You are here

Taliban’s Systematic Apartheid against Afghan Women and Girls

Ms Saman Ayesha Kidwai is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • September 18, 2023


    Afghanistan’s road to systematic apartheid has been paved with a gradual erosion of women’s and girls’ freedom and their erasure from public life. While resistance is being expressed to the Taliban’s repressive edicts, there are many challenges to restoring the dignity and welfare of Afghan women and girls.


    Apartheid refers to “inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group or groups committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.1 In Afghanistan, inhumane acts are being committed by Pakthun Taliban males against Afghan females to uphold an Islamic system based on their interpretation of Sharia. Even under Taliban 1.0, hardliner Islamists confined women and girls to their homes, depriving them of education and employment opportunities, after assuming power in 1996. The international community has refrained from pursuing meaningful measures against apartheid’s recurrence in Afghanistan. This is not surprising, as even earlier, it was not until the 9/11 attacks that any decisive measures were adopted against the Afghan Taliban.

    Between a Rock and a Hard Place

    Taliban’s first press conference following the takeover of Kabul outlined some of the de facto regime’s policies to the global community. One of them was guaranteeing women’s rights within the ‘framework of Sharia’and the assurance that ‘there’s not going to be any discrimination against women’.2 This was in line with the joint Intra-Afghan statement issued during negotiations in Doha. The delegates representing the Ghani administration and the Taliban underlined that sustainable peace was not permissible without ‘assuring women rights in political, social, economic, educational, cultural affairs as per (and) within the Islamic framework of Islamic values’.3 Moreover, in a letter released by the Taliban in 2018, its leaders assured that while in power, their government would ‘provide high standard education and employment opportunities for our people and guarantee all human and legal rights of every child, woman, and man…’.4

    However, it has become apparent that their narrow-minded perspective about women and girls has pushed them towards acute marginalisation and oppression in the name of religion while violating and contradicting the previously issued assurances. Restrictions on their movement, access to schools, universities, entrepreneurship, employment, or public recreational centres, have abruptly halted the nascent progress after the Taliban seized and re-established control. Under the interim administration’s governance drawing on hardliner interpretation of Sharia, these trends are on the path to being normalised. It is ironic for the Taliban leadership to enact such harsh measures when reports suggest their own daughters are sent abroad to receive education.

    As rightly pointed out by Pashtana Durrani, an education activist, Afghan women “are being held hostage by 70,000 men with guns”.5 Since the last coalition officer withdrew from the country on 31 August 2021, the Afghan Taliban’s diktats have systematically marginalised women and young girls. The interim leaders have barred women’s participation as entrepreneurs and educators in the public sphere. Moreover, female health practitioners cannot travel to work without being accompanied by a male mahram or guardian. The generation that was primarily raised in the backdrop of democratic reforms and governance in the country post-2001 and exposed to diverse academic and professional opportunities has now been deprived of higher education, and their access to participating in civic life as equal citizens is obstructed.

    Going Backwards

    Taliban 2.0 has undertaken numerous acts to overhaul the country’s socio-political landscape by systematically ensuring women's erasure from public life. As per the Feminist Majority Foundation and United Nations Women, 54 out of 80 Taliban-issued edicts6 have rolled back reforms previously introduced to empower the female populace. For example, in July 2022, women were ordered to send their male relatives to the Ministry of Finance as their replacements to continue receiving salaries. Moreover, in December 2022, women were barred from being employed by international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) or running businesses such as bakeries.

    ‘Going sightseeing is not obligatory’—This is the latest justification provided by the Afghan Taliban while restricting women and young girls from travelling to the Band-e-Amir National Park in Bamiyan due to their ‘non-observance of hijab’.7 This edict was issued after Mohammad Khaled Hanafi, the interim Minister for the Propagation of Vice and Prevention of Virtue, visited the province. His ministry replaced the Ministry for Women’s Affairs after Kabul’s takeover two years ago.

    Those defying the diktats have been arrested, publicly flogged, or compelled to move abroad, living in exile. Harried for merely carrying out their responsibilities or pursuing their interests, many former female television and radio presenters, law and security enforcement officials, politicians, athletes, and members of the all-female robotics team have quickly fled the country. The remaining have been confined to homes or executed.

    These horrifying and grim realities have become the new normal in Afghanistan as the Taliban’s disputable claims of protecting women’s rights have proved to be farce. Many such incidents might have gone unreported given tightening press freedom. The interim administration governs Afghanistan with complete impunity and there is no incentive to act on the shallow assurances made before and immediately after seizing power.

    Education Denial

    Before Afghanistan was invaded and the Taliban ousted from power in 2001, there was a notable absence of girls in schools. In its current representation, the interim government has once again curbed access to education at secondary and university levels, unfortunately exemplifying the country as the only one globally to impede females’ access to education.

