cameras to Afghanistan which enabled them to see the women of the country naked.
“The Taliban defined the purpose of its war to clean society of its sins,” said Ali Amiri, a university lecturer who fled the Taliban takeover in August 2021. “The Taliban saw women as the source of sins in society.” In the eyes of the Taliban, the presence of women in society caused sin, so the Taliban fought to clean the country of these sins, said Amiri, who taught religious and social science at Avicenna University, a private university in Kabul.
As the Taliban announced their new bans on women, such as stopping them from wearing makeup, they used the phrase “ignorant era” to describe the previous 20-year period that allowed women considerable freedoms. The phrase “ignorant era” is used by Islamists to describe the pre-Islamic Arab world, a period seen by Islamists as a sinful time that cleansed by Islam. Now the Taliban is seeing itself through the same lens: That the Taliban is the rightful religious authority able to clear society of sin.
Even though in 2022 the Taliban see women as a source of sin and ban women’s education, Afghan women have a different notion of what it is right for them: freedom, education, and equality. Despite the risks, Afghan women have taken to streets in protest to demands their rights and continue to work for their rights. Although the Taliban regime persists, Afghanistan’s women have become creative in their continued striving.
“The development of women’s skills allows women to have more choices,” said Laila Haidari, an entrepreneur whose restaurant was shut down after the Taliban took over of Kabul. “In the long term, training entrepreneurial women will help them to have their rights.” She established a network of study programs to teach young women computer science, English, science along with providing food packages to students.
“Once women become financially empowered, they are likely to face fewer hurdles in society,” said Haidari.