Author : Akanksha Khullar

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 18, 2023
Labelling the discrimination against women under the Taliban as “gender apartheid” could work as a catalyst for change in Afghanistan
Afghanistan: Gender apartheid under the Taliban regime The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021—which was followed by the disruption of international financial assistance—has only ended up pushing the worn-torn country into deeper economic, humanitarian, and human rights crises. This has brought about grave consequences, particularly for the Afghan women and girls. In fact, despite their initial promises to establish a more moderate rule that would allow women to continue with their education and employment, the hard-line Islamist group soon rolled back all democratic rights that were once freely enjoyed by these women. As a result, today, women in Afghanistan are banned from education, working outside their homes, travelling long distances without a male guardian, dressing according to their choice, visiting amusement parks, etc. And even though such abysmal treatment of women and girls is intolerable and unjustifiable, Taliban’s targeted attack on the rights of women and girls has only been increasing with time.

Despite their initial promises to establish a more moderate rule that would allow women to continue with their education and employment, the hard-line Islamist group soon rolled back all democratic rights that were once freely enjoyed by these women.

This was reaffirmed by Richard Bennett—the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan—who in his recent report published on 6th March 2023 highlighted that the humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan have continued to deteriorate since his previous report of 2022. Stressing upon the plight of the Afghan women, he further indicated, “in mid-November 2022, the authorities banned women’s access to parks, gyms, and public baths and, on 21st December, they announced the suspension of women from academia. Three days later, on 24th December, women were banned from seeking employment opportunities.” Bennett concluded the report by stating, “the cumulative effect of the Taliban’s systemic discrimination against women raises concerns about the commission of international crimes” and implied that “the cumulative effect of the restrictions on women and girls (...) was tantamount to gender apartheid.” The word apartheid has been derived from the Afrikaans word for “apart” and was first used to highlight the treatment of black people in South Africa under the white minority rule that ned from 1948 to the early 1990s. Thus, according to the Rome Statute, apartheid—majorly revolves around the issue of racial oppression—and is broadly defined as “inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to the Statute, committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Meanwhile, gender has not been included and finds no mention whatsoever in this definition. But, the Rome Statue does recognise crimes of gender persecution as crimes against humanity where the term persecution refers to  “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectively” and “gender” meaning “the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society.” Gender apartheid, however, has not yet been recognised as an international crime and in fact, currently only has the power of being a descriptive term. To put it simply, as per the international law, the crime of apartheid is only applicable to racial hierarchies but not the hierarchies that have been based on gender. But, over the past few years, the topic has been receiving some attention. The Lewis M. Simes Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, Karima Bennoune has described gender apartheid as “a system of governance, based on laws, which imposes systematic segregation of women and men and may also systematically exclude women from public spaces and spheres.” She further states, “gender apartheid is anathema to foundational norms of international law, every bit as much as racial apartheid was to the analogous principles prohibiting race discrimination.” Inferring from these arguments, it would perhaps be fair to say that in light of the ever-growing oppression of women and girls in Afghanistan with their rights becoming virtually non-existent, the term gender apartheid is extremely relevant and fitting to describe the prevailing situation under the de-facto Taliban government. It is also important to note here that this is not the first time that the term gender apartheid has been used to portray what is going on in Afghanistan. In 2022, Naheed Farid, a women’s rights activist and the youngest-ever politician elected to the former Afghan government in 2019, called the Taliban, a gender apartheid regime, that was using women as a “bargaining chip” to demand legitimacy, aid, support and funds from the international community. She also stressed upon the fact that Afghan women are experiencing an extremely unique dilemma with many choosing to end their lives out of hopelessness and despair. While speaking at the UN news conference in September 2o22, Farid further urged the world to label the Taliban a “gender apartheid” regime owing to its crackdown on human rights, saying that the apartheid label was a catalyst for change in South Africa and could therefore, also work as a catalyst for change in Afghanistan. Today, a group of Afghan women, activists and legal experts are backing an international campaign—End Gender Apartheid—not only to raise awareness about the lived experiences of women and girls in Afghanistan but also to call for gender apartheid to be recognised as a crime under the international as well as national laws. The campaign—launched on the International Women’s Day—reflects the perception that existing laws that revolve around addressing discrimination against women largely fail to capture the systematic nature of policies imposed in Afghanistan to downgrade the status of women. And given that any political dialogues with those in power have not delivered a palpable change, especially viś-a-viś the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, it is critical to use any means available—including expanding the legal definition of apartheid—to fight for the rights and protection for these women. This expansion could perhaps, move governments to act, push them to uphold their humanitarian responsibilities and hold them accountable when they fail to take the necessary steps. After all, living in 2023, we cannot and should not tolerate the oppression of women of this magnitude.
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Akanksha Khullar

Akanksha Khullar

Akanksha Khullar is a Visiting Fellow with the ORFs Strategic Studies Programme where her work focuses on the intersection of policy advice and academic research ...

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