Gender Apartheid in operation in Taliban-led Afghanistan?

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A girl waits with Afghan women to receive bread from a bakery in Kabul.

by Sidiqullah Sahel     3 February 2023

Thinking of Apartheid, the mind goes back to the racial segregation of blacks by the white minority in Africa in the second half of the twentieth century. However, the term apartheid in the 21st century has remained exclusively an academic interest, reminiscing the injustices that happened to blacks from 1950-the 1990s. However, the renewed debates on the subject relate the happenings in today’s Afghanistan with the deprivation of fundamental rights and social segregation that was a norm of the apartheid era. One wonders why the debate took this renewed turn in contemporary times when the rule of law and democracy flourishes worldwide. The case of Afghanistan never ceases to surprise. The Taliban regime has ushered in an era of gender segregation and denial of rights to women.

The systematic violence began with the marginalization of women in the country post the Taliban’s revival in August 2021. However, the militant group has promised the United States in the Doha agreement that it would respect and uphold gender equality and preserve and protect women’s rights by granting them the opportunity to work and the right to an education. However, the situation proved otherwise when the regime established its control and expanded its governance structure in the country.

Hebatullah Akhundzada (the Taliban’s commander) and the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice began enforcing restrictions on women’s participation in the public arena as their authority grew. First, they prohibited women from working in government agencies and commanded them to stay home. Most working women were the only providers for their households, and the orders eliminated their only source of income. However, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an interview with BBC on December 30, 2022, that female government workers are paid only for remaining at home. However, the number of women who lost their positions in the government sector is far more than he states.

In addition, the Emir of the Taliban ordered that secondary schools (classes beyond the sixth grade) for females be closed until further notice since they had to segregate male and female students and provide female instructors for girls. In Afghanistan, however, schools for boys and girls are thoroughly segregated, occupying distinct buildings, and women teach girls. Therefore, the reason for closing schools is absolute and without merit.

In addition, university students must wear full-body hijabs and attend separate courses, stopping co-education in institutions. Although students obey by wearing hijabs, colleges struggle to achieve class separation. Because, with the entrance of the Taliban, the majority of anti-Taliban university lecturers fled the country, the universities faced an acute shortage of competent faculty members, and the existing professors were required to teach more courses to cover the void. The absence of teachers is, however, not the only problem, as most universities lack the infrastructure to accommodate all female and male students simultaneously. As a result, they had to divide the timings; three days each for boys and girls in public universities and different timings in private universities. The actions have proved to be disastrous, impacting the quality of teaching and increasing the instructors’ workload since they lack sufficient time for preparation and study.

Nonetheless, the moral police of the de-facto administration continued to monitor colleges, and campus surveillance was a daily occurrence for them. On the streets of Kabul, harassment of female students by the Taliban has become commonplace. Students are intimidated and humiliated for their appearance, stopped on roadways for not being accompanied by a male guardian while travelling to university and for wearing inappropriate clothing. Students are required to wear black hijabs, gloves, and socks, non-compliance, which invites trouble as they are halted at the institution’s main gate and barred from attending classes.

By examining the first term of the government (1996-2001), universities and students promised to adhere to the norms since failure to do so would result in the withdrawal of educational opportunities for females. However, on December 20, 2022, the minister of higher education, Mullah Nida Muhammad Nadim, ordered the temporary closure of universities for female students. As they were worried about the continuance of co-education in certain institutions, the non-compliance of female students about Hijab directives, the inadequacy of dormitory facilities, and the selection of unsuitable faculties such as agriculture by female students, they voiced their concerns. Therefore, the ministry will seek to create a ‘conducive climate’ for females and implement a more Islamic curriculum.

The minister at RTA (National TV) made shallow and unconvincing explanations. As a result of their rise, all universities ceased to be co-ed, and females began wearing complete hijabs while attending university. Only females are permitted to attend government university dorms, and according to Afghan customs, family members accompany girl students to the institution’s entrance. And from a religious standpoint, there are no restrictions on female students’ subject selection. It is a fundamental human right that everyone can select what they want.

Additionally, it is unfeasible to implement separate curricula for male and female students because of a lack of efficient faculty at the universities. Moreover, the minister of higher education is working on a unified national curriculum on the one hand while considering a separate curriculum for women on the other. This demonstrates the differences of opinion inside the ministry itself.

In addition, on December 24, 2022, the Taliban’s leadership prohibited women from working in the private sector and foreign non-governmental organizations. Since the news went across the media, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ceased their activities in the country, which would have a negative financial impact on the nation, as humanitarian organizations are now delivering essential commodities to the poor and needy. Some non-governmental organizations are contemplating relocating to Peshawar. If NGOs moved their operations to Pakistan, it would harm Afghanistan’s financial industry since most NGOs pay their employees via private banks.

Mujahid stated that “it is not our decision, rather it is the order of Allah, and we are implementing Shariah Law, which is the priority for us. And those women who lost their jobs can think of alternative ways. As what matters is the chastity of women, and as a government, we should ensure that all women are safe, and ensuring people’s livelihood is Allah’s duty.” The spokesperson completely ignored that government must provide jobs to the people and ensure their livelihood, not be the guardian of their chastity. And, what alternatives is he talking about if the women can’t work in government offices and the private sector?

The crimes against women are only symbolic of the apartheid in Africa throughout the late 20th century. Misogynistic government attempting systematic genocide through perpetuating violence against women in the nation. With their acts and decrees, they have not only curtailed the negative rights of women, where the government should under no circumstances intrude but also their positive liberties, which it is the duty and obligation of a regime to preserve and maintain. The Taliban’s choices to restrict and marginalize women are a negotiating chip used to coerce the international community into cooperating with the de facto government.

If the Taliban leadership continued to marginalize women and deny them their fundamental rights, it would be a tragedy for Afghanistan’s current and future generations. Millions of people would be forced to leave the country in search of a better and safer place, where they would have access to the right to education and work and live the life, they have always desired. Therefore, before it is too late, the international community and the stakeholders in Afghanistan’s affairs should intervene actively and exert pressure on the Taliban government to respect and protect the fundamental rights of the citizens to not discriminate based on gender and find a solution to the political impasse.