Under Gender Apartheid, Taliban See Afghan Women as ‘Child-Bearers, Child-Rearers and as Objects Available for Exploitation’

Gender apartheid, the most extreme form of gender discrimination, has left Afghan women feeling like the walls are closing in.

Dozens of members of Toronto’s Afghan community held a protest at Queens Park in Toronto on Aug. 13, 2023, against the Taliban’s brutalization of women. (Sayed Najafizada / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Released last month, the much-anticipated U.N. special rapporteur’s report on Afghanistan reveals the full brunt of the systematic, egregious system of gender apartheid in Afghanistan. The practice has always demanded our full conscientiousness and outrage but, if there was any doubt about the moral turpitude of gender apartheid, the reality should now be clear. 

Gender apartheid—or the institutionalized, systemic oppression and domination of women—is the most extreme form of gender discrimination. It has left Afghan women feeling like the walls are closing in, “without hope.” After all, this system has as its motive “a profound rejection of the full humanity of women and girls,” according to the U.N. report.

No aspect of Afghan society remains untouched by the “rapid attrition of female autonomy and agency, and the evisceration of women and girls from the public, political, economic, social and cultural life.” Women and girls experience daily the “deliberate systematized step-by-step eradication of their rights and freedoms” being forced into roles where deep-rooted patriarchy and Taliban ideology sees them: “as child-bearers, child-rearers and as objects available for exploitation, including debt bondage, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.”

We must fight alongside Afghan women in demanding their fundamental rights be respected and ensure accountability for perpetrators of gender apartheid. 

If women have no memories of women thriving independently, how can they conceive of their role in a future world?

One woman in Afghanistan said when she was married, “all of my dreams have shattered.” Afghan women deserve full recognition of their agency, resistance and their valuable role in achieving progress and justice in Afghanistan.

Gender apartheid, a plague attacking the entire nation of Afghanistan, minimizes possibilities for the future. If women have no memories of women thriving independently, how can they conceive of their role in a future world? What message do men assimilate into when they have been raised as boys in a system disempowering women?

The analysis by the special rapporteur turns the common discourse that casts “Afghan women and girls as victims, and Afghan men and boys as perpetrators” on its head. The subjugation of women and girls places anyone who challenges this system—regardless of their gender—at risk of inhumane punishments. Almost any act can be characterized as an act of resistance in Afghanistan. And while women are at the forefront of resistance to gender apartheid, the Taliban has arrested, detained and beaten men and boys who question the de facto authorities. 

Even still, since 2021, women have leading peaceful protests have been beaten and arrested and/or disappeared. Discrimination and segregation have been embedded in the laws, edicts and regulations, creating both “macro and micro masculinist power structures” that extend to family units. This has made justice an unattainable possibility, by “putting in place laws sanctioning such violence or by instrumentalizing the justice process to deny justice to victims.”

As a result, the special rapporteur predicts that “in-country active resistance” to the Taliban’s regime of gender apartheid will dwindle as the brutal oppression of Afghans continues, creating a “sense of hopelessness caused by the perception that the world has abandoned them to their fate.”

Almost any act can be characterized as an act of resistance in Afghanistan today.

A student named Marwa protests alone against the ban on women’s higher education, outside Kabul University on Dec. 25, 2022, as members of the Taliban stand guard. “For the first time in my life, I felt so proud, strong and powerful because I was standing against them and demanding a right that God has given us,” Marwa told AFP, asking not to be further identified. (AFP via Getty Images)

How we define gender apartheid is fundamental to opposing it. Afghan women emphasize that this term best defines the “totality of the distinct and transgenerational harms committed against them, and called for its recognition as a crime against humanity.” Any authority in control of the country is required to uphold Afghanistan’s obligations under international treaties. This does not in turn prompt recognition of the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. Furthermore, Afghanistan is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). 

How Gender Apartheid Fits Under Category of Crimes Against Humanity

Gender apartheid fits under the category of crimes against humanity enumerated in Article 7 of the Rome Statute, since it involves:

  1. “The state or organization actively promoting or encouraging an attack against a civilian population,” 
  2. Having “knowledge of the attack.” 
  3. An attack is not limited to wartime or armed forces, and as such can be committed in peacetime and be of a violent or non-violent kind. 

Gender apartheid is widespread, affecting large numbers of civilians across the country. It’s also organized at the highest levels of the Taliban governance, following a regular pattern. It is committed pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy—something that Taliban officials have not attempted to hide or reframe. 

In Article 7(2)(g) of the Rome Statute, persecution is defined as “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.” Through an institutionalized regime of gender-based discrimination, the Taliban deprive women and girls of their fundamental rights, including the right to equality, education, health, equal participation in economic, social and political life, equality before the law, freedom from torture and other inhumane acts, freedom from discrimination and freedom of movement and peaceful assembly. 

Afghan girls are suffering age-specific, gendered harms, including unequal access to education and healthcare, increased risk of exploitation and lack of protection against violence. 

Take Action for Afghan Women

There are efforts to formally recognize the crime of gender apartheid through an amendment to Rome Statute 7(1)(j), where gender apartheid would occur “in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one gender group over another gender group or groups, with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

The Taliban aims to maintain this system of disrespect and exclusion against women through crushing resistance, regardless of the identity of those failing to comply.

Afghan women see the apartheid framing as a mobilizing tool and helping to prevent normalization of the Taliban regime.

In consultations, Afghan women see the apartheid framing as a mobilizing tool and helping to prevent normalization of the Taliban regime.

The Taliban must be punished for abuses and crimes committed. A permanent record of the experiences of women and girls must be created, and opportunities for victims and survivors to be “seen, heard, and have the systematized abuse that they are suffering, recognized and condemned.”

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Anselma Ellingwood is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City and an intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation working on the Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls.