It's in the Taliban's interest to include women

It's in the Taliban's interest to include women

If the Taliban wants its govt to be recognised and build relations with other member states, it needs to uphold and guarantee the socio-political and economic rights of women

Afghan women have already made valuable contributions to securing peace at the grassroots level. Credit: AFP Photo

As the Taliban surged back to power following the planned withdrawal of the US armed forces, concerns have been raised that progress achieved on women's rights in Afghanistan will now be rolled back. The militant group has upheld that they would not squander any of the gains made and has committed to extending rights to women as per the Sharia Law.

In the first official press conference since the Kabul seizure, Zabihulla Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesperson, said women in Afghanistan would have the right to education, health and employment. The group — on various occasions — has also invited women to participate in the government, stressing the creation of an inclusive caretaker government. Even more surprising was the visual of a senior Taliban official being interviewed by a female journalist.

But while these incidents present a revolutionised image of the Taliban's hard-line political movement, to think that the leopard has changed its spots would be a little too optimistic. There exists a considerable gap between the Taliban's newly adapted rhetoric — which reflects a moderation in their behaviour towards women — and the actions that they have been undertaking.

For instance, merely a few hours after coming to power, the Taliban instructed female students at Kabul University to not leave their dorm rooms without a male guardian. The Taliban gunmen were also seen escorting women from their jobs, asking them not to return. Besides this, the Taliban has neither articulated a clear position on reconciliation, power-sharing or governance nor women's voting rights and electoral participation.

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And, to justify these moves, the Taliban leaders have asserted that restrictions on women are a temporary procedure, as their security forces are not yet trained in dealing with women. However, reports emerging from districts that have already been under the Taliban's control reflect the re-imposition of repressive laws and retrograde policies against women, which defined the group's 1996-2001 rule. These reports speak volumes of how the Taliban's renewed control could perhaps look.

Today, with looming uncertainty regarding which version of the Sharia law will the Taliban enforce, the situation in Afghanistan remains highly fluid where gender equality and women's rights face imminent risk. But the onus is now entirely on the Taliban to translate its reformed commitments towards women's rights into a living reality. Therefore, the fundamentalist group should undertake genuine and concerted efforts to include women within its governing bodies.

The reasons for bringing about this positive inclusion and adopting a gender-sensitive approach are manifold. To begin with, during its previous regime, the Taliban quickly drew international outrage, repeatedly criticised for mounting human rights violations, especially its abuses against Afghan women. The track record of the Taliban and their regime has hence, been the biggest blot on Afghanistan.

As a consequence of this bitter past, the group's recent resurgence to power has once again raised alarms among the entire international community, who fear Afghanistan's return to its darkest days. According to reports, overseas finance for Afghanistan have been frozen, and it is not clear whether the international community will recognise the new government and continue to provide funding. Besides, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has gone to the extent to state that the Taliban's treatment of women will mark a "fundamental red line."

In this sense, the group's continued reliance on its old extremist policies — which includes ignoring and suppressing women's rights — will fundamentally stand against the goals of gaining legitimacy, especially in the form of sanctions relief, international recognition and assistance from countries. Hence, if the Taliban wants its government to be recognised and build relations with other member states, it needs to uphold and guarantee the socio-political and economic rights of women. And to be able to do this, the group must include women in its decision-making processes.

Secondly, apart from the international denouncement, the Taliban has also faced intense backlash in the domestic sphere. There is, in fact, widespread suspicion about the Taliban's hard-line political movement among the Afghans. And, it is the women of Afghanistan — if given the opportunity — which can potentially play a critical role in repairing this mistrust.

Afghan women have already made valuable contributions to securing peace at the grassroots level and have established in-roads into the local networks with connections throughout the country. Thus, if included in the Taliban's renewed government and political bodies, these women can be the appropriate negotiators between the opposite parties, thereby initiating effective communication and trust-building.

In addition, the Taliban's efforts to ensure and improve women's rights can prove that the group is not merely using its words to put up a face but means whatever it says and is genuinely committed to its promises. Hence, a tactical shift in the Taliban's behaviour towards Afghan women is needed and could serve as a critical trust-building factor among the rest of the population.

Thirdly, ever since establishing a democratic government in 2001, Afghan women have made many advances in education, employment and political participation. Afghanistan has also become a signatory to several international instruments concerning women's rights, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. To ensure that this female progression is not erased and international standards maintained, the Taliban must preserve women's rights.

The Taliban thus stands to lose much more than it will gain if it chooses not to consider the agency and experiences of the Afghan women. And while the Taliban ends up including the Afghan women or not remains to be seen but, to achieve international and domestic acceptance, the group needs to bring in women's perspectives.

(The writer is a Researcher at the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi)