‘Invisible, Disappeared, Erased’: The Systematic Oppression of Afghan Women and Girls Since the Taliban Takeover

In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, “bit by bit, all public spaces get closed off to women,” said Dr. Lauryn Oates of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

“Our organization sees education as the pathway to the realization of rights, agency and empowerment,” Oates told Ms. (Courtesy of Oates)

The United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, leaving the Taliban as the de facto authorities. Since then, the Taliban has issued hundreds of repressive decrees designed to systematically oppress and marginalize Afghan women and girls, from denying them education to restricting their movement. These decrees have effectively erased Afghan women and girls from public life, violating their fundamental human rights and, in essence, leaving them in a state of gender apartheid. 

Ms. contributor Michelle Onello sat down with Dr. Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, a nonprofit organization that supports Afghan women and girls by investing in basic education, literacy and technology for education; providing grants and scholarships and other financial support; and engaging in policy advocacy to restore Afghan women and girls’ fundamental human rights and dignity.

Michelle Onello: Can you give us an overview of what the Taliban has done with respect to Afghan women and girls since August 2021? 

Lauryn Oates: The Taliban had just finished an insurgency campaign and was taking over a government, and their first order of business was to shut down girls’ secondary education.

In December 2022, they shut down the university system to women, and in between those two educational restrictions, the Taliban issued a series of other restrictions covering all aspects of life, including the closure of beauty salons, which were mainly run by women and employed tens of thousands of people.

They also issued restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, for example that women have to be chaperoned traveling outside the house. In total, there are over 100 different restrictions focused on women and girls specifically.

Most recently, they’ve been focusing on enforcing dress code restrictions—in particular requiring women’s faces to be covered. They weren’t strictly enforcing that until this year, but now they want women literally to be invisible and see no place for women in public life. Afghan women say they’ve been made invisible, disappeared, erased. 

The Taliban wasted no time in doing exactly what they did when they took power back in the 1990s, which shows how much they prioritize restrictions on women and girls. A common misconception is that these restrictions are peripheral, but they’re central to the regime’s worldview and ideology.

Afghan women protest against a Taliban ban on women accessing university education on Dec. 22, 2022 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Armed guards barred women from accessing university sites since the suspension was announced. (Stringer / Getty Images)

Onello: What are the justifications for these restrictions? 

Oates: One word: sharia.

In the Muslim world, sharia is not implemented in any two countries the same way, but the Taliban are very immune to other interpretations of sharia. It seems to be the personal ideology of the Taliban leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and although there is some dissent within the Taliban, he exercises all authority and has made great efforts to bring everyone in line.

It is a deeply authoritarian style of government—fascist, actually. 

They want women literally to be invisible and see no place for women in public life.

Dr. Lauryn Oates

Onello: How are these edicts enforced by the Taliban?

Oates: One of the main ways is called the “Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”, a.k.a., the morality police. And the painful irony is they repurposed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs building for the morality police, which are almost always men. They patrol the streets telling women how to dress and behave.

The Taliban has different administrative layers—the local, provincial and national administrations act more or less independently. In one area, authorities might turn a blind eye to dress codes or girls going to underground schools, but those might be priorities elsewhere. Some authorities are more concerned with the Western influence of NGOs, and others are monitoring offices to ensure men and women are not in the same room or that women have chaperones. 

Onello: What would the punishment be? Are women being arrested?

Oates: Yes, women have been in detention for days, months or years, and some have disappeared. Once women are detained, they’re at extremely high risk of torture, including sexual violence. The Taliban has also tried jailing or fining male family members for non-compliance, which makes men complicit in enforcing the rules. Businesses, such as restaurants, that allow a woman to come in without a male chaperone will be fined.

Bit by bit, all public spaces get closed off to women.

Women have been in detention for days, months or years, and some have disappeared.

Dr. Lauryn Oates

Onello: What are the prospects for improving this situation? What does your organization do?

Oates: Outsiders are often so focused on the tragedy that the considerable resistance efforts get overlooked. Resistance also occurred in the 1990s, but now the internet has connected Afghanistan to the rest of the world and Afghanistan has so many connections to the international community from other countries being present for 20 years and from Afghans returning from abroad. So, there is more of a spotlight on the Taliban’s actions. 

The independent education sector is finding ways to get tens of thousands of women and girls back in classrooms by circumventing restrictions. Mainly, they are doing it through technology but there are many in-person schools too, and all manner of tutoring and learning centers.

