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The Shrinking Social Sphere: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Read part 1 of the series to get an overview of the Afghan condition since the Tailban coup.

As 15th August marks the second anniversary of the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, the social sphere for women has been shrinking faster than ever.

Everything for women and girls in Afghanistan changed on August 15, 2021.

Girls' education and women's right to work were first restricted, then rigorous dress codes were implemented, along with restrictions on women's freedom of movement and participation in public life.

Women's rights were restricted as early as September 2021, when the Taliban shut down the Ministry of Women's Affairs and forbade women and girls from going on to higher education. The action provoked enormous international anger, and it hasn't been reversed yet.

Forced marriage was outlawed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in December 2021, but a UN assessment from August 2022 indicated that child marriages and gender discrimination have only increased since the Taliban took power.

The social sphere has been a rapidly shrinking space as political, social, and cultural forces intervene leaving just shrinking and marginal spaces for women to occupy.

Two years after taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have methodically imposed a series of painstakingly crafted policies of inequality that have an impact on every aspect of a woman's life, even dictating where she can go and how she should dress. This has been done through more than 50 edicts, orders, as well restrictions.

And since then, the Taliban's authority of coercion, fear, and repression has come across the fearless and loud resistance of Afghan women as they protest and rebel for their rights against the unjust authority over the realm of the private.

Timeline of restrictions imposed by the Taliban

The Taliban leadership implemented a relentless flow of religious decrees and regional laws that have been gradually implemented throughout Afghanistan, resulting in the greatest repression of women's rights in the history of the globe.

In September 2021, the ban on secondary schools for girls rolled out. A month after the takeover, the Taliban's attitude towards women became apparent for the first time. Following a declaration from the Ministry of Education that left out girls, secondary schools for boys were opened.

In the same week, the mayor of Kabul ordered all female employees of the municipal administration to stay at home; only those who performed tasks that could only be done by men were permitted to continue.

It was followed by travel restrictions and a failed promise regarding secondary education that gave rise to protests from December 2021 to March 2022.

Afghan women demonstrated in the streets the freedom to work and study in response to the restrictions. The Taliban regime repeatedly ruthlessly put an end to them, leaving them grappling to the contracting periphery of the social sphere.

At least four female activists were detained in January 2022. They were held for weeks and harassed while in detention.

Restrictions were being implemented incrementally. In December 2021, the Virtue and Vice Ministry of the government issued an order mandating women traveling more than 72 km (45 miles) to be accompanied by a close male relative.

There was then a brief moment of optimism. The Taliban's education department declared on March 21, 2023, that the start of the new academic term will see "all students" able to attend classes again. Girls' schools would reopen, according to numerous Taliban leaders.

Two days later as female students began arriving at school, they were notified about girl's secondary schools being shut until further notice.

Amidst the growing surveillance and authority, their right to freedom was crushed in broad daylight. In its defense, the Taliban government has been careful to describe its acts as a restoration to traditional Afghan and Islamic principles.

Vowing to revive the placement of stringent Shariah laws, now under the Taliban, Afghanistan is the only country in the world to impose restrictions on female education. As the regime continued to intrude into the realm of the political, the social, and the personal, the culminating oppression blatantly severed women's rights.

In May 2022 came another blow in the series of suppression of women's rights. On May 7, 2022, less than two months later, the government made a declaration requiring women to wear head-to-toe clothing, with Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada's backing.

Furthermore, it commanded male family members to make sure that women and girls follow the rules or risked punishment. On the ground, there was an observable shift in the number of ladies and their attires that were noticeable in the streets.

Women who previously wore loose colorful abayas (gowns), jeans, and heels revealed that they started wearing headscarves and surgical masks to hide their faces. Burkas in black became more prevalent among ladies.

As politics began to transgress and infiltrate into the realm of the private– women's bodies became a site of surveillance and domination– dictated by the decree. Concerns of the personal became issues of the public and the body no longer belonged to the self but to the Others.

Amidst the robust forces of power, religion, and politics, the majority of the population has suffered on account of psychological well-being.

More and more women adhered to the norm with the bleak hope of being able to return to restricted spaces of schools, universities, and work. As the sphere shrank, women started to disappear from public spaces.

This resulted in a cluster of effects–social, economic, and psychological– that were beginning to spiral out. Amidst the robust forces of power, religion, and politics, the majority of the population has suffered on account of psychological well-being.

The UN estimates that one in two people, mostly women, in Afghanistan's fundamentally patriarchal society, which has been battered by four decades of conflict, had psychological suffering even before the Taliban took power in 2021.

However, experts believe that given the Taliban government's restrictions on women's rights and the nation's economic difficulties, conditions are now worse than ever.

At the center of the oppression of the repressive authority lay Afghan women and girls whose rights were crushed under the battle of power and the confluence of the realms of public and private. The contradicting forces have left the social sphere for women contracting to a state of inexistence.

With the fast-growing infringement of their rights, women under the Taliban look at the undoing of years of advancement in front of their eyes.

As these transgressions continued to develop, in the period between October to December 2022, women were banned from universities, public spaces, and NGO work. While there was a division among the Taliban on the topic of women's education, the top leadership in Kandahar persisted in hardening its attitude, drastically reducing women's freedoms by the end of the year.

A vice and virtue ministry spokesperson stated in November that women had been prohibited from Kabul parks because they did not adhere to Sharia (Islamic law). Additionally, women were restricted in gyms, swimming pools, or public restrooms.

As was the case with the parks prohibition, typically such rules made for one city are subsequently implemented throughout Afghanistan.

The Taliban's minister of higher education issued a decree on December 20, 2022, ordering the immediate suspension of all female enrollment at all public and private universities until further notice.

Another agonizing revelation arrived four days later. All national and foreign NGOs working in Afghanistan were instructed by the Taliban's Ministry of Economy to tell their female staff to refrain from showing up to work or risk having their permits canceled.

Afghan women's long-term economic and social development will be severely impeded by the limitations on female education and restrictions on their employment in NGOs and the U.N.

Hair and beauty salons were among the last places in the shrinking social sphere where women were able to exercise their agency and gather unbothered by the Taliban scrutiny.

Yet most people were not shocked when the Taliban leadership announced on July 4 that these would be shut down.

The number of women working in salons was expected to be at 60,000.

The Taliban's decision to restrict women's access to education and employment is a major contributor to the nation's economic difficulties.

According to the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO), since the Taliban took control, more than 500,000 people had lost their jobs or been forced out of them in Afghanistan. And women have been particularly badly struck.

Women's employment rates are already incredibly low by global standards, but according to the ILO, they are expected to have dropped by 16% in the third quarter of 2021 and may continue to decline by between 21% and 28% by the middle of 2022.

While the gender gap had already plagued the economic sector in the country, banning one of the last domains for women to claim their space in an ever-shrinking social sphere is the last nail in the coffin.

The places of exercising agency, of freedom– of the rightful claim of women– have now become frontiers in the battle of the contesting forces of power, religion, and culture. It has left a perplexed group of women that now struggle to break away from these convulsing walls of a shrinking social sphere.

Some women who are forced to remain indoors have learned to adapt to the limitations imposed on them. There are underground hidden schools operating across the nation. Some NGOs continue to work with women who risk going undetected. Women are now permitted to work in a few different fields, including public health, arts and crafts, and security.

And even in the face of contracting walls of the diminished social spheres, groups of Afghan women continue to march in the streets, thrusting back these robust forces that confine them. In hope and longing to reclaim once again the spaces that they have a right to occupy.

Edited by: Whitney Edna Ibe

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