The decree was announced on Friday by the reclusive Taliban chief, Hibatullah Akhunzada – who is believed to be in the southern city of Kandahar. “Both (women and men) should be equal,” said the decree, adding that “no one can force women to marry by coercion or pressure”.
The decree did not mention a minimum age for marriage, which previously was set at 16 years old.
The group also said a widow will now be allowed to re-marry 17 weeks after her husband’s death, choosing her new husband freely.
Longstanding tribal traditions have held it customary for a widow to marry one of her husband’s brothers or relatives in the event of his death.
The Taliban leadership says it has ordered Afghan courts to treat women fairly, especially widows seeking inheritance as next of kin. The group, which came to power in August, also said it had asked government ministers to spread awareness about women’s rights across the population.
The development was hailed as a significant step forward by two leading Afghan women, but questions remained about whether the group would extend women’s rights around work and education.
“This is big, this is huge … if it is done as it is supposed to be, this is the first time they have come up with a decree like this,” said Mahbouba Seraj, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Skills Development Center speaking from Kabul on a Reuters Next conference panel on Friday.
The international community, which has frozen billions of dollars in funds for Afghanistan, has made women’s and human rights a key element of any future engagement with Afghanistan.
Seraj said that even before the Taliban took over the country on August 15, Afghan politicians had struggled to form such a clear policy on women’s rights around marriage.
“Now what we have to do as the women of this country is we should make sure this actually takes place and gets implemented,” said Seraj.
Roya Rahmani, the former ambassador for Afghanistan to the United States, echoed her optimism and added that it was likely partly an attempt to smooth over international fears regarding the group’s track record on women’s rights as the Taliban administration seeks to get funding released.
“An amazing thing if it does get implemented,” Rahmani told the Reuters Next panel, adding details such as who would ensure that girls’ consent was not coerced by family members would be key.
“It’s a very smart move on the part of Taliban at this point because one of the (pieces of) news that is attracting the West’s attention is the fact little girls are being sold as property to others in order to feed the rest of the family,” she said.
During its previous rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned women from leaving the house without a male relative and full face and head covering and girls from receiving education, coerced men to grow beards and barred the playing of music.
The Taliban says they have changed but many women, advocates and officials remain sceptical.
The group promised freedom of expression, women’s rights and amnesty to officials who worked under the previous government of President Ashraf Ghani. But journalists have faced restrictions and reports have emerged of Taliban fighters involved in revenge killings of former officials. A large number of secondary schools for girls are still not operational, though Taliban has said it is working to open them.
The US has frozen nearly $10bn in Afghan central bank reserves and international financial institutions have suspended development funding for the country, plunging the heavily aid-dependent economy into crisis and leaving economists and aid groups warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Seraj said the Taliban now needed to go further, calling for the group to release more rules to clarify women’s rights to access public spaces.
“What I am really waiting to hear next from the same group, from the same person is for him to send the decree regarding the education and right of work for the women of Afghanistan, that would be absolutely phenomenal,” she said.
Freedom of expression
Also speaking on the panel, Ahmad Sarmast, the founder and director of Afghanistan National Institute of Music, cautioned that the Taliban had shown few signs of change when it came to allowing the arts and freedom of expression.
As he facilitated hundreds of students and their families to flee the country and escaped himself to Portugal, the Taliban shuttered his institute and other music and arts faculties in the country.
Though the group had not issued their policy on music, he said he was in contact with many Afghan musicians who had hidden their instruments and were living in fear.
“There’s not an official decree banning music or music education but the practice is here,” he said. “Music has faded out of the air of Afghanistan.”