“Right now, at this moment, it looks like a nightmare. Everything we have worked for is collapsing right before our eyes. I don’t know what to feel and think anymore.”

-Kabul University student in an interview with NPR

By now, most of us have heard about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Headlines are screaming about how it will be a setback for the nation – and especially for women – and the resulting refugee crisis now facing the world. For some of us, we remember the Taliban’s rule, while others of us heard about it as we grew up but witnessed Afghanistan become westernized under American occupation. For others, there has never been a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, so it may be hard to understand the threat that they pose to girls and women. In this post, we take a look at the Taliban, their history in Afghanistan, and why so many are scared of a repeat.


Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban is a religious-political movement and military organization, regarded by many governments and organizations as terrorists. They began in 1978-79, when a Soviet invasion led to a puppet government in Afghanistan. But not all Afghans wanted the new government. In 1980, groups of guerilla fighters – mujahideen – began a holy war against the Soviets, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The war killed over one million Afghan civilians, and millions more fled as refugees. The war ended with a peace accord in 1988, and the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989.

Yet like we have just seen, the withdrawal of Soviet forces led to a government in crisis. No longer backed by the Soviets, Afghanistan’s government fell to the mujahideen. Internal strife caused the mujahideen to turn on each other – essentially becoming a civil war. Five years later, the war ended as the Taliban – emerging from mujahideen groups as ultraconservatives – took over Kandahar and promised to restore order and security. But within their promises was a darkness – their harsh interpretation of Islam was quickly imposed, led by supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his new partner, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. By 1996, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

Girlhood under the Taliban

Taliban rule was extreme. Girls and women were banned from receiving an education, working, or having civil rights. Any girls breaking the law – even by attending small classes in each other’s homes – were beaten, amputated, or even executed. Music and connections to the world beyond Afghanistan were banned. Women were only allowed outside their homes if escorted by a male chaperone, and they had to wear a full burqa with no high heels.

For activist Susan Behboudzada, the memory of punishment is ever-present. In 2002, two of her relatives forgot to wear burqas when they went shopping, and they were lashed so much that one of them died twenty days later while the other has lived with mental health problems ever since.

In an interview with ABC News, journalist and Fulbright scholar Nasrin Nawa stated,

“Everyone has some memories [of the] Taliban from the previous regime. It was so dark and terrifying. It was full of cruelty and people just remember all the public executions.”

The harshness of the regime was quickly recognized, and only three countries officially recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government. By 1998, Afghanistan enabled al-Qaida to attack countries such as the United States. Two decades of war began, with a U.S.-backed alliance taking control of the country in 2001. Taliban officials fled south and, in 2006, re-emerged to begin the war anew. Many attacks targeted girls’ schools or female-focused buildings such as maternity hospitals. The Taliban made some gains as they attempted to move north towards Kabul.

Homeira Qaderi recalled that one day, her father came to her while she was ironing her head scarf for school and told her she would no longer need it. The Taliban had captured her hometown, and she would not attend school – or even leave the house – for most of the next five years. Freed from Taliban rule once again, Qaderi became a writer and activist – most recently as editor of the newspaper Rah-e-Madanyat.

Despite war, the alliance installed Western forms of government and human rights, and many girls made huge gains in education, the workplace, and society.

Girlhood in Crisis

In 2020, after years of negotiations, the United States and Taliban signed a peace agreement, including terms for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But the Taliban and Afghan government continued to stall, never quite achieving their own peace. On April 14, 2021, President Biden announced the withdrawal of remaining troops by the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. As troops withdrew, the Taliban moved in, quickly gaining territory. On August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul – and with it, the entire country. Chaos is a mild term for what we’ve witnessed so far.

At time of writing, the Taliban continue to promise that women’s rights to education and work will continue, but within the group’s interpretation of Sharia law. What does that mean? Well, quite frankly, it can mean whatever the Taliban says it does. Interpretation isn’t solid – it is a fluid way of looking at the world. Interpretation allows religious groups like the Taliban to turn religion into a weapon of domination.

