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The World Is Still Failing Afghan Women

The Taliban are diplomatically feted even as they destroy women’s rights.

By , an international human rights lawyer and former U.S. State Department official, and , a former senior advisor for the office of Global Women’s Issues and a former senior government official at the Departments of State and Defense.
An Afghan news presenter takes a break.
An Afghan news presenter takes a break.
Afghan news presenter Lima Spesaly, her face covered by a veil after a Taliban edict, takes a break during a live broadcast at the TV channel station in Kabul on May 28. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Since seizing power in Afghanistan in the wake of the disastrous U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, the Taliban have repeatedly reneged on promises to restore education for Afghan girls over sixth grade, reinstated requirements that women have a male escort when they leave their homes for any reason, segregated women from public accommodations, placed restrictions on women’s workforce participation, and severely censored media representation of women.

Most recently, the Taliban have reinstated wearing the burqa, using collective punishment to enforce this mandate. At the same time, they have accelerated reprisal killings, refused to allow Afghans to leave the country, and deepened the ongoing humanitarian disaster through their incompetent and regressive rule. Disappearances of women activists and gender-based violence—including rape and the sale of girls as young as 9 into forced marriages—have soared. Other violent extremist groups operating in Afghanistan have expanded their territory and launched a series of horrific attacks killing scores of civilians.

The Taliban’s reconstituted Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which now occupies the building that formerly housed the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, has resumed its mandate of vigorously enforcing the group’s medieval interpretation of Islamic law. It unironically claims that brutal repression of women and girls as well as the denial of their fundamental rights are necessary to protect women’s “honor.” On International Women’s Day in March, the Taliban actually congratulated themselves for their treatment of women, claiming, “We protect and defend the rights of our Afghan women, God willing.” This is the Taliban 2.0: an enterprise virtually indistinguishable from the original, under which Afghanistan became a failed state that threatened regional and international security in the late 1990s. Yet through all this, world leaders have been largely silent—or even complicit.

Since seizing power in Afghanistan in the wake of the disastrous U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, the Taliban have repeatedly reneged on promises to restore education for Afghan girls over sixth grade, reinstated requirements that women have a male escort when they leave their homes for any reason, segregated women from public accommodations, placed restrictions on women’s workforce participation, and severely censored media representation of women.

Most recently, the Taliban have reinstated wearing the burqa, using collective punishment to enforce this mandate. At the same time, they have accelerated reprisal killings, refused to allow Afghans to leave the country, and deepened the ongoing humanitarian disaster through their incompetent and regressive rule. Disappearances of women activists and gender-based violence—including rape and the sale of girls as young as 9 into forced marriages—have soared. Other violent extremist groups operating in Afghanistan have expanded their territory and launched a series of horrific attacks killing scores of civilians.

The Taliban’s reconstituted Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which now occupies the building that formerly housed the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, has resumed its mandate of vigorously enforcing the group’s medieval interpretation of Islamic law. It unironically claims that brutal repression of women and girls as well as the denial of their fundamental rights are necessary to protect women’s “honor.” On International Women’s Day in March, the Taliban actually congratulated themselves for their treatment of women, claiming, “We protect and defend the rights of our Afghan women, God willing.” This is the Taliban 2.0: an enterprise virtually indistinguishable from the original, under which Afghanistan became a failed state that threatened regional and international security in the late 1990s. Yet through all this, world leaders have been largely silent—or even complicit.

Despite these daily threats, Afghan women have refused to be silent. They have organized protests in Afghanistan and demanded equal representation at international meetings with the Taliban. Courageous Afghan women and girls fill the streets of Kabul and disrupt school board meetings in remote provinces. They post on social media, admonishing the international community to abandon its rose-colored vision of the Taliban. They are organizing, both in and outside of Afghanistan, through new policy platforms and clandestine assistance programs.

They call out the Taliban’s perversion of Islam, challenging ignorance with true scholarship and deep knowledge of the Quran. They find ways to feed their families while men with guns swagger in the streets. After their hard-fought gains over the past 20 years—seats in parliament, judgeships, ministerial positions, advanced education, and successful businesses—the women of Afghanistan are demonstrating they will not be sidelined.