One silver lining is that often the quality and variety of education is better than what was available before the fall of Kabul, because there’s no oversight restricting what can be taught.

Our organization sees education as the pathway to the realization of rights, agency and empowerment. We’ve been working in Afghanistan for 25 years, and we continue to directly implement educational programs and conduct policy advocacy. We rely on virtual education, which we did before but now we’re focused on scaling up. We have an online high school, online courses for higher levels, and a popular online library of learning materials in Afghan languages for independent learning. We have scholarships, and a program called Remote Communication Assistance, which is a fund to cover requests for devices, internet connectivity, power banks or satellites. We process several applications a day, and small amounts go really far. But the trouble is actually being able to study online and power outages, so power banks are really useful. 

Onello: No country has recognized the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan—how has the international community responded to these restrictions? 

Oates: There’s been no formal recognition, but recently China officially recognized the Taliban’s envoy to Beijing and a few countries engage with the Taliban—like Russia, Pakistan and some Central Asian countries—which is alarming because it normalizes engagement.

In some corners, people are advocating for increased engagement or even recognition, arguing that it’s impossible to influence the Taliban without recognizing them, but I don’t think that approach is grounded in reality.

What the international community has mostly done is condemned, issuing statements or holding news conferences—which is necessary but insufficient. 

The Taliban’s treatment of women is a threat to women everywhere. Other groups are taking note that the Taliban is getting away with these restrictions, that it can literally strip women and girls of all rights and there’s no consequences.

Dr. Lauryn Oates

Onello: We’ve so far focused on the short-term impacts, but what are the long-term impacts on society?

Oates: There are so many layers of long-term impacts on everyone, not just women and girls. What happens in other countries doesn’t stay there—the Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks from Kandahar. So, we’re deluding ourselves to think that this won’t have security repercussions for the world.

Remember that the Taliban’s curriculum revisions control what boys learn in school. They have turned the public school system into an indoctrination machine for an extremist violent ideology, and this should be alarming from a global security perspective, if not a human rights perspective.

A second order impact is poverty—estimates are that it is costing the country a billion dollars a year by excluding women from the workforce. People are leaving, or attempting to leave, which is completely decimating the country’s human capital. 

Onello: What are some specific suggestions about what needs to be done to help dismantle this system? 

Oates: In Afghanistan, women and girls want education and livelihood opportunities.

They also want the international community to intervene, do more than condemn, be more decisive, and use leverage to influence and hold the Taliban to account. Ultimately, they want an inclusive government, to be governed by a regime that’s not hostile to them and that will treat them as human beings.

Afghan women activists, legal scholars, and NGOs are advocating for recognition of gender apartheid as a crime against humanity, just like racial apartheid, which would be a tool for pressure and criticism but also a means to pursue remedies through the international system. One such attempt is being made through the International Criminal Court which could mean jail time for Taliban members, and, based on Taliban statements, they are threatened by this.

What is often lost on people is that the Taliban’s treatment of women is a threat to women everywhere. Other groups are taking note that the Taliban is getting away with these restrictions, that it can literally strip women and girls of all rights and there’s no consequences. It is also important to continue to bear pressure on countries engaging with the regime, like China and Russia. 

Another helpful, pragmatic and reachable goal is to ensure a backup way for the country and population to stay connected. Satellite internet can be independently provided without having to go through the state, and there’s already satellites over Afghanistan but they’re turned off. 

Also, we can reach displaced people because they are the future of Afghanistan. Many refugees will return when it’s safe, and we want them to bring with them the skills and education that the country will need to rebuild. Unfortunately, refugees often do not have access to education—many refugee camps in Pakistan have no girls’ schools past sixth grade and other places, like Turkey, don’t allow so-called illegal migrants to enroll their children in school. 

We’re part of the Alliance for the Education of Women in Afghanistan that works to coordinate and have common messaging around Afghanistan. It’s important to support that kind of coordination in this unusual situation where NGOs are providing education because the government won’t. The Taliban government could fall tomorrow or in ten years. We don’t want to be back in the situation of 2001, where education for women and girls is starting from scratch. 

Onello: Learning the lessons from the last time?

Oates: Exactly. We’ve already seen this movie once before, and sadly we know how it goes. We want to write a different ending this time.

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Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and senior legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that uses international law to advocate for gender equality and reproductive rights.