In August 2021 the Taliban once again seized power in Afghanistan. What does this mean for the country’s citizens and in particular women?

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan comes after 20 years of a Unites States-led military presence in the South Asian nation.    

ANU PhD scholar Farkhondeh Akbari was born in Afghanistan and says in those two decades the country’s younger generation, and in particular young women, found themselves with new opportunities. It’s these opportunities Akbari fears will now be wiped out.   

“The Taliban’s extremely discriminatory policies against women have not changed, but Afghan women have changed. They became educated, they found agency, they are empowered,” Akbari says.  

“The boldest image emerging from Afghanistan’s cities is Afghan women bravely, courageously confronting the Taliban while being denied their most fundamental rights.  

“Women have been protesting non-stop across Afghanistan. They’re risking their lives by demanding their fundamental human rights.”  

The Taliban have signalled their intention to rule by sharia law, a set of rules derived from the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.   

Dr Raihan Ismail, from the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, says while sharia law is meant to govern all aspects of human life, it’s open to interpretation, making it hard to predict exactly what it will look like under the Taliban.  

“There are four categories covering everything from personal acts of worship to divorce and business dealings,” Ismail explains.  

“Aspects of it may seem confronting, for example, the punishments for things like stealing and illicit affairs. However, because the majority of Muslim countries adopt the secular legal system, Islamic criminal law really hasn’t been tested, only debated theoretically.  

“In the case of groups like the Taliban and ISIS, this raises the question: do they actually have a proper process to implement sharia law or are they just abusing it?  

“The Taliban has its own interpretation, which you could say is very conservative, especially when it comes to the treatment of women and ethnic minority groups like the Hazaras.”  

Ismail says all of this makes ‘Taliban 2.0’ a tricky concept, with some scholars arguing that what the group’s leadership is saying publicly is very different to the actions of militants on the ground.  

“The Taliban movement is not a monolith; you have different groups that continue to contest ideas,” Ismail says.   

“We’re looking at a country dealing with years of corruption. There’s so much to fix; will the Taliban be able to fix it? I doubt it.”   

“The Taliban’s extremely discriminatory policies against women have not changed, but Afghan women have changed. They became educated, they found agency, they are empowered.”

Farkhondeh Akbari

Akbari agrees it’s difficult to predict the future. She says it’s important to focus on what a Taliban government means for the Afghan people right now.   

“We don’t know, for example, how long girls will be out of school,” Akbari says.   

“All of these women who have been educated and had opportunities over the last 20 years are now at home.  

“I’m already hearing many cases of early marriages. Girls are imprisoned at home with almost no prospects for their future if they remain uneducated. It is the insecurity and poverty that compel families to marry off their daughters at an early age.”   

Akbari says while Australians might be geographically a long way from Afghanistan, as one of the first counties to join the US troops there, what’s unfolded in Afghanistan has happened “under our watch”.  

“It’s important for the public to be aware that the catastrophe of Afghanistan is a shared responsibility of Afghans as well as the countries involved in Afghanistan. As citizens we need to question our decision-makers on what went wrong,” Akbari says.  

“The current humanitarian crisis has an impact here too, especially because Australia is home to such a large and vibrant Hazara diaspora. The Hazaras are at risk of large-scale persecution.  

“There are thousands of Australian Afghan-Hazaras who’ve not been able to reunite with their immediate family, and many who’ve lost track of their wives and children in rural Afghanistan.”  

Akbari has recently submitted her PhD on peace settlements with the Taliban and the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. She was curious what it would take for them to engage meaningfully in diplomacy and peace processes.   

After delivering her final presentation on the day Kabul fell, Akbari says her findings have only been supported by what played out over the following months. She simply “had to change a few things to the past tense”.   

“My plan was to return and use my knowledge of conflict resolution and peace settlements to contribute to Afghanistan. I have prepared for years for my return, now the opportunity is gone. My homeland is lost. But I will return one day to work for the cause of a peaceful Afghanistan,” she says.  

The issue of young women’s education is especially close to her heart.  

“Today, Afghan women’s fight for their rights is the fight for survival, the survival of women, the young generation, and the survival of Afghanistan, to be able to build a prosperous future for Afghanistan.”  

Top image: Protesters march in Kabul in September 2021, a day after the Taliban announced their new all-male interim government. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock

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