Don’t look away: The Taliban’s mistreatment of women has global ramifications

The Taliban’s well-documented oppression is more than just a problem for the women and girls of Afghanistan. The country’s misrule is a signal to the world that gender-based discrimination can be ignored—even condoned. This perpetuates impunity and poses a grave risk of normalizing extremists. It’s time for those who built the international human rights system to step up and defend it.

Despite initial promises of moderation and a pledge to the United Nations (UN) when the group seized power in 2021, the Taliban has swiftly restored oppressive policies reminiscent of its previous rule in the late 1990s.

In less than three years, the Taliban has issued more than fifty edicts and directives imposing strict measures to bar women from participation in public and political life. These measures include restricting women’s access to education, employment, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, access to public spaces, health care, and access to justice.

A UN experts report said the situation may amount to “gender apartheid,” with the Taliban “governing by systemic discrimination with the intention to subject women and girls to total domination.” 

Violations of international law

As reported by the UN Human Rights Council, the Taliban significantly restricts women’s participation in society and denies them avenues for seeking justice and redress. Women who speak out against these restrictions or advocate for their rights face severe consequences, including harassment, violence, imprisonment, and death. The Taliban also targets women activists, professionals, and both men and women who are supporters of women’s rights, viewing them as threats to their authority. The situation has deteriorated further in the past few months, as evidenced by recent extrajudicial arrests and forced disappearances. There has also been an alarming increase in gender-related killings (femicide).

The Taliban’s gender apartheid policies deliberately violate international legal frameworks to which Afghanistan is still bound, perpetuating a cycle of gender-based discrimination and brutality. International law on the protection of women’s rights is unequivocal. It emphasizes the fundamental responsibility of governing authorities to promote and safeguard the rights of women in all aspects of their lives.

The International Bill of Human Rights—which is comprised of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—guarantees the right to equality and nondiscrimination. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women explicitly prohibits gender-based discrimination, obligating state parties to ensure gender equality in all spheres of life. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) criminalizes gender persecution as a crime against humanity under article 7. 

The ICC’s 2022 Policy on the Crime of Gender Persecution broadens the scope of targeted individuals beyond direct members of a particular group to include that group’s sympathizers and affiliates. This inclusive stance is particularly relevant for Afghanistan. In schools that ban girls, staff—including male teachers—who teach girls can also be targeted. Similarly, journalists are targeted and face persecution for their coverage of violations of women’s basic human rights. Such incidents, which fall under the ICC’s purview, highlight the interconnectedness of gender-related issues and the diverse ways individuals can be affected by gender-based persecution.

The Taliban’s capital and corporal punishments target women more often than men. Despite Afghanistan’s ratification of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Taliban persists in brutally treating and punishing women. Taliban punishments, ranging from public floggings to executions, demonstrate a deliberate effort to instill fear and maintain control over women’s lives, flagrantly violating the Convention against Torture.

When the Taliban shields perpetrators from accountability, including insulating its own system, it further perpetuates a cycle of violence. Under the current regime, documentation of human rights abuses has become nearly impossible. The Taliban’s restrictions on international and local human rights organizations and media, including censorship and intimidation tactics, have severely hindered their ability to document and report these violations. The absence of comprehensive reporting on human rights abuses under the Taliban not only obscures the true extent of the violations but also allows perpetrators to act with impunity.

The broader international significance

The ongoing violations perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan, particularly on women, have sparked diplomatic condemnation from the international community. However, this condemnation exposes a deeper issue: the weakening consensus among members of the international community on how to effectively respond to such crises. One of the primary risks associated with this trend is the normalization of the extremists. Engaging with the Taliban and normalizing relations without meaningful concessions on human rights encourages the Taliban and other repressive regimes, signaling that they can flout international norms with impunity.

This impunity gravely undermines more than two decades’ worth of efforts to achieve justice, reconciliation, and sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban has not only refused to acknowledge its past atrocities but also enjoys impunity for its current actions.

The continued impunity not only denies justice to women survivors but also sends a dangerous message that violence against women can be tolerated and even condoned, with far-reaching implications. The denial of education and participation in public life hinders the development and empowerment of women and girls, perpetuating cycles of poverty, inequality, and marginalization. It also undermines fundamental principles of justice and human rights, eroding trust in the ability of international institutions to provide justice and accountability. This lack of accountability also enables the Taliban to spread extremist ideologies, creating a nurturing environment for conflict and terrorism, with dire implications for regional stability.

What the international community can do

Considering the dire situation in Afghanistan, the UN should take a lead role in establishing robust accountability mechanisms. This may entail creating an independent investigative body to monitor and document human rights abuses and violations of international law.

The UN should also change its approach to the Taliban. Instead of engaging with the regime without conditions, the UN should work with regional and global partners and directly with the Afghan people, including civil society, to develop a unified strategy that prioritizes women, human rights, and security, rather than legitimizing a regime that promotes oppression and instability. Taliban leaders’ rigid ideology means dialogue with them is futile. Moreover, targeted sanctions and travel bans on Taliban leaders should be imposed. The UN can leverage its authority and resources to coordinate efforts among member states and ensure a unified approach to the crisis within the organization.

At the same time, the international community can use diplomatic engagement to exert pressure on the Taliban to respect international human rights standards. Diplomatic recognition, aid, and other forms of cooperation should be conditioned on tangible improvements in human rights and accountability.

Human rights organizations outside Afghanistan play a crucial role in amplifying the voices of Afghan women and advocating for their rights. These organizations should mobilize support for Afghan civil society groups and grassroots organizations, particularly those championing human rights and women’s rights. By collaborating with local activists and providing resources, these organizations can help promote accountability and protect vulnerable populations—particularly women.

Samira Abrar is human rights activist currently working in the field of immigration law in the United States.

Further reading

Image: Protest in Piazza Esquilino organized by Afghan community and Nawroz Association to protest against the violation of women's rights and against the genocide of the Hazara people in Afghanistan. (Photo by Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/Sipa USA).