Criminality of Women

Taliban treatment of women

While in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban became notorious internationally within the Western Community for their treatment of women. Their stated aim was to create "secure environments where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct." The way women were treated was reportedly based on Pashtunwali beliefs about living in purdah.

Women were forced to wear the burqa in public, because, according to a Taliban spokesman, "the face of a woman is a source of corruption" for men not related to them. They were not allowed to work. They were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur'an. Women seeking an education were forced to attend underground schools such as the Golden Needle Sewing School, where they and their teachers risked execution if caught. They were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which led to illnesses remaining untreated. They faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws.

The Taliban allowed and in some cases encouraged marriage for girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80 percent of Afghan marriages were considered to be by force.

Gender policies

From the age of eight, women were not allowed to be in direct contact with men, other than a close blood relative, husband, or in-law (see mahram). Other restrictions were:

  • Women should not appear in the streets without a blood relative or without wearing a Burqa (also Burkha, Burka or Burqua).
  • Women should not wear high-heeled shoes as no man should hear a woman’s footsteps lest it excite him.
  • Women must not speak loudly in public as no stranger should hear a woman's voice.
  • All ground and first floor residential windows should be painted over or screened to prevent women being visible from the street. A Taliban representative explained that “the face of a woman is a source of corruption for men who are not related to them”.
  • The photographing or filming of women was banned as was displaying pictures of females in newspapers, books, shops or the home.
  • The modification of any place names that included the word "women." For example, "women's garden" was renamed "spring garden".
  • Women were forbidden to appear on the balconies of their apartments or houses.
  • Ban on women's presence on radio, television or at public gatherings of any kind.

Dress code

Before its prescription, the burqa was just one of a choice of hijab. Its use generally occurred in urban areas to preserve female modesty and protect them from being coveted by other men. The Taliban decree that the burqa must be worn on public outings was unpopular with the more cosmopolitan Afghan women, one of whom described it as "a moving prison...The Taliban want to steal my face, forbid us all our faces." Negotiating and navigating busy urban areas in a burqa could be hazardous due to impeded vision and hearing, and the voluminous cloth made the threat of exposing skin if the wearer should stumble a legitimate fear. The burqa also proved unpractical for rural women as it interferes with physical work in the fields and care of livestock.

Reports state that enforcement varied between districts, as rural, nomadic and even some women in Herat suffered no negative reprisals for simply covering their heads with large scarves and leaving their faces visible. In Kabul enforcement was more stringent and physical punishment was a very real consequence for those who failed to adhere.

Brightly colored clothes were also banned as they were viewed as sexually attracting; a characteristic most unsuitable for women to display.

Mobility

The Taliban rulings regarding public conduct placed severe restrictions upon a woman's freedom of movement and created difficulties for those who could not afford a burqa or didn't have any mahram. These unfortunate women faced virtual house arrest. A woman who was badly beaten by the Taliban for walking the streets alone stated "my father was killed in battle...I have no husband, no brother, no son. How am I to live if I can't go out alone?"

A field worker for the NGO Terre des hommes witnessed the impact on female mobility at Kabul’s largest state-run orphanage, Taskia Maskan. It is recorded that after the female staff were relieved of their duties the approximately 400 girls living at the institution were locked inside for a year without being allowed outside for recreation.

Decrees that affected women’s mobility:

  • Ban on women riding bicycles or motorcycles, even with their mahrams.
  • Women were forbidden from riding in a taxi without a mahram.
  • Segregated bus services introduced to prevent males and females traveling on the same bus.

The lives of rural women were less dramatically impacted as they generally lived and worked within secure kin environments. A relative level of freedom was necessary for them to continue with their chores or labour. If women wished to travel to a nearby town the same urban restrictions would have applied.

Employment

The Taliban disagreed with past Afghan statutes that allowed the employment of women in a mixed sex workplace. This was a breach of purdah and sharia law.

On September 30th 1996 the Taliban decreed that all women should be banned from employment. It is estimated that 25 percent of government employees were female, and when compounded by losses in other sectors, many thousands of women were affected. This had a devastating impact on household incomes, especially on vulnerable or widow headed-households which were common in Afghanistan.

Another loss was for those whom the employed women served. Elementary education of children, not just girls, was shut down in Kabul, where virtually all of the elementary school teachers were women. Thousands of educated families fled Kabul for Pakistan after the Taliban took the city in 1996.

