The Taliban released a so-called “decree on women’s rights” on Friday that failed to mention access to education or work and was immediately panned by Afghan women and experts, who said it was proof that the militant group was uninterested in upholding basic freedoms for millions of Afghan women who have largely been constrained to their homes in recent months.
The decree, which sets out the rules governing marriage and property for women, states that women should not be forced into marriage and that widows have a share in their husbands property. “A woman is not a property, but a noble and free human being; no one can give her to anyone in exchange for peace…or to end animosity,” said the Taliban decree, released by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
The Taliban have been placed under immense pressure to support the rights of women by the international community, which has mostly frozen funds for Afghanistan since the group seized control of the country. Instead, in their four months of rule, the Taliban’s leaders have imposed limits on girls’ education and banned women from certain workplaces, stripping away rights they had fought tirelessly for over the last two decades.
Afghan women interviewed by CNN on Friday said that the decree would do little to change their lives, adding that the rights detailed by the Taliban were already enshrined under Islamic law. The Taliban’s leaders promised that women would have rights “within the bounds of Islamic law” when they swept to power, but it’s been unclear what that would mean or how it would differ from the strict interpretation of the law imposed by the group from 1996 to 2001, when women were banned from leaving the home without a male guardian and girls were blocked from school.
‘They only want women to stay home’
“[The decree] has no connection with our right to go to school, university or participate in government. We don’t see any hope for our future if it goes on like this,” said Muzhda, a 20-year-old university student in the capital Kabul, who asked that her surname not be used. “We were not feeling comfortable since the the Taliban took control and we won’t feel comfortable after this decree … if they don’t bring changes to their rules for the women’s rights we will prefer to stay inside.”
“They only want women to stay home and prevent them from going out for school, university or work, but they want to appeal to international community,” she added.
The timing of the edict comes as Afghanistan plunges deeper into an economic crisis and amid warnings of a looming famine. But it is unlikely that the statement will go far enough to assuage international concerns that Afghan women are currently unable to work and go to school, or even access public spaces outside the home.
“It’s been becoming more and more clear to the Taliban over the last three and a half months that women’s rights, particularly girls education, is a really serious barrier to achieving some things that they want from the international community – recognition, legitimacy, funding, unfreezing of assets,” Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told CNN.
The Taliban’s leaders have presented a more moderate face of the group to the world in recent months, pledging to allow primary education and some secondary education for girls, but rights advocates are unconvinced their views have changed. According to Barr, “their views are pretty intact compared to ’96 to 2001, about what the role of women and girls should be. And so, in that context, this looks like a statement that costs them nothing.”
“It gives you a sense of how the Taliban see women’s roles in society,” Barr added. “It feels a bit insulting, honestly, at a moment when millions of girls are being denied access to education.”
A worsening crisis
Barr noted that, in practical terms, the Taliban has no way to uphold women’s rights after having abolished all the mechanisms to do so. Since sweeping to power, the Taliban has abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, a key body in promoting women’s rights through Afghan laws. They’ve also rolled back the Elimination of Violence against Women Law, signed in 2009 to protect women from abuses – including forced marriage, leaving them without recourse to justice, according to the UN.
“Enforcement of this decree in most parts of the country is impossible, only the Taliban can implement it in the capital and some parts of the country, but most parts are having their own custom, which they won’t accept this decree,” Fariha Sediqi, 62, a former school teacher in Kabul, told CNN.
Even though marriage under the age of 15 is illegal nationwide, it has been commonly practiced for years, especially in more rural parts of Afghanistan. And the situation has deteriorated since the August takeover, as families became more desperate in the face of a worsening economic crisis.
Zahra Joya, an Afghan journalist who fled the Taliban, but is continuing to run her own women’s news agency, Rukhshana Media, from London, England, where she is seeking asylum, said that the decree was meaningless.
“The Taliban said women are humans. Everyone knows women are humans. They say women are free. But how? It is the 21st century and all Afghan women need to have their freedoms — educational rights, working rights. And unfortunately, the Taliban they’ve limited women’s life in the 100 days they’ve been in power,” Joya said.
Joya, who grew up under the Taliban in the ’90s and lived as a boy in order to flout the group’s education ban and attend school, left Afghanistan to continue her work. She has a network of female journalists across the country who are reporting on women’s issues, like rise in forced marriage amid the economic crisis, in secret.
“Right now, the majority of Afghan people don’t have enough food for eating. The Taliban don’t have any solution for solving the economic situation in Afghanistan, and yet they’re still trying to limit women,” she added.