Last week, International Women’s Day drew renewed media attention to the situation in Afghanistan, now characterized by the United Nations as the most repressive country on earth for women. Over the past 18 months since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, conditions for women in the country have continuously deteriorated. Despite early promises by the Taliban to keep girls in school, women and girls were immediately banned from attending high school, and since December, the same is now true for university. Women have been banned from most jobs, including NGO work. Floggings of women and men have been reinstated for violations of the Taliban’s morality code. In a particularly cruel twist, women who previously divorced abusive husbands are now being told those divorces are invalid, meaning they and their new partners could be considered adulterers and punished accordingly.
This situation is particularly paradoxical because for the vast majority of Afghans, protecting women’s human rights—especially the right to education—is among their key priorities. In a random survey of Afghan internet users conducted last year by the Human Security Lab, which I direct at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 66 percent of respondents stated they either “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement, “I believe women’s human rights are among the top priorities for the future of the country.” Only 19 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed, and 15 percent were undecided. Even more important are the trend-lines: Over the three months the survey was in the field, the number of those who said “strongly agree” rose, and those choosing any other answer went down.
When asked which three rights for women from a provided list matter the most to them, Afghans most frequently chose education, at 62 percent; the right to work, at 41 percent; the right to participate in government, at 36 percent; the right to choose a husband, at 34 percent; and the right to access health services, at 31 percent. Some chose “Something Else” from the list, and many of the answers included refusals to choose among rights. One Afghan wrote into the comment box, “They are all important to me.” Another wrote, “All the things mentioned in this questionnaire are important for women.”
When asked to explain in their own words what achieving women’s human rights looks like to them, some Afghans listed specific rights that mattered to them most, including many of the ones listed above, but also including things like the “right to play sports” and “the right to learn science.” And while many Afghans articulated rights as something that should be implemented “in an Islamic framework,” many of them explicitly stated that Islam was consistent with human rights. One wrote, “The right to education according to Islamic laws and other rights is guaranteed by Islam.”
This attitude is reflected as well in the condemnations of the Taliban’s prohibitions on women and girls’ access to education by the Organization of Islamic States, Islamic scholars and even ultra-conservative Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia. In April, a group of Afghan clerics in Kabul also issued a statement declaring that “Islam is the bearer of rights for women, including the rights to education and work.”
The finding that women’s rights are extremely important to Afghans holds true even among Taliban supporters.
For Afghans, too, women’s rights are not just a women’s issue. The Human Security Lab’s survey shows that Afghan men and women alike are concerned about them. In fact, fewer men than women “strongly disagreed” with the idea of women’s human rights as a national priority. And men feel even more strongly than women about some specific rights. For example, 66 percent of men chose education among their top three priorities, compared to only 55 percent of women. The survey revealed similar gender gaps for the rights to health care and political participation, and the right to choose a husband, with men pushing harder for these rights than women themselves. Equal percentages of men and women feel strongly about the rights to work and travel freely without an escort, women’s freedom to dress according to their wishes, and the prohibition of domestic violence.
Even more interestingly, the finding that women’s human rights are extremely important to Afghans holds true even among Taliban supporters. Overall, 66 percent of men and women who support the Taliban “a lot” also “agree or strongly agree” that women’s human rights are a national priority, although Taliban-leaning women feel even more strongly than Taliban men on this. On specific rights, 60 percent of those who support the Taliban “a lot” listed the right to education as a priority. And they actually are more likely than Taliban opponents to mention securing health care, ending domestic violence, and the right to choose a husband when asked to list the three most important rights. The gap between strong Taliban supporters and strong Taliban opponents seems widest on rights like dress freedom, the right to work and political participation. But even here, 28 percent of strong Taliban supporters said that women should have the right to work, and 22 percent said they should have the right to participate in government.
If women’s human rights matter to most Afghans, even Taliban supporters, why are the Taliban able to get away with continually and increasingly restricting them? Many of the decisions about the treatment of women are coming from a small but influential minority within the Taliban leadership, with the most draconian orders trickling down from Hibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader, over significant resistance by the Taliban rank and file, who themselves appear to want schooling for their daughters. But according to a report prepared by the United States Institute of Peace, the status of women has also become a wedge issue used by competing factions within the Taliban as they jockey for power, as well as a way to prove to the West that the Taliban will not bow to foreign interference.
The survey data from Afghans also suggests other ways the international community might help. First of all, when asked about whether outside governments should recognize the Taliban absent significant improvements in human rights and an inclusive government, over half the respondents said no, and only 25 percent said yes; the other quarter of respondents didn’t wish to answer. They were evenly split on whether the international community should continue to withhold economic support to pressure the Taliban.
When asked to speak in their own words about “other” ways the international community could help, the findings are mixed. Thirty-five percent of Afghans said the international community should support a peace process between the Taliban and opposition groups, but 31 percent said they would prefer that the West either arm the opposition against the Taliban or intervene militarily themselves. Twenty-six percent would like to see neutral peacekeepers in the country.
One-quarter of respondents who answered this question wrote an answer in their own words, and the second most frequent response, after “economic support,” was “support for human rights.” However, Afghans—particularly Afghan women—also emphasized a human right seldom discussed in the context of Afghanistan and entirely in the hands of the international community: the right to flee the country.
Many of them stated that the best way the international community could help would be to evacuate Afghans like themselves and streamline asylum proceedings. “Immediate assistance must be provided for the departure of Afghans like me so that they are not killed by the Taliban,” one wrote. Another pleaded, “Take us away from this!” The advantage of implementing this human right, at least, is that it would not require negotiating with the Taliban.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law.