The contrast between the bravery of these Afghan women and the slinking cowardice of the international community could not be starker. Since the fall of Kabul, world leaders have talked profusely of their commitment to Afghan women and girls. Beyond statements, however, they have done nothing to secure those commitments or hold the Taliban accountable for their abuses and broken promises.

Instead, United Nations agencies have excluded female staff from meetings with Taliban “ministers.” Western countries with feminist foreign policies have deferred to the Taliban’s ignorant misogyny and flown them by private jet to attend high-level summitry. There are never any consequences, only fresh concessions to go with fresh towels in five-star hotels. Meanwhile, Afghan women are locked out of the meeting rooms where the Taliban hold court.

If the Taliban’s return to power by force last August did not sufficiently expose the lack of credible deterrence for international miscreance, the invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the consequences of decades of policies that rewarded—or at least did not punish—unchecked aggression and gross violations of human rights perpetrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his fellow travelers. Beyond Ukraine, leading democratic nations continue to approach global norm-breakers with extreme risk aversion and a lack of political will that ensures this cycle of failure, instability, and retrenchment will deepen.

Witness the feeble international response to the Myanmar military’s genocidal attacks on its Rohingya community, which empowered its subsequent seizure of power by force in a coup last year. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains firmly in power, and the United Nations does his bidding on humanitarian access—the rotten fruit of unwillingness to stand up to his Russian-backed atrocities a decade ago. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her boss, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, are more interested in pandering to Chinese President Xi Jinping than standing up for the voiceless in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and the rest of China.

Which brings us back to the women of Afghanistan. The women are the ones who ultimately will piece that broken country back together because they are the ones who have fought the hardest to keep it from falling completely apart. Appeasement of the Taliban and security-heavy counterterrorism policy approaches have failed to yield peace, stability, or other positive outcomes.

Given the abject failure of these approaches, the international community, including Afghanistan’s neighbors, should consider the radical idea of actually centering the needs of the Afghan people and empowering the most constructive people in Afghan society while aiming punitive measures squarely at those who do the opposite. This means prioritizing the return to some form of constitutional governance, with elections administered by a credible body and a framework to protect the fundamental human rights of all. To achieve this, the international community needs a plan and leadership, both of which are currently lacking. The United States should also take the lead in reinstating the U.N. travel ban, imposing and expanding personal sanctions, investigating their finances, and otherwise denying the Taliban legitimacy.

This should extend to a refusal to participate in any form of engagement that privileges Taliban thugs over the rest of Afghan society. The international community, instead, must engage Afghan civil society—especially women—with greater respect and make a point of elevating their participation. Donors and international partners should ensure that wherever the Taliban are invited to talks, Afghan women and other threatened groups are not only included but given the respected treatment and equal status that reflect their constructive roles. This means working with women’s organizations, providing them flexible and sufficient resources, and giving their representatives a prominent seat at negotiating tables. Based on the Taliban’s recalcitrance to date, it is clear that none of this happens without the threat of meaningful and swift consequences—from targeted actions aimed at limiting their influence to well-resourced efforts documenting and prosecuting their atrocities—that can result in action and accountability.

A policy of effective deterrence that protects U.S. interests, including security interests, requires that the United States and its allies stop preemptively capitulating to the Taliban and those like them. Instead, the United States should invest real resources in women, activists, community-based organizations, and others who are genuinely working to rebuild damaged societies and advance human freedom.

It will take time and effort to reverse the immense damage of decades of failed policies that have incentivized terrible outcomes in Afghanistan and around the world. But switching to a policy approach that both enables and privileges the country’s builders—especially women—backed up by meaningful deterrence for wrongdoers is a good place to start.

Kelley E. Currie is an international human rights lawyer and former U.S. State Department official. Twitter: @KelleyCurrie

Amy K. Mitchell is a former senior advisor for the office of Global Women’s Issues and a former senior government official at the Departments of State and Defense.

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