Gender apartheid in Afghanistan is a crime against humanity

Gender apartheid in Afghanistan is a crime against humanity

Story by Benedetta Castellaro, Shahrbanu Haidari

Photo by IMTFI / CC BY-SA 2.0

Nearly three years have passed since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, and despite diminishing global attention, women in the country face escalating violence and segregation. As the Taliban regime aims to confine women to the private sphere, depriving them of fundamental rights to education, work, and political participation, peaceful protests by women have been violently suppressed from the beginning. Activists who resist the Taliban are kidnapped, raped, and tortured, and women from ethnic groups such as the Hazara and Tajik suffer multiple forms of dehumanisation daily.

Despite diplomatic efforts, the Taliban regime continues to hold power without significant international resistance. Countries like China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Qatar have chosen to cooperate with the Taliban, handing over Afghan consulates and thereby legitimising an extremely violent regime that uses gender persecution as a tool of power and oppression.

Women’s rights in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s history with women’s rights has been tumultuous. Before the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, women in urban areas enjoyed relatively greater freedom, participating in education, employment, and public life. However, the first Taliban regime (1996–2001) drastically reversed these freedoms. Women were barred from working, attending school, and even leaving their homes alone. 

The US-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban and initiated a period of progressive change, leading to significant advancements in women’s rights and gender equality: women returned to schools and universities, engaged in politics, and participated in the workforce. Unfortunately, the Taliban’s return to power in 2021 has undone much of this progress, causing a severe regression in women’s rights and freedoms. 

The regime’s strict interpretation of Sharia law has imposed numerous restrictions, as the Taliban’s system of discrimination, segregation, and disrespect for human dignity profoundly rejects the full humanity of women and girls. The apartheid is pervasive and methodical, institutionalised through edicts and policies that severely deprive fundamental rights

Since June 2023, approximately 52 edicts have been issued, restricting the rights of women and girls across the country: girls are banned from attending secondary schools and universities, and women have been forced out of most professional sectors, with female workers in government positions, NGOs, and other industries being dismissed. Their autonomy and ability to engage in public life are also severely restricted, as they cannot leave their homes without a male guardian (known as a mahram). 

Additionally, strict dress codes, enforced through threats of punishment and violence, mandate that women wear the burqa or hijab. With the Taliban’s restrictions leading to the closure of women’s clinics and deterring female healthcare workers from performing their duties, access to healthcare has also been compromised.

The paths for justice

Feminist foreign policy prioritises gender justice and respect for human rights in international relations, offering a tangible strategy to address the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan demands a new strategy that recognises the severity of human rights violations, especially against women and children.  

Protecting Afghan activists and refugees by facilitating their escape and providing financial and legal support is crucial to preserving the voices and actions of those fighting for human rights. Additionally, supporting the education of Afghan girls through scholarships and student visas for studying abroad can be a fundamental investment in the country’s future.

Similarly, promoting platforms for political dialogue and organisation among Afghan women, both within the country and in exile, strengthens their participation and leadership, essential for building a more equitable and inclusive society.

Another crucial way to seek justice is by using the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Afghanistan has agreed to the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) authority to settle disputes about CEDAW. This means any country that agrees to ICJ jurisdiction under CEDAW can take Afghanistan to court for not following the Convention

The June 2023 report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan and the UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls highlights this approach, encouraging countries to help Afghan women and girls seek justice through the ICJ. Although this kind of case is complex, it is legally possible and could have significant positive effects. The ICJ is becoming a key place for addressing violations of international human rights agreements, and taking a case under CEDAW would be the Court’s first examination of the world’s leading women’s rights treaty, setting an important precedent for protecting women’s rights globally.

Finally, the international community must understand that defining the Taliban regime as “gender apartheid” is not merely a matter of semantics, but a powerful political and legal tool. Using “gender apartheid” in discussions about Afghanistan underscores the seriousness of the Taliban’s crimes and urges states and international organisations to intervene decisively. 

In this regard, the feminist movement Politics4Her and the Italian Associazione di Solidarietà Donne per le Donne (ASDD) have united efforts to make a powerful appeal to the UN: to include gender apartheid in the new treaty on crimes against humanity, which the UN will finalise in October 2024. 

The situation in Afghanistan represents an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and recognising gender apartheid as a crime against humanity is not only a moral obligation but a fundamental political necessity to mobilise a coordinated and effective international response. Each of us can play our part, starting with adding our signature to this petition promoted by Politics4Her and ASDD. 


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