A substantial number of the Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan did so due to the impact of losing female earnings. Although many refugees supported the Taliban, the ban on female employment compounded by the harsh economic climate proved a disincentive for families to return. Among those who remained in Afghanistan there was an increase in mother and child begging as the loss of vital income reduced many families to the margin of survival.

Taliban Supreme Leader Mohammed Omar assured female civil servants and teachers they would still receive wages of around US$5 per month, although this was a short term offering. A Taliban representative stated:

"The Taliban’s act of giving monthly salaries to 30,000 job-free women, now sitting comfortably at home, is a whiplash in the face of those who are defaming Taliban with reference to the rights of women. These people through baseless propaganda are trying to incite the women of Kabul against the Taliban".

The Taliban promoted the use of the extended family, or zakat system of charity to ensure women should not need to work. However years of conflict meant that nuclear families often struggled to support themselves let alone aid additional relatives. Qualification for legislation often rested on men, such as food aid which must be collected by a male relative. The possibility that a woman may not possess any male relatives was dismissed by Mullah Ghaus the acting foreign minister who was surprised at the degree of international attention and concern for such a small percentage of the Afghan population.

For rural women there was generally little change in their circumstance as their lives were dominated by the unpaid domestic, agricultural and reproductive labour necessary for subsistence.

Female health professionals were exempted from the employment ban yet they operated in much depleted conditions. The ordeal of physically getting to work due to the segregated bus system and widespread harassment influenced some women to leave their jobs by choice. Of those who remained, many lived in fear of the regime and chose to reside at the hospital during the working week to minimise exposure to Taliban forces. These women were vital to ensure the continuance of gynaecological, ante-natal and midwifery services, be it on a much compromised level. Under the Rabbani regime there had been around 200 female staff working in Kabul’s Mullalai Hospital yet barely 50 remained under the Taliban. NGOs operating in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002 found the shortage of female health professionals to be a significant obstacle to their work.

The other exception to the employment ban allowed a reduced number of humanitarian workers to remain in service. The Taliban segregation codes meant women were invaluable for gaining access to vulnerable women or conducting outreach research. This exception was not sanctioned by the entire Taliban movement so instances of female participation or lack there of, varied with each circumstance.

Education

The Taliban claimed to recognize their Islamic duty to offer education to both boys and girls, yet a decree was passed that banned girls above the age of 8 from receiving instruction. Maulvi Kalamadin insisted it was only a temporary suspension and that females would return to school and work once facilities and street security were adapted to prevent cross-gender contact. The Taliban wished to have total control of Afghanistan before calling upon an Ulema body to determine the content of a new curriculum to replace the Islamic yet unacceptable Mujahadin version.

The Taliban requested time to achieve these ends and criticized the international aid community for its insistence on binding support to the immediate return of women’s rights. The Taliban believed in the merit of their actions, and a representative stated in an Iranian interview “no other country has given women the rights we have given them. We have given women the rights that God and his Messenger have instructed, that is to stay in their homes and to gain religious instruction in hijab [seclusion]”.

The female employment ban was felt greatly in the education system. Within Kabul alone the ruling affected 106,256 girls, 148,223 boys and 8,000 female university undergraduates. 7,793 female teachers were dismissed, a move that crippled the provision of education and caused 63 schools to close due to a sudden lack of educators.

Some women ran clandestine schools within their homes for local children. Both the learners, parents and educators were aware of the consequences should the Taliban discover their activities, but for those who felt trapped under the strict Taliban rule, such actions allowed them a sense of self-determination and hope.

Health care

Prior to the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan male doctors had been allowed to treat women in hospitals, however the decree that no male doctor should be allowed to touch the body of a woman under the pretext of consultation was soon introduced. With fewer female health professionals in employment the distances many women had to travel for attention increased while provision of ante-natal clinics declined.

In Kabul some women established informal clinics in their homes to service family and neighbours, yet as medical supplies were hard to obtain their effectiveness was limited. Many women endured prolonged suffering or a premature death due to the lack of treatment. For those families that had the means, inclination, and mahram support, medical attention could be sought in Pakistan.

In October 1996 women were barred from accessing the traditional hammam, public baths, as the opportunities for socialising were prescribed as un-Islamic. This affordable hot water rite had been enjoyed by women and was an important facility in a nation where few possessed running water. It gave cause for the UN to predict a rise in scabies and vaginal infections among women denied methods of hygiene as well as access to healthcare. Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American author, stated in 2001 that it has been four years many Afghan women hadn't been able to pray to their God as “Islam prohibits women from praying without a bath after their periods”.

