Afghan Women Watching the Walls Close In

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A woman wearing a burqa walks to her home in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 14, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

When the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, the change for women and girls was immediate. They suddenly had to be afraid to leave their houses. The men outside – Taliban members – were notorious for attacking women for how they were dressed, or because they didn’t have a male family member, a mahram, chaperoning them. Women and girls feared a return of these abuses, and their fears proved justified. Every man standing on a corner with a gun suddenly made his own rules about what was required. Sometimes it was gloves, sometimes socks.

Soon, new rules for women and girls at universities prohibited them sharing transportation with men. Taxi drivers were told not to drive women who aren’t sufficiently covered, or on long trips without a mahram. The next order said women can’t leave the country without a mahram absent a “religious reason.”

Since taking power, the Taliban have rolled back women’s rights in virtually every area, including crushing women’s freedom of movement.

The vast majority of girls’ secondary schools are closed. Universities recently reopened, with new gender segregation rules. But many women are unable to return, in part because the career they studied for is off limits now as the Taliban banned women from most jobs.

Freedom of movement is key to exercising most other rights. With the new rules in place, women and girls are blocked from accessing health care as some healthcare facilities require them to bring a mahram. Women and girls facing violence have no escape route if they can flee only with an abuser escorting them. Girls told Human Rights Watch that hopes of one day studying abroad are sustaining them; the latest order crushes those dreams.

Freedom of movement is also key to survival. Afghanistan is in a dire humanitarian crisis, prompted largely by US government actions. Many women lost their jobs due to Taliban restrictions; their struggle to feed their families is now made even harder by restrictions on their movement. Many women’s rights activists have had no choice but to flee from Taliban harassment, threats, and violence, but that option, too, largely disappeared with the latest order.

The right to freedom of movement and to leave one’s country is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But such protection is cold comfort for Afghan women watching the walls close in.

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