Two decades ago, photographs of blue burqas became perhaps the totemic image of life under the Taliban, as Afghan women’s rights were invoked and exploited to justify the country’s invasion. On Saturday, the Taliban once more ordered women to cover their faces in public. While Afghan women have courageously protested against the injunction, the reaction internationally has this time been muted. That it follows other punitive restrictions creating what some have called “gender apartheid” – preventing teenage girls from studying and women from working outside healthcare or education, or travelling outside their home town without a male guardian – makes it all the more appalling. Ukraine is absorbing the world’s attention. But the muffled response surely also reflects the wish of the US, the UK and others to put the failure of the last 20 years behind them, and the fact that behind the rhetoric, women’s rights remain a low priority.
Though the Taliban justify the burqa as a matter of tradition, this has only been the case in the most conservative rural areas. For many Afghan women, this is a wholly alien and unwelcome imposition. Yet, equally, their greatest concern may not be the edict to cover their faces per se, but the fact that this is the latest blow removing their ability to work, earn, or be present in the public sphere, and handing control of their bodies to the men in their families. Authorities also suggested that women should not leave their homes if possible, emboldening enforcers on the ground. Women cannot even decide independently what risks they are willing to take, since if their faces are seen in public their male “guardians” face fines, jail time and losing their jobs. (Women who work for the government will also be fired.)
The growing repression demolishes Taliban claims to have changed since they last ruled Afghanistan. Even when they swept to power last August, some outsiders entertained the idea that this was a more moderate “Taliban 2.0”, given the promises to protect the rights of women and not seek retribution. The last-minute reversal of a promise to allow secondary education to resume for girls across the country highlighted internal divisions. Some clerics sympathetic to the militants have called for older girls to be allowed back to school, and in some areas they are already studying. But all the evidence is that the power of hardliners is becoming entrenched.
At stake is not only women’s freedom, but also the survival of families amid economic collapse. While the Taliban increase their repression, they show little interest in or ability to tackle the immense humanitarian catastrophe. People are starving. In March, the World Bank halted $600m-worth of development projects, saying women’s rights were not being respected. UN Women says that restrictions on female employment have cost up to $1bn, or 5% of output.
Other countries have limited scope for action, but must clearly and consistently reiterate their support for women’s rights as a necessity and priority for Afghan women themselves. They should not send all-male delegations to meet the leadership. And they should consider how funding can offer leverage: paying for education where teenage girls can attend school, for example, may help to generate pressure in neighbouring communities. Afghan women will not be “saved”, in the narrative once propagated by western leaders. But nor must they be abandoned. They must be heard, and given every element of support that can be mustered.