In a recent interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen stated that “there is not any kind of reprisal nor any revenge” against people who supported the United States and there will be a “general amnesty” that allows Afghanis to “lead their normal life.” Specifically, Shaheen stated that women “have a right to education and to work so they can hold different positions and jobs right now” but that in doing so, they must observe hijab. He later states that all women must observe “proper hijab.” However, when asked about the previous regime under the Taliban, Shaheen called it a result of “biased reporting.”

That last bit is what worries me. The Taliban today do not recognize the atrocities they committed twenty years ago, nor do they take responsibility for why the world looks so badly upon them. They also are not taking any responsibility for enabling the atrocities currently being committed. Recent reports of life under Taliban rule in the remote, rural districts taken before Kabul include public beatings and trials of women. As the Human Rights Watch reported, “In recent weeks, as they gained territory, there were reports of them barring girls and women from education in some districts, pushing women out of jobs, and ordering women not to go out in public without a male family member—all shades of pre-2001.”

This allows the Taliban to justify what they did by saying that it was reported wrongly. The legal system that the Taliban uses – Sharia law – is a strict interpretation of the Quran, Sunnah, and Hadith religious texts. If any answer cannot be derived directly from these, Sharia allows religious scholars – called judges – to interpret the texts. Somewhat like the United States, in that if the Constitution is unclear, the Supreme Court may review and interpret it during specific cases.

So what does Sharia interpretation state about girls and women? Everything. This system is a framework for daily life, emphasizing worship and charity. Unfortunately, over time, Sharia law has corrupted some of the original Islamic teachings from Muhammad.

In the original Quran texts, women and men are inherently equal – they are made of the “same essence.” However, some verses describe men as “protectors and maintainers” while others allow men to take up to four wives. Context is needed here: when the Quran was written 1,400 years ago, the region was under extreme warfare that had created a largely female – yet still patriarchal – society. The lack of men (as a result of deaths in warfare) meant that family and societal stability was gone – and to restore it, Muhammad saw polygamy as an answer. Even though the region is still unstable, whether these prescriptions are the solution to a society in flux (especially one where civilian casualties are much greater than 1,400 years ago) must be discussed in greater depth rather than accepted carte blanche.

Additionally, the Quran actually does give women rights – but these rights have been skewed by the Taliban’s interpretations. Muhammad stated that women have a right to work and to keep their earnings (his wife was a successful businesswoman!), to own property, to choose their husband and have a prenuptial agreement, and to divorce. The Quran also instructs that daughters should be educated, and many women in the Quran and Islamic history held high offices: Aisha (Muhammad’s favored wife) was a warrior and politician, Razia was a 13th-century Islamic ruler of India, Amina was a 16th-century queen of Zaria (now Nigeria), and many others were leaders or political strategists. While the Quran does say women should not reveal their beauty to men outside the family, interpretations of this phrase have ranged from simply modesty in dress and behavior to the full burqa covering. (Nowhere in the Quran does it specifically mention hijabs or burqas.) This modesty is based on pre-Islamic society, in which use of a veil indicated social class and which encouraged modesty.

Somehow, Sharia interpretations have skewed these (rather remarkable for their time) human rights. Whether such skewed interpretations will resume has yet to be fully determined – but the fear is ever-present.

For all we have seen, the Taliban today are no different than before. If anything, their ability to spin rhetoric to justify (or deny responsibility) for their actions has only gotten stronger. That doesn’t bode well for the millions of Afghan girls and women.

-Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Program Developer
Girl Museum Inc.


Global Connections: Roles of Women in Islamic Society (PBS)

Memories of Taliban rule strike fear, uncertainty in Afghan women by Kim, Kapetaneas, Coburn, Singh, and Change for ABC News, August 18, 2021.

“The Taliban took years of my life”: the Afghan women living in the shadow of war by Emma Graham-Harrison and Akhtar Mohammad Makoii for The Guardian, February 9, 2019.

“Should Anyone Believe Taliban Pledges to Respect Women’s Rights?” by Heather Barr for Human Rights Watch, The Journal, August 19, 2021.

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