Two decades after the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government was overthrown by a United States-led invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban members dance and cheer with joy in the streets of Kabul as Taliban forces successfully take the presidential palace. The collapse of Afghanistan’s capital and the raising of the jihadist group’s flag was the linchpin of the Taliban’s rapid ascension to power—a symbol to the world that the barbarous militant group successfully dismantled Afghanistan’s young democracy and plan to reinstitute its brutal interpretation of Sharia law.
All Muslims adhere to some interpretation of Sharia as a morally guiding religious law that provides practitioners of the faith with core values such as family and intellect. However, since Sharia is neither static nor exclusive to one interpretation, the internecine views of the moderate-conservative Islamic practitioners conflate with the extremist interpretation of the Taliban. For most Muslims, Sharia is observed on a personal level, through fasting, reverence, and prayer, and is defined in the Amman Message as a principle that rejects violence; for the Taliban, Sharia is synonymous with the eradication of the modern culture achieved through absolute impunity and violence, and the organization recognizes no adaptation of Islam but its own.
Western nations take for granted the freedoms our contemporary culture grants to women. This time of year, school-aged girls are shopping for the upcoming school year, perusing for cute clothes and new backpacks to sport, not only for the first day of school. Women in early adulthood are spending the money they saved from their summer jobs on college textbooks and rent, lamenting the gone-too-soon summer and the looming 8 a.m. classes. Before the 1970s, the average Afghan woman had similar freedoms, but with the Soviet occupation, Mujahideen conflicts, and then the rule of the Taliban, women were stripped of simple freedoms and violently punished for imagining they could regain such an indulgence.
Pre-2001, the Taliban’s five-year political insurgency was characterized by its abhorrent violations of fundamental human rights, with targeted suppression of women and children. After the regime was ousted from Afghanistan’s capital, it mobilized an offensive that allowed it to regain control of 222 of 421 cities and provinces and continue its humanitarian abuses. These abuses led to Afghanistan’s label as “the most dangerous country to be a woman.” In provinces under Taliban rule, women are not granted the most basic of freedoms, such as painting their fingernails. In 1996, a woman painted her fingernails, and in turn, had her fingers cut off. This speaks to the notion that a woman seeking to gain even the semblance of autonomy will be met with egregious acts of violence.
The Taliban’s threats to the disobedient are not empty; each act of defiance is met with atrocious punishment. Women are not permitted to attend school or study subjects outside of the Islamic faith. If a woman is caught studying or going to school, typically, she will be flogged, stoned, or beaten within an inch of her life. In 1995, an unnamed fifteen-year-old girl in Kabul was preparing for bed when soldiers came to her home, where they shot and killed her father for permitting her to attend school. After the soldiers killed her father, they raped and tortured her as punishment. Brutalizing women is a motif for the Taliban, cutting off a woman’s hand if it showed from underneath her burqa while handing over money for a purchase, breaking the ankle of a young child if her burqa rose enough to expose her ankle, or just reasonless looting and raping young women are common occurrences under the regime. Women are not to be seen or heard—they are banned from wearing high-heels since a man should not be able to hear female footsteps. Additionally, women are not permitted to have their pictures taken, are not to speak louder than a whisper so strangers cannot hear their voice, and are required to stay in the home where the windows must be covered so they cannot be seen from those on the street. If a woman fails to comply with any perverse limitation placed upon them, their punishment can range from an on-the-spot flogging to a public execution.
Under Taliban rule, there is not much left for women; they are seen as qhanimat, or spoils of war. This ideology allows jihadists to claim women as their objects and force them into sex slavery and marriage. This is not just limited to adult women; female children are often forced to either marry or enter into sexual relationships with adult men. Just last month, the Taliban published a diktat mandating that Afghan leaders release a list of names and addresses of girls over age fifteen and widows under age forty-five so that they can be married to Taliban fighters. These young children and grieving widows are to be taken from their homes to serve Taliban fighters in whatever way the fighters deem fit. They cannot run, they cannot escape, they must submit to unceasing sexual, physical, and mental abuse, or they will be killed. Forced marriage and slavery is not exclusive to Taliban fighters; under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia, women must unyieldingly serve jihadist males, or they will be murdered. Because escape and freedom are almost unattainable, many Afghan women contemplate suicide to escape their circumstances. In 2017, 1,800 Afghan citizens tried to commit suicide, of whom 1,400 were women. For every 100,000 females in Afghanistan, over 4,100 will commit suicide.
Even without analyzing the actions and principles of the Taliban through an ethnocentric bias, it would be impossible to articulate the horrors women have historically faced under a Taliban regime. While reading statistics or watching live news coverage of the unfolding events, we, in western society, are still emotionally and geographically removed from the situation because we have never personally experienced such a state of affairs. Because we are reading and watching unrelatable material, the severity and traumatic nature of the events in Afghanistan do not shock or resonate with us as much as they should. It is hard to imagine a modern society where a woman cannot work, or she will be flogged; where a woman cannot leave the house without a male escort, or she will be shot; where a woman cannot speak loudly, or her tongue will be cut off; where a woman cannot speak out against her cheating husband, or she will be attacked with acid or publicly executed; where a woman cannot access healthcare, because she is only allowed to receive healthcare from a female physician, and females are barred from working; or where a woman cannot see the sun, because if she unbars her window and basks in sunlight, she will be beaten close to death. But we have to recognize these ongoing horrors because they are reality and will continue to be the reality of Afghan women under Taliban rule.