    Recently, a group of 100 female students whose education and travel to Dubai was being sponsored by an Emirati businessman were prevented from travelling at the airport in Kabul,8 despite being accompanied by him in the capacity of their male guardian as dictated by authorities. These challenges come amid mounting roadblocks preventing women from traveling abroad, including accessing academic transcripts and degrees and applying for passports.9

    The United Nations (UN) Global Envoy for Education, Gordon Brown, has argued that denial of education amounts to a ‘crime against humanity’,10 a chargeable offence in the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is highly improbable that UNSC members, such as the US, will support Brown’s calls for investigations into these matters, considering that American combat forces have themselves been accused by the ICC of committing crimes against humanity since 2001.

    Arguments relating to Sharia and Islamic values (despite profound ambiguity concerning what that entails) have frequently been used to justify the Taliban’s regressive actions. Two of the primary reasons provided for banning female education is the need to implement segregation between male and female students and Islamise the curricula as co-education systems have been held to have ‘violated the principles of Islam’.11

    However, these are often distorted, incorrect interpretations of the religion presented by hardliner Islamists. Furthermore, no clause or article contravenes Islamic values and principles as per the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s constitution, ratified in 2004. Article 3 declares that ‘no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan’. Additionally, Articles 17 and 45 clearly affirm the importance of religion in fostering education and aligning with Islamic values.12

    There is also a constant iteration by the Taliban spokespersons like Zabihullah Mujahid of the need to reconcile the hardliner clerics’ opposition to female education with the acceptance of the regime by the Doha faction.13 However, this appears to be merely a stonewalling tactic exploited by the interim leaders as leverage in their negotiations with the international community. As billions of dollars’ worth of funds remain inaccessible to them, they might believe that the rights of young girls and women can be used as bargaining chips in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

    Nevertheless, international sanctions against most of the interim Taliban cabinet persist. Furthermore, while recognition by most state actors seems unlikely, a humanitarian disaster looms large amid widening food insecurity. Drought driven by climate change and reduced humanitarian aid due to a sharp fall in funding have contributed to the food insecurity crisis.

    Freedom of Movement and Enforced Segregation

    Deprivation of equitable rights is not restricted to access to education and financial independence. It extends to freedom of movement and segregation based on their identity of being a male or female in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Rendered invisible and mainly confined to homes, women and young girls cannot travel without being escorted by a male guardian.

    Additionally, their access to restaurants, public ceremonies, and parks has been restricted by the Taliban, further omitting their public participation. Forced confinement and solitude in such repressive regimes add to mental health concerns, and the UN reports that it has been a leading factor in the occurrence of suicides by women in the country.14

    Health Crises

    While the impact of this has been felt across the socio-economic strata, those with health concerns and single parents (mothers) have presumably been the worst affected by the apartheid policy occurring nationwide. None of them can access healthcare facilities without a male mahram. Such restrictive polices do not consider the implications on female-run households. Furthermore, since all male doctors have been warned against treating female patients, female practitioners are being marginalised with each passing day. With International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC)-run hospitals being closed, female mortality rates, including during labour, are bound to surge in the future. According to recent reports, at least 25 such hospitals are due to cease operations shortly.15

    The World Health Organization’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has lamented the health sectors’ deplorable status and its impact on the most vulnerable. He noted that

    The situation in Afghanistan is grave, and the lack of resources and funding to support health workers and facilities is putting countless lives at risk. Women and children are suffering the most….16

    Due to a sharp decrease in funding, ICRC, whose support had sustained several Afghan hospitals after August 2021, faces similar monetary constraints as other humanitarian aid agencies in assisting locals. At the same time, the limited number of female doctors available have recounted their experiences of patients struggling with rising medical costs.17 By mid-August 2023, only a quarter of US$ 3.2 billion pledged as part of the UN’s Humanitarian Response had been raised.18

    Table 1 highlights some negative impacts of the Taliban’s repressive actions on women’s presence and participation in Afghan society (This list is not exhaustive).

    Table 1: Fallout of Taliban’s Edicts

    Serial Number

    Domains Affected by the

    Taliban’s Edicts



    Government (Ministerial Positions)

    0 women occupy ministerial positions in the Taliban’s interim government.



    Female employees cannot continue being employed by an INGO.


    Secondary and Tertiary Higher Education

    3.5 million female students banned from accessing education beyond 6th grade.19


    Recreational centres: Parks and Gyms

    Women and Girls are barred from accessing public parks and gyms.


    Informal Sector

    54,000 women-owned businesses are inoperative.20

    Source: Author.

    The repressive tactics will continue setting the country back by decades and result in the international community hardening its stance towards the interim regime, perhaps by reducing aid and seizure of funds, even as engagement continues on other fronts. In return, the Taliban’s rigidness towards perceived external interference in its matters will simultaneously increase. Afghan women and girls, however, will bear the consequences of a regime unconcerned with their welfare and rights on the one hand and a global community whose championing of the female empowerment cause ceased to hold value after its withdrawal from the country.

