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OPINION: The changing landscape for women under Taliban rule

by Vanda Felbab-Brown | Brookings Institution
Monday, 23 August 2021 14:36 GMT

Afghan women walk on the top of a hill in Kabul, Afghanistan June 24, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What life and restrictions for women under the Taliban rule will turn out to be will depend on the power struggle among their factions

By Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, Director of The Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution

The Taliban’s takeover will result in a significant decline in women’s rights in Afghanistan. There is no chance that the rights and opportunities Afghan women had over the past two decades both formally and, for many, in their daily experience, can be preserved.

The question is how extensive the losses will be and what tools there are for the international community to reduce the losses.

A Taliban spokesman announced last week that women’s rights will be preserved within the context of Sharia law – an Islamic legal system derived from the Quran. But Sharia interpretations range from more permissive systems (like in Indonesia or Malaysia) to highly restrictive ones (like in Saudi Arabia) or the outright brutal laws and practices of the Taliban in the 1990s.

There are already many distressing reports of the Taliban’s behavior. In various parts of the country, women are being told they can no longer work in some jobs, such as banking. Female TV newscasters in Kabul have been told they are no longer wanted. In parts of the country, female students can no longer study at local universities. In parts of the country, women cannot leave their home without a male guardian.


Before the Taliban takeover, women experienced their rights and opportunities quite differently, depending on their socioeconomic status. Women in urban areas, born into educated, affluent, and internationalized families, often had the greatest access to rights and opportunities. In rural areas, some women were under strictest control of their male relatives – some sold as brides, beaten, unable to leave the household. During my research in the province of Kunduz, I encountered communities where men approached the Taliban to enforce burqa wearing.

Rural women from poor households have borne the brunt of the war. Many members of Afghan security forces came from poor rural households; and if the fathers, brothers, and husbands died in the fighting, the women’s ability to access basic income and services could radically decline.

Realistically, the likely conditions of women under the Taliban’s rule may range from the worst scenarios of the Taliban rule in the 1990s to Saudi Arabia to, at best, an Iran-like system. In Saudi Arabia, girls are strictly segregated at school and employment for women has a number of restrictions under Saudi law and culture. Until 2010 women could not vote or be elected at all, and male guardian rules still affect many dimensions of a woman’s life. But Saudi women’s literacy is at 93% percent, and there are more women studying in universities than men.

In Iran, women have access to single-sex education through university, are allowed to work in a variety of jobs including the government, are free to leave the house without a male guardian, can access medical care, can vote and can be elected (within an authoritarian electoral system).


In recent years, my Taliban interlocutors pointed to the Saudi system as their preferred model, arguing – naively – that since the United States has robust relations with Saudi Arabia, it should do so with Afghanistan under Taliban rule based on the Saudi model.

What life and restrictions for women under the Taliban rule will turn out to be will depend on the power struggle among the many Taliban factions; local communities’ ability to negotiate with local Taliban officials; and international engagement with the Taliban regime.

The Taliban is not monolithic: some leaders and factions are more pragmatic, moderate and focused on economic issues, while others are religiously doctrinaire. In the province of Ghazni, local communities told me in the fall of 2019 that when the Taliban shut down schools for girls, they were able to negotiate their reopening with the Taliban. Taliban would monitor and restrict what was taught, but it also made sure teachers actually showed up.

Nor will the Taliban’s rule be static. Even the power relations and leadership composition will change over time – whether for the better or worse.


Unfortunately, there is little unity among the relevant international actors. Russia, China, and Iran have made their peace with the Taliban in recent years and are unlikely to focus on how women are treated, except for the most egregious practices. Instead, their primary demands of the Taliban will be that it prevents the leakage of terrorism from Afghanistan into their countries and their economic interests. 

Blanket Western sanctions that seek to isolate and bankrupt the Taliban regime (like the West applied in Myanmar or Venezuela) are unlikely to improve Taliban’s behavior or bring the regime down.

Blanket isolation of the new regime in Kabul can empower more radical elements, weaken Afghanistan’s civil society and worsen the humanitarian situation. Regimes subject to Western sanctions can survive through illicit economies even as their populations suffer. The Taliban has access to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of illicit and informal economies. Although these are unable to replace Western aid, it can give the Taliban regime the capacity to survive.

Engagement with and pressure on the Taliban should focus on very specific and realistic demands and be underpinned by specific leverage and discreet inducements. The leverage to be deployed in such bargaining (specific funding streams, visa denials, and access to international institutions) should focus on the most debilitating restrictions on women, like leaving the house without a male guardian, the elimination of all out-of-household jobs, and not even single-sex education.

Such bargaining engagement will take time. It will be a long, bumpy, painful, non-linear process. But the optimal – restoring women’s and human rights as they existed, at least on paper, over the past twenty years - should not become the enemy of the less awful.