Gender apartheid in Afghanistan: Lessons from Taliban's women ban - analysis

They returned stronger than 20 years ago with a public-relations machine portraying them as moderate, but the gender-apartheid hasn’t changed.

Afghan female students walk near Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 21, 2022. (photo credit:  REUTERS/ALI KHARA)
Afghan female students walk near Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 21, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALI KHARA)

The Taliban banned women from universities last week, and this week, they banned women from working at foreign and local NGOs. This is part of creeping gender apartheid in Afghanistan, which was exacerbated after the Taliban returned to power in 2021.

The news of the new attacks on women’s rights came in the wake of the end of the World Cup in Qatar. This should come as no surprise, because Qatar played a key role in hosting the Taliban for many years and also hosting negotiations that helped bring them back to power.

When the Taliban returned to power, they appeared to give assurances that their old brand of religious genocidal extremism – which had included not only attacks on women, executions and public beating of women, but also massacres of Shi’ite minority Hazaras and attempts to destroy all evidence of the non-Islamic past of Afghanistan, such as blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas – was a thing of the past. The new “moderate” Taliban posed as a possible ally against ISIS.

The Taliban had been on a jet-set kind of ride prior to returning to power. They had been visiting countries such as Russia, they lived a lavish lifestyle while in “exile,” and they could come and go from Doha and other countries. They had backing from Iran, Pakistan and were welcomed in China and other places.

Afghan women chant slogans in protest against the closure of universities to women by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 22, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)Afghan women chant slogans in protest against the closure of universities to women by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 22, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

Reasons behind Taliban's return to power

It was clear that the engineering of their return came about due to a number of factors. One factor was that the US wanted to save face in Afghanistan and leave. US President Joe Biden had wanted to leave Afghanistan for many years. When he returned to power, he inherited an agreement from the Trump administration. All he had to do was say, “Yes.”

The Taliban were groomed for the return. In the 1990s, they were a group that had clawed their way to power amid civil war. Brutality was the norm, and they were merely one brutal end of the spectrum that had been set in motion years before. They were part of the wave of Islamic groups that had attempted to come to power. They were also backed by al-Qaeda and extremists from abroad.

Afghanistan in the 1990s was an attempt to put into practice all of the awful things they believed in – a new theocracy. This was like the early stages of Communism in the Soviet Union, or the first years of Nazism. It was brutal, but it was also chaotic. They faced opposition in the Northern Alliance.

WHEN THE Taliban returned to power 20 years after having been pushed out by the US in the wake of 9/11, they came back to power as older men. They were no longer young zealots fresh from the refugee camps in Pakistan.

These men had lived a good life in exile. They returned with much more power to a more stable Afghanistan. The US had helped rebuild parts of Afghanistan – when money wasn’t being siphoned off to contractors or moved abroad. So, the Taliban got a kind of new present made partly by the US and also by Qatar, Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran and other countries.

They also had good public-relations people. They gave interviews to CNN, including to women journalists. In fact, they probably purposely choose women journalists as part of their fake messaging of reform.

“A senior Taliban official has repeated the group’s as-yet-unfulfilled pledge to allow girls back into high school, saying there would be ‘good news soon,’ but suggested that women who protested the regime’s restrictions on women rights should stay home,” CNN reported in May 2022. “Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister and the Taliban’s co-deputy leader since 2016, made the comments in an exclusive, first on-camera interview showing his face with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Kabul.”

They also spoke to Clarissa Ward.

“On the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, CNN’s Clarissa Ward sits down with Taliban spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi to discuss the killing of former al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike and the Taliban’s claims they were unaware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul,” CNN reported.

The 'new' Taliban paints itself as moderate

The Taliban pitched themselves as moderates who would be friendly to women’s rights. They would give interviews to women, and they would host women journalists. This was the new Taliban.

Media outlets even reported stories that seemed to present them in a positive light. “A pregnant New Zealand journalist says she turned to the Taliban for help and is now stranded in Afghanistan after her home country has prevented her from returning due to a bottleneck of people in its coronavirus quarantine system,” EuroNews reported in January.

Now, the Taliban have revealed what we always knew: that they aren’t nice, moderate women’s-rights-activists progressives; they are what they always were. They want to ban women entirely from the public eye, as they did in the past.

