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  • Writer's pictureEvelyn Chen

Women in Afghanistan

The plight of women under Taliban rule really struck a chord with me because it is unfathomable how women in the 21st Century could be denied the same opportunities and freedoms that I had taken for granted all my life.

Since I was a little girl, I was given countless opportunities to succeed in various fields, from athletic to academic. As I have grown older and assumed more responsibility, I have strived to broaden opportunities for women in the UK with the organisations I volunteer for.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case for women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban held power over roughly three-quarters of Afghanistan, and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. To the general population, the Taliban and their allies committed massacres against Afghan civilians, denied UN food supplies to 160,000 starving civilians, and conducted a policy of scorched earth, burning vast areas of fertile land and destroying tens of thousands of homes. Culturally, they banned activities and media including instrumental music, paintings, photography, and movies that depicted people or other living things.

But perhaps the most egregious effect the Taliban had was on women. The Taliban prevented girls and young women from attending school, banned women from working jobs outside of healthcare (male doctors were prohibited from treating women), and required that women be accompanied by a male relative and wear a burqa at all times when in public. If women broke certain rules, they were publicly whipped or executed. Those strict rules meant that women became totally dependent on their male relatives for their survival. Women without male relatives were, therefore, subject to house arrest and destitution. The lack of economic and social power for women under Taliban rule resulted in an increase in forced and underage marriages; 80% of Afghan marriages were forced according to Amnesty International. More importantly, the Taliban's restrictions on women’s work, education and access to healthcare meant that women’s physical and mental health suffered immensely under Taliban rule.

The Taliban also sought to erase the cultural presence of women from society. Place names including the word "women" were modified so that the word was not used. Women were forbidden to laugh loudly as it was considered improper for a stranger to hear a woman's voice. Women were prohibited from participating in sports or entering a sports club. The Taliban closed the country's beauty salons. Cosmetics such as nail varnish and make-up were prohibited; a woman’s thumb was cut off after she was caught with nail varnish during the Taliban rule. Women were barred from accessing the traditional hammam, public baths, as the opportunities for socializing were ruled un-Islamic.

Many of the details you just read about the Taliban seem too extreme to be believed. Indeed, the theocracy imposed on Afghanistan’s women under Malala Yousafzi is a famous activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating female education in a Taliban-controlled area of Pakistan. In response to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, she said ‘Nine years later, I am still recovering from just one bullet. The people of Afghanistan have taken millions of bullets over the last four decades. My heart breaks for those whose names we will forget or never even know, whose cries for help will go unanswered’.

Women in Afghanistan and their allies deserve to have the same rights and freedoms as women in the UK, where I grew up. As an international reader, you can help the women of Afghanistan by clicking on the following links below. Don’t hesitate to add more links in the comments!

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