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The Deterioration of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

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Authored by Emily Renton
Published on 23rd May, 2022 7 min read

The Deterioration of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

A world map zoomed in on Afghanistan, where the Afghanistan flag is.

“I wanted to be someone and do something with my life, but all of that is gone and I am left in darkness”, says a young Afghani girl on the roll back of women’s rights under the new Taliban government (BBC, 2021). The Taliban’s creation of the notorious ‘Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ reiterates what has been a key component of Taliban policy: the oppression of women . Prior to the late 1970s, the women's rights movement in Afghanistan appeared to be succeeding; girls’ schools had been established, and women gained the right to vote and work. During the USSR-backed Saur revolution, there initially seemed to be a campaign for dramatic social reform, particularly regarding girls’ education, and the introduction of a legal minimum age to marry. However, it soon became clear that these reforms were not necessarily progressive, but rather superficial. This is due to how the reforms benefitted men, such as through the promotion of women entertainers. Furthermore, the government set a limit of 300 Afghan Afghani for a women’s mehr, which is an Islamic tradition where money is given to the bride by the groom. Thus, the mehr is legally in the woman's name. This limit further benefits Afghani men through creating financial insecurity amongst women.

Following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan became ruled by the Mujahideen in 1989. The Mujahideen then began their regime of oppression. Under their rule, women were prohibited from reading the news (Samar, 2019). Equally, at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, and at the 1995 Beijing International Conference on Women, there was no Afghani government representation (Samar, 2019). Thus, it was made clear to the world that women’s welfare was not a concern for the Mujahideen. Following the examples of their predecessors, when the Taliban first took power in 1996, one of their first decisions was to close schools and public baths for Afghani women (Samar, 2019). Girls’ education became outlawed, women were banned from the workplace, and were forced to cover their entire bodies. Moreover, male doctors were allowed to see female patients only with a male relative present. The complete isolation of women from society and public life was exacerbated following the prohibition of women’s voices in the radio, as well as their images from being displayed in public. Under Taliban rule, it became a rare sight to see a woman in public, often only as a result of destitution. Even in these conditions, no eye contact or conversation would be made (Levi, 2009). Women were publicly harassed and beaten for activities deemed “un-Islamic”. This was used as a weapon of intimidation and coercion. In such a ruthless regime, the “repression of women symbolises not only their vulnerability, but also the powerlessness of their male relatives to protect them” (Amnesty International, 1999). In April 2009, during the Afghani War, president Hamid Karzai expressed support for a law that would make it illegal for Shi’i women to refuse their husbands advances, and require their permission to leave their homes (Levi, 2009). Over 300 Afghani women took to the streets to protest this law, yet they were met with an even larger group of male protesters who responded violently, and the women were forced to disperse (Levi, 2009). This episode explicitly demonstrates the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan. Change appears unachievable in the face of the reactionary policies and attitudes held by the ruling party and many men in Afghanistan. 

It is often said that the greatest hindrance to women’s rights is war itself. Despite not being on the front line, women suffer great casualties during wartime. As their husbands and sons are taken to the frontline, often never to return, many widows are reduced to begging, leading to an increase in rape and suicides. Only men are permitted to work, meaning in wartime women are forced into undignified positions in order to provide for their families (Amnesty International, 1999). Upon such examination, although women are often the largest sufferers in war, the fact that a woman cannot survive or function in society alludes to a patriarchal society in itself as being the main hindrance to women’s rights. War only serves to further oppress those that its system explicitly discriminates against. 

The roll back of women’s rights in Afghanistan is not limited to Afghani customs. Women were also the subject of discrimination for other states, such as Saudi Arabia in its conditions of monetary aid, and the USA in its financing of the Soviet proxy war. Depriving women of the right to education and work as implemented by the Taliban was partially a result of its need for monetary aid. Certain Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, only financed the Taliban on the grounds that men and women were segregated (Samar, 2019). This segregation also extended to the distribution of aid from the international community, which challenged the Taliban’s discriminatory approach to distribution, leading some parties to go as far as suspending their programmes (Amnesty International, 1999). 

Much of the oppression of women in Afghanistan was ignored by the West until they saw its utility in furthering their own geo-political goals. Despite previous warnings on human rights abuses taking place in Afghanistan, it was not until the 9/11 attacks that the USA and its European allies sought to take action against the Taliban. In a radio address, First Lady Laura Bush exploited the position of Afghani women in order to garner support for a war against the Taliban, explaining “the plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control” (Samar, 2019). Although the First Lady’s address did raise awareness of the position of women in Afghanistan, much of the activism carried out is considered “NGO-ized feminism”, and therefore subsequent women’s conferences were centred around Western values and individualism (Kirby, 2021). What is really needed is practical action as opposed to debates regarding the implementation of Western values which necessarily excludes the most important actors: the women of Afghanistan themselves. Women’s rights and Afghani society are not mutually exclusive, but these rights have to be understood within the context of Afghani society, as opposed to aligning them exactly to Western standards of female liberation. 

With the recent Taliban insurgency, the rights of women are once again uncertain. The oppression of women is central to Taliban ideology, yet how far they will be able to enact these policies is unclear. Foreign states could attempt to secure women’s rights in Afghanistan by using monetary resources for leverage, as the Taliban will need foreign money in order to stay in power. Similarly, if the Taliban can guarantee the freedom of women, they are more likely to gain international legitimacy. However, women were already suffering disproportionately under the Taliban even before they solidified their capture of Kabul – of those who were evacuated by the USA as recipients of Special Immigration Visas, the majority were men as they were able to fill jobs such as interpreters (Kirby, 2021). The abandonment of women once again leaves them in a position where they are unable to work, rendering them destitute and further perpetuating the cycle of oppression and poverty.


Amnesty International (1999). Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in Men’s Power Struggles. Amnesty International.

BBC. (2021). Afghan women disappear from public life by order of Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Ministry - BBC News. [Video]. Available at: 

Kirby, J. (2021). Women’s Rights Have an Uncertain Future in Afghanistan. 24 August 2021. Vox. 

Levi, S. (2009). The Long, Long Struggle for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. September 2009. Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. 

Samar, S. (2019). Feminism, Peace, and Afghanistan. 11 September 2019. Columbia Journal of International Affairs. 

Authored by Emily Renton

Emily Renton

Emily is an undergraduate student studying History and Politics at the University of York.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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