After the Soviet withdrawal the Taliban held power over Afghanistan, and enforced strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, until the 2001 US invasion. Their catchphrase during the Soviet intervention was a “war in the name of Islam”, demanding a reversal of all socialist policies including those that guaranteed women liberties through education and employment. After the Taliban came into power in 1996, they destroyed the Kabul Museum and smashed pre-Islamic statues to rubble, including the 1,500-year-old monuments of Bamiyan. The universities were closed, Kabul's ancient music ghetto Khabrat was silenced, musicians were beaten and imprisoned, and their musical instruments destroyed. Taliban banned all things which made life aesthetically beautiful and pleasing.
The Taliban's harsh treatment of women is condemned by the whole world. They believe in controlling women with coercive means. It is tragic to see the plight of Afghan women, who were more liberated, educated, and modern 50 years ago compared to the burqa-clad Afghan women of these days. Afghan rulers like Abdur Rahman Khan, King Habibula Khan, King Amanulla, and King Mohammad Zahir Shah contributed significantly to liberate Afghan women. Abdul Rahman Khan's wife was the first queen in Afghanistan to appear in public without veil, and his son Habibulla Khan viewed women as equal citizens and assets for future generations.
Likewise, Habibulla opened schools for girls in his reign, and women participated in the public sphere in western clothes and without veils. King Habibulla's successor King Amanulla Khan along with his wife advocated for women's rights and for universal education for both boys and girls. King Mohammad Zahir Shah's 40-year reign resulted in more rights for Afghan women both in law and practice. He viewed women working outside home as a part of development and modernization of Afghanistan. In the 1940s and 1950s the veil was made optional and women began attending universities and pursuing careers. Zahir Shah promulgated a new constitution in 1964 that assured women's suffrage. Empowerment of women continued under the Soviet-backed regime as well. It is tragic to see gender-based violence against Afghan women after all these years of struggle to empower them.
The Taliban are condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which has resulted in the brutal treatment of Afghan women. In Taliban-controlled areas, discrimination against women remains an official policy and encompasses nearly every aspect of women’s lives. Taliban rule in Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal acted as a machinery in agonizing women, as they imposed burqa, a cloth covering women from head to toe, snatched their right to education and public offices, and didn’t allow women to walk in the streets without being accompanied by male family members. They removed women from the public sphere, halting their education and career development. Women who violated the gendered role were punished by public beating, stoning, rape, acid attack and even death.
The Soviet withdrawal, which eventually resulted in the Taliban's reign from 1996 to 2001, gave nothing but traumatizing experience to Afghan women.
After the US withdrawal, the Taliban has taken over the government, and the fate of the Afghan women again lies in the hands of the Taliban. Its representatives have stressed that they have changed from 1990's and they will allow girls to attend schools and women to work in public as long as they abide by Islamic laws. But it is hard to believe the Taliban will be so liberal towards women having witnessed their atrocities in the 1990s.
Women are doubly marginalized in Afghanistan, and the country is one of the most dangerous places for women to live. The Taliban's patriarchal ideology reduced women to mere domesticity of cooking, cleaning and childrearing. Its coercive control of women's freedom, rights, and sexuality is rooted in patriarchy too. As Bell Hook, a cultural critic and a radical black feminist, argues in her book “Feminism Is for Everybody”, "Patriarchal violence in home is based on the belief that it is acceptable for more powerful individual to control others through various forms of coercive force". Taliban have coercively controlled the freedom of education, movement and career for women. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the then first lady Laura Bush in an interview once said that "fight against terrorism in Afghanistan is also a fight for right and dignity of women.” She portrayed Afghan women as ones to be rescued from both an oppressive regime and the oppressive culture into which they were born.
Soviet and American interventionists both claimed one of their motives behind the intervention was to liberate women. Heather Barr in her article "The fragility of women's right in Afghanistan" writes of the reaction of Mahbouba Seraj, a longtime women’s rights activist in Afghanistan, when asked what message she wanted to give to the international community. Seraj says “I am going to say shame on you… I’m going to say to the whole world, shame on you”.
Her rage emanates from the fact that the new generation of the Afghan women are going to face the same fate their mothers faced 20 years back. She resents that the West all these years sold the image of blue-burqa clad Afghan women to justify their intervention in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, one cannot overlook the fact that Afghan women have become more vocal about their rights. It is heartwarming to see women demonstrating in the streets of Kabul asking the government to ensure their right to education, prospect of career development and protection against gender-based violence.