If it seems like Groundhog Day in Afghanistan, you could be right. The ruling Taliban seems to have made little change to its ideology and is even further away from the promises it made to improve women’s rights when its fighters entered Kabul unchallenged in August 2021.
Girls’ schools have been closed and now women are banned from universities following a shock announcement last month. And there is still no evidence of any women in the senior ranks of the regime.
The mandatory hijab order (which, I’m told, is being largely ignored in what is clearly another sign of resistance) and the Taliban’s treatment of protesters remind us of the movement’s earlier, ill-fated rule which ended in the US invasion of October 2001. It seems that it is as resolute as ever in not backing down on anything, although the movement’s tactics have become more nuanced and sophisticated.
When I visited the country last year, Afghanistan felt more secure and safe than it had ever been during the US occupation. Taliban Mk II seemed much more benign, mature and female-friendly. There was great optimism in the air. I was treated with courtesy and respect by everyone, and doors to all the ministries were opened when I knocked. There was no hint of what was to come. Everyone in power I spoke to insisted that women’s education was important, and that once a new curriculum was produced senior girls would be back behind their desks.
Some of the Taliban leadership even showed me photographs of their daughters and spoke of their ambitions to become teachers and doctors and other professions which would require a university education. I wonder what they have told their daughters now that they are no longer able to go to university under the current regime?
Following an interesting conversation with a senior Talib recently, it is clear that we should have seen this educational inequality coming. The clues are within the recently published book by Mowlavi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In The Islamic Emirate and Its System, the political-religious manifesto of the Taliban is set out. Sadly, there’s no English translation available yet. Supreme leader Hebatullah Akhundzadeh gives an approving introduction at the beginning of the book, and other key Taliban figures have endorsed it, indicating its widespread acceptance by senior officials.
Uncomfortable as the truth seems to optimistic souls like me, the first Taliban Emirate is driving women back behind closed doors while withdrawing what few paltry rights some of them enjoyed. There is simply no change in their ideology from the regime that held me captive way back in 2001.
While it is not in its members’ nature to swagger around Afghanistan like some conquering force — there was no looting or violence when they swept into Kabul — the movement could barely hide its joy at retaking the capital so easily. The fact that the 300,000-strong Western-trained army of the corrupt Ashraf Ghani government had fled after offering little or no resistance against the Taliban must have boosted the confidence of the new regime. The press conferences given by the leadership confounded critics as they appeared to put women’s rights at the top of their priorities.
People like myself urged others to keep an open mind and castigated the US when President Joe Biden’s Executive Order froze assets belonging to the Afghan people and threatened to derail the government. Some might see such theft as this as an act of war, but the Taliban has always confined its aggression within the borders of Afghanistan. Predictably, it was an angry exchange of words which followed. China has recently intervened, urging Biden to return the foreign reserves stolen by the US.
When I flew out of Kabul last April I felt very positive about the situation in Afghanistan. I had met virtually every key minister and each one had given me their assurance that women would not be forgotten. Was I naive to believe them? I’m not sure, because they did make huge efforts to present a more moderate front, talking about an amnesty for their enemies, for example, and promising an inclusive government with all of the ethnic groups involved, including the Tajiks, Hazaras and Balochis. Since it is practically impossible to govern a country that is completely boycotted by the rest of the world, maybe the Taliban will look again at the composition of its government to ensure fair representation. In the meantime, though, we’ve yet to see any kind of inclusive government as promised by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in November and there are no signs of it appearing.
However, all is not doom and gloom. Law and order are under control with crime figures plummeting due to the Taliban’s zero tolerance approach to theft, corruption and drugs.
I wasn’t in Kabul the day that a US drone targeted Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri who, according to US intelligence, was living in the Afghan capital at the time, but during my extensive travel around the country the only terrorist presence in evidence were the graves of Al-Qaida fighters in Kandahar.
I have to wonder if the ban on women studying in universities and working for NGOs is linked to the US and its allies refusing to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. If that is the case, then the movement is clearly using women and girls as sticks with which to beat their enemies. And since the issue of global recognition is subject to the Taliban’s practical conduct regarding social and cultural values, women’s rights, ethnic and minority rights, civil liberties and the other fundamental rights of the Afghan people, then surely we have to be optimistic that change will come about
The Taliban needs to take this on board, but it is stubborn and misogynistic in outlook. It must know, therefore, that it can expect another unholy international alliance to spring up because the world will not allow such a government to remain in power unless it has something that the US and West want, such as oil and gas. That’s how some of the Gulf States get away with it. That plus recognition of the occupation state of Israel. But that’s another story.
If the Taliban resists social, political and civil reform, then the people who rose up and allowed it to take power are just as likely to do so again and take that power away. Moreover, a growing economic crisis and international sanctions is forcing an exodus and many more people look set to leave Afghanistan. Can the Taliban afford to lose its best brains and talents?
When people can’t see a future, they have no hope. It would be ironic if the Taliban implodes because of its treatment of women. This is one battle that the movement cannot win, especially when its members’ wives, mothers and daughters are demanding their rights along with their sisters around the world. The leadership in Kabul can’t claim that it wasn’t warned. The equality clock is ticking.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.