    Role of External Actors

    Sectarian conflict, marginalisation of certain ethnic communities, and instability have exacerbated following the withdrawal of US-led forces. Over the last two years, an Afghan fatigue has set in as more concerning geopolitical considerations have eclipsed the international agenda. A ‘fight for the rights and dignity of women’21 from Taliban 1.0 had become one of the rallying cries to legitimise Afghanistan’s invasion in 2001. Their empowerment after five years of being bound in shackles placed by Taliban 1.0 served as one of the reasons legitimising the invasion over two decades ago. However, that liberation was sacrificed in Doha to protect the international coalition forces from targeted suicide bombings and ambushes and prevent the country from being used as a launch pad to target the US and its allies.

    During the US–Taliban negotiations, Afghan women and girls’ concerns and considerations were side-lined in favour of implementing a temporary ceasefire, withdrawing international forces, and neutralising terrorism within Afghanistan. Additionally, the Biden administration pressured former President Ghani to formalise a peace deal with the Taliban without guaranteeing assurances about women’s rights and freedoms. These factors have granted the Taliban significant leeway in normalising a state of apartheid in the name of Islam, as it has continued enacting policies that hamper women’s equitable participation in the public domain.

    Mujahid has made evident how the slow rollout regarding establishing formal diplomatic engagement with global actors does not undermine the Taliban’s rule. Marking the second anniversary of the regime’s rule, he claimed,

    Our (the Taliban) interaction with China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region is official. We have businesses. Traders come and go and goods. These are all the things that mean the recognition of officialdom.22

    Global leaders want terrorism to be neutralised and narcotics trafficking to cease. The Taliban, meanwhile, has warned against undermining Afghan sovereignty and called on heads of state to rescind names of its leaders from the UN Security Council Sanctions Resolution 1267, which sanctions Al-Qaeda and the Taliban members, bestow diplomatic recognition, and release Da Afghanistan Bank’s (the country’s central bank) funds totalling US$ 9.5 billion.

    Despite their rhetoric of the need to form an inclusive government in Afghanistan and uphold the human rights of all citizens, President Biden has lauded Taliban’s ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts against al-Qaeda.23 Meanwhile, a US business delegation recently visited Kabul and referred to Afghanistan as an ‘Emirate’,24 a term commonly used by the Taliban and its supporters. The head of this delegation, Jeffrey Grieco, President of the Afghan–American Chamber of Commerce, claimed that previous democratically elected governments had impeded Afghanistan’s development. Grieco also backed the Taliban’s claims of establishing peace and eradicating corruption in the country after the fall of Kabul.25

    China has announced a new land corridor with Afghanistan and expressed its willingness to integrate the latter in its Belt and Road Initiative. Further, Zhao Xing’s appointment as China’s Ambassador to Afghanistan in September 2023 marks a significant turn of events. He is the first diplomatic officer to assume the position of Ambassador after Taliban took over power in August 2021. China is seeking to leverage its enhanced diplomatic presence to secure its economic and security interests, including relating to mining and countering terrorist threats, given that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (ally of the Afghan Taliban) have targeted Chinese citizens working on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) members operating from Afghanistan are another area of concern for Beijing.  

    Afghan Women’s Resistance

    Afghan women and girls have pushed back against the interim administration’s policies of apartheid through protests in different parts of the country and a campaign called ‘Education of Afghan Girls’.26 Female artists have showcased their talents in the capital amid a morose environment negatively impacting their mental well-being. In August 2023, anywhere between 20 and 24 Afghan female painters contributed to an exhibition that lasted for three days, by displaying their art.27 In addition, women, under secrecy, have been conducting online classes. However, the absence of stable internet connectivity and security hinders their work significantly.28

    Despite the overbearing interference of the Taliban in Afghans’ lives, there appears to be a remarkable perseverance among women and young girls exposed to diverse avenues—academically and professionally—made accessible to them under the Karzai and Ghani regimes. Their contribution had a wide bandwidth, from being parliamentarians to judges, to name a few.

    Duranni’s LEARN Afghanistan is one such organisation providing access to online education, while some underground schools have been covertly educating students at overwhelming risk to their lives. At the same time, renowned women’s rights activists and Nobel Prize nominees like Mahbouba Seraj have raised their voices for the Taliban to hold them accountable and reverse their discriminatory policies against Afghan women.29

    Somaya Faruqi, who previously captained Afghan Girls’ Robotic Team, has collaborated with ‘Education Cannot Wait’, a programme launched by the UN to educate those affected by crisis—internally displaced and refugee children—in exigent circumstances.30 This has been done to highlight Afghan women and girls’ resilience and anguish in the face of the evident state of apartheid prevailing in their country.

    In Closing

    As time passes, the fate of Afghan women and girls could be rendered inconsequential, as realpolitik concerns regarding issues such as terrorism spill-over and radicalisation gain prominence and outweigh other concerns in the long term. As the Taliban’s delaying strategies, vague assurances, and restrictive edicts gain momentum, optimism has not been allowed to take root in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan concerning female empowerment. Unless a drastic reversal occurs—either due to insurmountable chasms within the Taliban or through external pressures—apartheid against Afghan women will inevitably continue as the regime further consolidates its hold over the country.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.