17th Oct 2021


Muslim leaders must stop Taliban violating women's rights

  • Nobel laureate and Pakistani rights activist Malala Yousafzai urged Pakistan to show "bold and strong commitment" to protect women's rights in Afghanistan. (Photo:
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Leaders of Muslim-majority countries must act urgently to stop the Taliban's violation of Afghan women's rights.

For almost two months, leaders of Muslim-majority states have looked the other way while the Taliban ride roughshod over women's access to education, jobs, and health-care.

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Despite earlier hopes - frail as they were - the Taliban have not clarified statements that women will be allowed to work "within the framework of Islamic law".

Girls face an effective ban on secondary education and female government employees have been given stay-home orders. Women's protests have been brutally suppressed.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs - tasked with protecting women's political and civil rights - has been replaced by the much-feared "Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice", which terrorised the country during Taliban rule in the 1990s.

Women are not represented in the Taliban-led interim government.

Western protests at the systematic erasure of Afghan women's presence in public life are unlikely to make an impact.

After their shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the US and Nato have forfeited any leverage in the country. The European Union, despite its financial assistance programme, remains a marginal political actor.

The protection of women's rights is not guaranteed or even underlined by the Doha accord that the US signed with the Taliban in February 2020.

And, regrettably, since the plight of Afghan women was used by many to justify the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban see calls for women's rights as part of a detested "Western agenda."

This makes it even more urgent that leaders of Afghanistan's Muslim neighbours - and of other regional powers - speak up.

Their unwillingness to do so is morally unacceptable. It is also dangerous, short-sighted, and self-defeating.

This is not to urge another "feminist war" to "liberate" Afghan women. Neither is it to impose a foreign agenda and dress codes or to victimise Afghan women as being helpless and without agency.

While some Afghan women have voiced support for the Taliban, others in towns and cities - and those who have become refugees overnight - are demonstrating their resolve and resilience in myriad ways.

They cannot do it alone, however.

Right to education

Denying Afghan women the right to education and work is an insult to their dignity.

It also deprives the country of the energy and talent of half of its population. As such, it is a recipe for further political instability, societal strife and economic chaos.

Additionally, Muslim leaders' indifference to the Taliban's rollback of women's rights is a slap in the face of millions of empowered Muslim women who are active and fully-fledged citizens of their countries.

Giving the Taliban a free pass to pursue their agenda is also an unfortunate stamp of approval for the militant group's uniquely mix of cruel, tribal, and restrictive interpretation of Islamic law.

It gives traction to an Islamophobic narrative of all Muslims as patriarchal and backward and to Orientalist tropes of docile "veiled" women who must be freed from their male oppressors.

Finally, leaving issues of women's rights - and generally questions of rights and freedoms - to Western countries allows the Taliban to discredit such concerns as part of a Western agenda that does not accord with local culture and religion. 

Giving the Taliban more time to define their views and vision for Afghanistan and the role of women is not an option.

Muslim women across the world are speaking up.

They include Nobel laureate and Pakistani rights activist Malala Yousafzai, shot at by Taliban in Pakistan in 2012, who has urged Pakistan to show "bold and strong commitment" to protect women's rights in Afghanistan because the Taliban ideology "can harm the whole region".

Fawzia Koofi, Afghanistan's first woman deputy speaker of parliament, has asked Muslim countries to press the Taliban on girls' education, "because what is happening in Afghanistan differs from the rest of the Islamic world".

And Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has said that preventing girls from going to secondary school is "not Islamic".

But a one-off statement is not enough, especially since Khan's own views on women are hardly progressive.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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