The Taliban is back. For women across Afghanistan, its return means uncertainty at best—and brutal oppression at worst. After two decades of slow but positive change, women are fearful. Is there hope for Afghanistan?
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Back then, females endured severe restrictions. They had to wear head-to-toe burqas outside their homes—even in their own yards. They traveled only with male relative escorts. They had no right to education or work and depended entirely on the men who controlled them.
The Taliban is an Islamist religious and political movement in Afghanistan. It is also a military organization with tentacles reaching into many other countries. The Taliban is not al-Qaida, a flat-out terrorist organization. However, many Taliban leaders sympathize with and support al-Qaida’s mission, including the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.
Progress in Afghanistan
For the two decades after 9/11, the United States and other countries stepped in, partly to help the Afghans re-take control of their country. Mindy Belz, Senior Editor at WORLD, says the U.S. occupation was “creating space for good things to happen.”
Circumstances changed for the better for Afghan women. Progress was slow and mostly limited to larger cities. But women began participating in ways they had not been able to under Taliban rule. They attended school, entered public office, engaged in business, received proper healthcare, and traveled freely. Some even competed academically and athletically on international stages.
Writing on the Wall
Since the Taliban takeover this year, Belz says, “The writing is on the wall that women will be second-class citizens” again.
Already the crackdown has started. Girls riding home in a motorized rickshaw in Afghanistan’s northern Takhar province were stopped and lashed for wearing “revealing sandals.” Twitter feeds showed public floggings of women in the streets.
Taliban officials announced that women would not be allowed to compete in sports. In response, an Afghan women’s taekwondo team fled to Australia. Heather Garriock, CEO of Australian Taekwondo, helped the group evacuate. She says, “The lives of these women were in danger.”
The girls of the Afghanistan national soccer team, ages 14-16, and their families escaped to Lisbon, Portugal.
“They left their homes and left everything behind,” team captain Farkhunda Muhtaj says.
Other athletes burned their jerseys and removed photos from their social media accounts in fear of Taliban retaliation.
Some Taliban leaders hinted that women and girls might attend school in accordance with Islamic law. That means in separate classrooms or on separate campuses from boys. Others hinted at stricter measures.
Uncertainty . . . and Hope
Eighteen-year-old Salgy Baran wants to become a doctor. “I am concerned about my future,” Baran said from Kabul in August. “Will they allow me to get an education or not?”
Baran’s family moved to Kabul in 2015, where there are—or were—fewer social restrictions on women. Her family pooled their resources to support her studies.
This year’s university entrance exams—Afghanistan’s version of the SAT—took place before the takeover. Baran got the highest score out of about 174,000 boys and girls. Her score secured her a spot at Afghanistan’s top school of medicine.
Baran and her family are worried about what comes next. “I had goals under the past government,” she says. “But under this government . . . even tomorrow is uncertain.”
Some experts see hope in the next generation. According to Time magazine, 63% of Afghans are under age 25. They don’t remember much of life before 9/11. “This younger generation is saying, ‘I’m not going to go back.’ They’re very determined, a force to be reckoned with,” says Heather Barr at Human Rights Watch.
Marianne O’Grady worked in Kabul for Care International. She cannot see things going back to the way they were, even with a Taliban takeover.
“You can’t uneducate millions of people,” O’Grady says. If women “are back behind walls and not able to go out as much, at least they can now educate their cousins and their neighbors and their own children in ways that couldn’t happen 25 years ago.”
There is hope for Baran and for Afghan women and for the whole world. That hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ “proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” (Colossians 1:23) This gospel is powerful, and it is meant for “everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16): Jew, non-Jew, male, female, rich, poor, even the “ungrateful and evil.” (Luke 6:35) And it reaches every nation, tribe, and people—even the Taliban. This is real hope.
Why? To raise awareness of women’s rights violations under some Islamic codes such as those held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Pray: For the most vulnerable in Afghanistan: women, ethnic minorities, Afghans who helped the U.S. military, the Afghan church; for those seeking to proclaim the gospel; for sensitive hearts toward those less privileged.