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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Update on Women's Rights in Afghanistan

By: Inés M. Pousadela with edits by Release Peace


Inés M. Pousadela  is a CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, Co-Director and Writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society ReportCIVICUS is the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 15,000 members in 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace. A version of this article was originally published in the CIVICUS Lens.

The CIVCUS Monitor downgraded Afghanistan from “repressed” to “closed” in 2023, the lowest possible rating.

An Infamous Directorate

A degree of internal dispute persists within the Taliban in the absence of a constitution that sets out the rules of governance for Afghanistan. But the hardline faction has made been enormously successful in replacing the previous Afghan government’s laws with their religious ordinances. One major development in that direction came in July 2023. It was the day the Taliban abolished the Attorney General’s Office and replaced it with the Directorate of Supervision and Prosecution of Decrees and Orders, in charge of ensuring the implementation of decrees issued by their Supreme Leader. The decree establishing the new institution also reportedly gave intelligence services – the arm of the Taliban most often responsible for arbitrary incommunicado detentions and other forms of mistreatments– an extensive role in investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes.

The Raids

On 27 September 2023, intelligence operatives raided and sealed the office of independent Radio Nasim, stopped it broadcasting and took the director and two of its journalists to the provincial intelligence headquarters, freeing them five hours later but keeping their mobile phones. Ten days later, the three men were again taken and held in an unknown location.

During one week in August, nine journalists and media workers were arrested in raids across five Afghan provinces. Later in August, the authorities detained an Iranian photojournalist at Kabul International Airport before he boarded a flight home after a 10-day personal visit. French-Afghan journalist Mortaza Behboudi spent 284 days in custody before being released from prison in October. He had been detained two days after entering Afghanistan, accused of spying. Within two years of the Taliban takeover, the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) documented 366 abuses of press freedoms, including the deaths of three media workers, 23 cases of injuries and 176 detentions, often involving physical violence and torture.

Continued but Life-Risking Resistance

Human rights activists, mostly women, have continued to organise themselves informally and to coordinate advocacy – and have faced the consequences. The General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) routinely raids the homes of protest organisers and often detains them and their relatives. Violence is used to gain access to detainees’ mobile phones to identify other members of protest networks. Activists are often subjected to coercive interrogations to force them to give up information and made to sign documents vowing not to talk to the media or take part in any further protest activities. Raids are used to disrupt meetings of women planning protests and prevent these happening.

The UN Report

A report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented more than 1,600 human rights violations linked to arrests and detention between January 2022 and July 2023. While noting that torture and ill-treatment in custody were widely underreported, UNAMA recorded 259 instances of physical torture and ill-treatment in custody, 207 instances of mental suffering through coercive questioning, including threats to kill interviewees or family members, and 18 deaths.

Among those on the receiving end of such tactics was Neda Parwani, detained on 19 September 2023 during a raid on her home. Her husband and four-year-old son were arrested alongside her. More than a month later all three were believed to still be in detention. Another activist, Zholia Parsi, was detained during a raid on her house on 27 September 2023. Taliban troops reportedly seized mobile phones, laptops, and documents. Parsi’s son was detained that same day.

Protests for Women’s Rights

In August 2023, ahead of the second anniversary of Taliban rule, a small group of women in burqas gathered to demand the right to education in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. Some men also continued challenging the authorities over their erasure of women’s rights. In one instance in early September 2023, a male university student in Mazar-e Sharif graffitied slogans calling for the resumption of girls’ university education. Other planned protests, such as those around Independence Day in September 2023, were pre-emptively suppressed.

Girls’ education activist Matiullah Wesa spent over half a year in detention after being arrested in late March 2023. He had been detained shortly after returning from an international trip. A news report quoted a Taliban official as linking his detention to his ”meetings with Westerners”. The day after his arrest, Matiullah’s house was reportedly searched and two of his brothers were beaten by Taliban soldiers.

The End Gender Apartheid Campaign

Afghan women want the world to recognise the Taliban’s rule as what it is: a regime of gender apartheid. They want this specific and extreme form of gender-based discrimination and exclusion to be codified as a crime under international law. The 1973 UN Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid only applies to racial hierarchies, but they want it extended to gender. To that end, on International Women’s Day in 2023 and alongside their Iranian peers, they launched the End Gender Apartheid campaign.

Campaigners want the concept of gender apartheid, currently used only as a descriptive tool, to be recognised as a political one, signalling that the international community will not tolerate the practice. And most importantly, they want it to be legally recognised as a crime to open pathways for the prosecution of those responsible for it.

What Demands Does the Campaign Have?

The campaign makes three major demands to states: that they amplify and centre the experiences of women living under gender apartheid in Afghanistan and Iran; make statements, issue resolutions and shape other policy responses to condemn Afghanistan and Iran’s gender apartheid regimes; and interpret or expand the legal definition of apartheid under international and national laws to include severe forms of institutionalised gender‑based discrimination.

In June 2023, UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan Richard Bennett warned that the systematic eradication of women’s and girls’ fundamental human rights by the Taliban may constitute the crime against humanity of gender persecution, and expressed concerns that the Taliban “may be responsible for gender apartheid, a serious human rights violation, which although not yet an explicit international crime, requires further study in our view”. The concept was also invoked in an October 2023 resolution by the European Parliament.

The World is (Not) Watching

The world is slowly starting to forget Afghanistan and Afghan women. This development carries a risk of normalising attacks on women’s rights that characterise the Taliban’s rule and gives encouragement to those around the world who would like to follow suit.

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