The Taliban Thinks Banning Forced Marriage Makes Men and Women Equal. It Doesn’t.

The group banned forced marriages – but didn’t mention education or work rights. Many remain unconvinced that they will follow through.
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The Taliban decreed that women in Afghanistan must no longer be forced into marriage. Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban has banned forced marriage in Afghanistan, decreeing – for the very first time – that “both (women and men) should be equal,” that women should not be considered “property” and that “no one can force women to marry by coercion or pressure.” Widows will also now be allowed to remarry 17 weeks after their husbands’ death, and will be able to choose their husband freely, rather than being forced to marry one of their former husband’s relatives, the group claimed.

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The decree, announced on Friday and citing the words of elusive Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, declared that “The Islamic Emirate's leadership directs all relevant organisations... to take serious action to enforce Women's Rights.” It further instructed the Ministry of Culture and Information to publish material on women's rights “to prevent... ongoing repression.”

Afghan women’s rights advocates have hailed the move as a major step forward for the country – assuming the pledges set out by Akhundzada are actually implemented in practice.

“This is big, this is huge … if it is done as it is supposed to be, this is the first time they have come up with a decree like this,” Mahbouba Seraj, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Skills Development Center, told a Reuters Next conference panel on Friday. “Now what we have to do as the women of this country is we should make sure this actually takes place and gets implemented.”

The decree is a tactful move for a government that is facing mounting global pressure to meaningfully recognise women’s and human rights. Since seizing control of Afghanistan in mid-August, the Taliban has had billions of dollars worth of funds frozen by the international community, who have thus far refused to formally recognise the group as the country’s legitimate rulers. 

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Many remain skeptical that this can be carried out, though, especially since the new Taliban government has so far not appeared to be less fundamentalist or more progressive than the group that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 – during which time women were banned from leaving the house without a male relative and full face and head covering, and girls were barred from receiving education. 

Ironically, a report released by Amnesty International on December 6, three days after the Taliban’s announcement, said that essential services and networks of support for gender-based violence in Afghanistan have been dismantled. “Women and girl survivors of gender-based violence have essentially been abandoned in Afghanistan,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International Secretary General. “To protect women and girls from further violence, the Taliban must allow and support the reopening of shelters and the restoration of other protective services for survivors, reinstate the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and ensure that service providers can work freely and without fear of retaliation.” 

One psychologist who worked with gender-based violence survivors in Kabul told Amnesty International that “The Taliban doesn’t have any procedure of how to deal with these cases,” while a prosecutor for cases involving gender-based violence explained that “In the past, women could go to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. They could go alone and report their case. But now that women are not allowed to go anywhere without a mahram [male guardian], this will make it really complicated.”

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It is this lack of mechanisms and safety nets that make the Taliban’s claims of equality questionable, according to experts. Further to that, some have suggested that the new decree doesn’t go far enough in addressing the inequality between men and women when it comes to basic human rights and quality of life.

“Yes, we can be grateful that the Taliban don't consider women to be ‘property’ and say they must consent to marriage, but they ‘failed to mention female access to education or work outside the home,’” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet. “That's not ‘women's rights,’ too?”

The Taliban’s new minister of higher education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, appeared to double down on the group’s conservative stance towards women’s education in September, when he announced that women in Afghanistan would be banned from studying at university with men, and would ​​also be required to wear “Islamic hijab” during university classes. Some have voiced fears that girls’ schools might remain closed indefinitely following the Taliban takeover.

Videos posted to Twitter this week showed a grassroots campaign advocating for the reopening of girls schools in Afghanistan, as dozens of men – young and old – rode through the streets of an unspecified town on motorcycles, waving placards that read “We love education.”

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Speaking on Friday, Seraj also said that the Taliban needed to go further in establishing the rights and freedoms of women, particularly regarding their access to schools and workplaces.

“What I am really waiting to hear next from the same group, from the same person is for him to send the decree regarding the education and right of work for the women of Afghanistan,” she said. “That would be absolutely phenomenal.”

Rahela Jafari, who led protests against the Taliban earlier this year and has now fled the country, told VICE World News last month that “The Taliban’s treatment of women is like cutting the wing of a bird who always wants to fly.”

When asked if she had any reason at all to be optimistic about the future of women in Afghanistan, Jafari said: “We are facing a government which doesn’t recognise women as part of the society. We are not optimistic but we will continue our campaign.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.