August 15, 2021 has been marked as a significant date in the recent history of Afghanistan. A year has passed since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan for the second time. A year has passed since those days when the world’s attention was focused on the mass evacuations of Afghans through the Kabul airport, with dramatic scenes only comparable to movies. A year has passed since the departure of the international forces from Afghanistan after 20 years. War has officially ended, but structural violence in the form of endemic poverty, suppression of civil and political rights and humanitarian crisis continue to persist. Such dramatic changes still seem surreal to many; yet they are the reality for nearly 35 million inside Afghanistan and for the ever-growing Afghan diaspora, considered to be the second largest after the Syrian diaspora. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has turned Afghanistan into a forgotten story, yet again. Reflecting on the multi-layered complexity of a year that will be remembered for decades is still challenging due to the speed at which these developments are happening as well as the nature of changes.
The dramatic changes did not put an end to the sorrow and misery of Afghan people. Afghanistan was already suffering from severe structural issues such as insecurity, political fragility, endemic corruption, entrenched impunity, and human rights violations. It is possible to argue that the confluence of these factors, which for almost two decades had been chewing through Afghan institutions and society from within like termites, was the primary cause in the sudden collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban's return. Following the US government’s deal with the Taliban in February 2020, and the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations, Afghan people expected some form of the Taliban’s return to power. However, no one expected and was prepared for a full-fledged Taliban’s return. In particular, no one expected to experience a déjà vu of the Taliban rule in the 1990s. After the Taliban’s takeover, armed conflict formally ended, for the Taliban functioned as the main insurgent group fighting the former Afghan government. The misery of Afghan people did not.
A recent UNAMA report, and many other reports, speak of growing concern over human rights violations. This includes arbitrary arrest and detention of dissidents, extrajudicial killing of especially former members of security and police forces, and severe crackdown on civil and political rights, including the right to assembly and freedom of expression. Despite significant reduction in armed conflict and civilian casualties, UNAMA documented 2106 civilian casualties (700 killed, 1406 wounded) between mid-August 2021 and mid-June 2022. This is compounded by an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis, leaving millions of Afghans in abject poverty.
While living conditions are difficult for everyone in Afghanistan, Afghan women are paying the heaviest price once again. The list of restrictions on women’s rights is long, mirroring the one imposed under the Taliban rule in the 1990s. Women are barred from reporting to work in many capacities. According to a report that was recently published, female employees of the Ministry of Finance should nominate a male family member to take their place before they are dismissed. What does this kind of statement signify for a female-headed household without a male relative to take her place? According to UN Women restriction on women’s employment has costed the economic sector nearly $1bn, which translates to up to 5% of Afghanistan’s GDP. Women are required to abide by the Taliban's stringent dress codes and gender segregation laws wherever they work. Girls are not allowed to attend secondary schools, and even in places where education is permitted, like universities, conditions related to dress codes, gender segregation, and traveling without a close male relative, or mahram, are enforced in such a way that many young women give up. Domestic violence is rising as a result of the lack of legal systems and laws protecting women. And the list goes on. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the suicide rate among young people, particularly women, is once again on the rise. Recently, it was reported that at least 100 women were killed or committed suicide over the last six months.
Nevertheless, as the saying goes where there is suppression there is resistance. The continuous and valiant resistance of Afghan women testifies to this. Aware and concerned of the Taliban’s restrictive policies and practices towards women, Afghan women staged protests to demand women’s rights protection from early days after the Taliban’s return. Such protests in various big cities went on for months with a simple slogan: Bread, work, freedom. Taliban forces cracked down protests by first issuing warnings, threats as well as physical attacks against protesters. When this tactic did not work, they started arresting, detaining and allegedly torturing a number of protest organizers. They managed to temporarily silence voices demanding basic human rights of women, but it is only an illusion to think they will forever silence half of the population. In fact, despite violent crackdown of protesters, Afghan women found other creative venues to raise their voices and demand their rights. Afghan women may be among the world's most deprived of their fundamental rights, but they are also among the world's most resilient, as they have repeatedly shown.
Over the past two decades, there have been many changes in Afghan society, but the country is crossing a thin line at the moment. One question that is frequently asked is if the Taliban's attitude toward women's rights and human rights has evolved. The answer appears to be no after almost a year in office. The Afghan society, particularly its young generation, which makes up about 65% of the population, on the other hand has changed. Although it is just an illusion to believe that US and coalition forces were the liberators, it is impossible to deny that the country's minimal sociopolitical openness over the past two decades provided opportunities never previously available. It demonstrated how Afghans, especially the younger generation, are yearning for change, progress, and prosperity. The home-grown resistance of Afghan women in post-15 August 2021 is but one example of this. The de facto authorities, who want to impose their own interpretation of Sharia law, and Afghan society, which believes it has always lived under Islamic and Sharia norms and is capable of exercising fundamental human rights, including the right of girls to education, are clearly at odds with one another. Meanwhile, ethnic tension and escalation, particularly on social media, is on the rise, sadly fueled by many so-called intellectuals and activists. These dilemmas are compounded by regional and global interests and rivalries, straying Afghanistan too close to the edge once again. A mere teeter over this thin line might have ramifications not only for the country but also for the region and possibly the world, given Afghanistan’s geopolitical significance.