Theirs is a full gender apartheid, but it happens slowly and with grinding bureaucracy. Apartheid, as it was practiced in South Africa, also took on this form.

LET’S RECALL how The New York Times described it in 1985: “South Africa’s policy of apartheid – separation of the races – consists of two parts. One is petty apartheid and the other grand apartheid. Petty apartheid is the practice of segregation in the routine of daily life – in lavatories, restaurants, railway cars, buses, swimming pools and other public facilities. It is true that there has been some relaxation of this type of segregation in recent years. But ‘separate and unequal’ treatment remains legally accepted and widely practiced. In contrast to petty apartheid, grand apartheid is the wholly unique system of racially biased laws that limit the personal freedom of all South African blacks and prohibit them from any significant political voice in their Government – a Government that controls nearly every facet of their existence.”

Indeed, the Taliban are putting in place both petty and grand apartheid aimed at women. They had always done this.

The Taliban sent all-male delegations to meetings. It was clear what the regime would look like. However, we were quietly walked into their charade of the “new” Taliban by Western media and leadership who wanted to make it possible for them to return and end the war quietly. After all, the West, and particularly the US, wasted billions of dollars.

No one wants to admit that the US spent billions of dollars and sacrificed many lives – all so the Taliban could get a red carpet back to power. In essence, the US hollowed out Afghanistan and produced nothing in two decades. It then gave it back to the Taliban in better shape than it was. This has enabled the Taliban to have even more control today.

Not all the blame rests with the US. It should rest obviously with the Western-backed failed leadership that fled Kabul. It rests with many people, not least of which are countries such as Qatar that hosted the Taliban and prepared the way for their return.

A whole generation in Afghanistan was raised, at least in Kabul, with some promises of human rights and women’s rights. That generation failed. A person born when the US invaded the country in late 2001 became 20 years old and saw the US leave. Whatever promises they had were ripped away like a carpet.

The West demonstrates that it can’t keep its promises and that it pays lip service to “capacity building” and a lot of other words that don’t go anywhere. With the push of a button now, whole swaths of Afghan people can be prevented from having work or education. It’s entirely plausible that universities built with money from democracies in Afghanistan will now play the key role in banning women and enforcing the new regime’s laws.

WHAT CAN we learn from this? First, the Taliban story is like the story of the Iran deal. The West and the US were deceived about “moderates” by a narrative often crafted in the West. We were “sold” the Taliban and “sold” the Iran regime, as one sells a new truck or cologne.

Public-relations people “sell” these regimes, and that is how we were lured into believing the Taliban had changed. They even flew on a jet to Norway this past January and were received as if they were a normal government. They literally landed in Norway with an all-male delegation to talk about “human rights.” This is how they were whitewashed. Today, Norway has strongly condemned the ban on female employees of NGOs. But it’s too late.

The second thing we can learn is that groups such as the Taliban return to power not by chance. They are midwifed back to power. Qatar hosted the Taliban and hosted talks with the US. Doha’s guiding hand was behind support for the Taliban, however, and it had its hand on the scales at the talks. Doha played the same role of hosting other extremists in the past, such as Hamas.

Anyone thinking about the future of the West Bank should pay careful attention to the fall of Kabul and how groups such as the Taliban are brought back to power through the quiet backing of other countries with interests. China, Russia, Iran, Qatar, Turkey – these are the countries to watch when authoritarian extremist groups want to return to power or grow their role in places such as Gaza, Kabul and Idlib.

Lastly, the West should have introspection about self-deception. The West enabled the largesse and failure of the Kabul government prior to its demise. The fact that Ashraf Ghani gave TED talks and was able to influence the West shows that no one truly held the Afghan government to account. Instead, it was allowed to rot from within until it was just an empty house waiting for the return of the Taliban.

The opposition, for instance, is weaker today than in 2001. At least the Northern Alliance had real armed forces and a backing in 2001. The Taliban were gifted a state in whole – ready for them, the new owners. The victims of all this are women and minorities in Afghanistan.

Hazara Shi’ites are being massacred again. Women are being expelled bit by bit from every part of society. Moreover, all this was made possible by self-deception and a well-oiled PR machine that enabled the Taliban to return.