By Sareta Ashraph
On January 16, 2023, gunmen in the Afghan capital of Kabul shot and killed Mursal Nabizada, a former Member of Parliament. An outspoken critic of the Taliban, Nabizada was one of the few female MPs who had remained in Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in August 2021. The killing of Nabizada sends a clarion call, not for the first time, of the need to combat mounting violence being perpetrated against women and girls by the Taliban regime.
The resurgent Taliban’s attacks on women were swift, foreseeable, and founded upon a deeply rooted sense of impunity. Despite initial promises that women would be allowed to exercise their rights within Sharia law—including the right to work and to study—the Taliban embarked on a campaign of systematically excluding women and girls from public life.
The Taliban’s conduct “may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity,” according to a group of United Nations experts—including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls. The UN experts’ statement on November 25, 2022 outlined the sharp increase in violations of women and girls’ fundamental rights and freedoms in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, women and girls are being targeted precisely because of their gender and for that reason are being severely deprived of their fundamental rights—including the severe deprivation of their physical liberty, a crime recognized in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Also incontestable is their deprivation of other fundamental rights widely recognized in international human rights treaties. These include, but are not limited to, the right to education, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to equal protection before the law, and the right to be free from all forms of discrimination.
Within a month of taking power, the Taliban abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, replacing it with the Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Just as quickly, and harking back to their earlier time in power, the Taliban banned girls from attending school past the sixth grade and barred women from working most jobs outside the home. Women were also banned from travelling more than 48 miles without a male chaperone. In May 2022, the Taliban required women to cover their faces in public and instructed them to remain in their homes except in cases of necessity. Men accompanying women wearing colourful clothing, or without a face covering, have been brutally beaten by Taliban officers.
In recent months, women have suffered both violent attacks and increased restrictions on basic freedoms. On September 30, 2022, a suicide attack on ethnic Hazara students targeted female students in Kabul who were sitting for a practice university entrance exam. The attack—for which no group claimed responsibility—claimed 53 lives, most of them girls and young women, and injured 110. It sparked protests as women came out onto the streets first in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar e Sharif provinces before spreading to Panjshir, Nangarhar, Ghazni, and Bamiyan. Taliban authorities responded by beating protesters and using live ammunition to disperse the crowd.
On November 3, 2022, a press conference was held in Dasht-e-Barchi, a Hazara neighborhood in west Kabul, to announce the formation of the Afghan Women’s Movement for Equality. The Taliban disrupted the event and arrested well-known journalist and human rights defender, Zarifa Yaqoubi, along with several other female journalists. Yaqoubi was released five weeks later, though those arrested with her remain detained. That same month, women were forbidden from accessing public places such as parks and gyms.
On December 20, 2022, the Taliban banned women from universities in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has managed to suppress widespread protests, smaller protests erupted outside of the universities after the ban of female students was announced. One woman, in a video obtained by the Associated Press, recounted Taliban officers whipping and beating the female protesters, before noting that some women were arrested and taken away.
Four days after the university ban, Taliban acting Minister of Economy issued a letter barring women from working in international and national NGOs. After ceasing operations entirely, several aid organizations restored some operations in January 2023 after they received assurances from Taliban authorities that women would be allowed to work in delineated areas such as health and nutrition.
More horrifying than what we know of the situation of Afghan women and girls is the realization that the information available publicly is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, given the crackdown on journalists writing about Taliban violations, the near impossibility of carrying out documentation efforts, and security challenges in accessing marginalized and rural communities in Afghanistan. We have also yet to fully understand how violence and violations are being committed against women with intersecting marginalized identities and against other communities, including those from the long-persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, members of the LGBTI+ communities, and persons with disabilities.
Efforts to clear a path to accountability, including for a possible charge of gender persecution, are slowly taking shape. On October 31, 2022, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court authorized the Prosecution to resume investigation into the Afghanistan Situation. Chief Prosecutor, Karim Khan, indicated that his Office’s investigation would focus on crimes allegedly committed by the Taliban and the Islamic State – Khorasan Province, “which include allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, targeted extrajudicial executions, persecution of women and girls, crimes against children and other crimes affecting the civilian population at large.” As members of the Taliban government begin to move more freely outside of Afghanistan’s borders, there are also increasing pushes from the Afghan diaspora for states to arrest and try members of the Taliban, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. What is clear, however, is that far greater resources will need to be made available for any measure of accountability for crimes against Afghans, and to end the persecution of Afghan women and girls.
Stripped of their rights and under constant threat of violence, Afghan women and girls are standing up for their rights. Far more is owed to them by the international community than our outrage.
Sareta Ashraph is a senior legal consultant with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.