In June 1998 the Taliban banned women from attending general hospitals in the capital -- whereas before they could attend a women-only ward of general hospitals -- leaving only one hospital in Kabul at which they could seek treatment.

Family harmony was badly affected by mental stress, isolation and depression that often accompanied the forced confinement of women. A survey of 160 women concluded that 97% showed signs of serious depression and 71% reported a decline in their physical well being. Latifa, a Kabul resident and author, wrote:

"The apartment resembles a prison or a hospital. Silence weighs heavily on all of us. As none of us do much, we haven’t got much to tell each other. Incapable of sharing our emotions, we each enclose ourselves in our own fear and distress. Since everyone is in the same black pit, there isn’t much point in repeating time and again that we can’t see clearly."

The nutrition of many urban Afghans was negatively affected by poverty, inflated food prices and the restricted mobility to purchase fresh food.

Punishments

Punishments were often carried out publicly, either as formal spectacles held in sports stadiums or town squares or spontaneous street beatings. Civilians lived in fear of harsh penalties as there was little mercy; women caught breaking decrees were often treated with force.

Examples of punishments:

  • In October 1996, a woman had the tip of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish.
  • In December 1996, Radio Shari’a announced that 225 Kabul women had been seized and punished for violating the sharia code of dress. The sentence was handed down by a tribunal and the women were lashed on their legs and backs for their misdemeanor.



  • In March 1997, a married woman, from Laghman Province, was caught attempting to flee the district with another man. The Islamic tribunal found her guilty of adultery and condemned both her and her lover to death by stoning.
  • In May 1997, 5 female CARE International employees with authorisation from the Ministry of the Interior to conduct research for an emergency feeding programme were forced from their vehicle by members of the religious police. The guards used a public address system to insult and harass the women before striking them with a metal and leather whip over 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) in length.
  • In 1999, a mother of seven was executed in front of 30,000 spectators in Kabul’s Olympic stadium for the murder of her abusive husband. She was imprisoned for 3 years and extensively tortured prior to the execution; yet she refused to plead her innocence in a bid to protect her daughter, reportedly the actual culprit.
  • When a Taliban raid discovered a woman running an informal school in her apartment, they beat the children; threw her down a flight of stairs causing her to break her leg; and then imprisoned her. They threatened to publicly stone her family if she didn't sign a declaration of loyalty to the Taliban and its laws.

Many punishments were carried out by individual militias without the sanction of Taliban authorities as it was against official Taliban policy to punish women in the street. A more official line was the punishment of men for instances of female misconduct; a reflection of a patriarchal society and the belief that men are duty bound to control women. Maulvi Kalamadin stated in 1997, “since we cannot directly punish women, we try to use taxi drivers and shopkeepers as a means to pressurize them" to conform.

Examples of male punishments:

  • If a taxi driver picked up a female customer with her face uncovered or unaccompanied by a mahram then he faced a jail sentence and the husband would be punished.
  • If a woman was caught washing clothes in a river then she would be escorted home by Islamic authorities where her husband/mahram would be severely punished.
  • Tailors found taking female measurements faced imprisonment.

International response

The international community largely claimed that Afghan women were denied their basic and fundamental human rights, such as freedom to mix with men while at work and the expression and association with men under Taliban rule. Although both the Taliban and aid community claimed to provide women with a dignified and appropriate place in society, they stood poles apart on their preferred methods. After the Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995, the UN hoped the gender policies would become more 'moderate' “as it matured from a popular uprising into a responsible government with linkages to the donor community”. The Taliban refused to bow to international pressure and reacted calmly to aid suspensions.

  • In November 1995, UNICEF suspended all aid to education in regions under Taliban control, as they argued the ban on mixing males and females in education was a breach of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. In the aftermath of the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference, this action moved to solidify UNICEF’s role as a leading agency in matters concerning women and children.
  • In 1996 Save The Children (UK) also withdrew support as communication with women, the primary child carers, was most difficult.

The protests of international agencies carried little weight with Taliban authorities, who gave precedence to Islamic law and did not feel bound by UN codes or human rights laws, legislation it viewed as instruments for Western imperialism.

The plight of Afghan women received international exposure, particularly from American media and political figures that publicly condemned Taliban policies as brutal and inhumane.

  • UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali expressed his concern regarding the status of Afghan women.
  • In 1999 Secretary of State Madeline Albright publicly stated “We are speaking up on behalf of the women and girls of Afghanistan, who have been victimised…it is criminal and we each have a responsibility to stop it” after the Taliban refused to hand over alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden.

See also

Further reading

References

Notes: References:

External links

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