19 Aug 2021

The Taliban say they will preserve women's rights under sharia law. But what does that mean?

10:06 pm on 19 August 2021

In their first press conference since seizing control of the Afghan capital, the Taliban have assured women their rights would be respected "within the limits of Islam".

A Taliban fighter stands guard on a street in Herat on August 14, 2021.

A Taliban fighter stands guard on a street in Herat on August 14, 2021. Photo: AFP

They said women will have a right to education and work, but exactly what life will look like under a new Taliban government is unclear.

Many Afghan women are terrified of a return of the repressive laws that were imposed under the last Taliban rule, and international organisations have expressed grave concerns.

"The Taliban have taken every single hope from the women of Afghanistan," said women's rights activist Hoda Raha, speaking from Kabul.

"We women of Afghanistan are very confused about what is happening here.

"How could the world trust the Taliban, who are completely knowable by their past."

The Taliban said such fears were "baseless", and that they were "committed to the rights of women under the laws of sharia.".

But such statements have only raised more questions, including just how much the Taliban have changed their stance on women's rights since they were ousted from power 20 years ago.

What is sharia law?

Sharia is believed to be divine laws or guidelines from God as revealed to the prophet Muhammad and recorded in the Koran as well as the Sunnah and Hadith, which are writings about the prophet's life.

Sharia is meant to serve as a guide in all aspects of Muslim life, but attempts have been made to incorporate sharia into state laws in many different ways, by various groups for more than a thousand years.

Today, no two Muslim-majority countries in the world have identical laws, yet most say their laws are based on the principles of the sharia.

Even within Afghanistan, both the Taliban and the government of former president Ashraf Ghani claimed to be Islamic systems, but the two are vastly different in practice.

The Taliban say a board of religious scholars will determine what laws they will enforce now that they are back in power.

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 18: Taliban patrol in Herat city after took control in Herat, Afghanistan, on August 18, 2021

Taliban patrol in Herat city after took control. Photo: AFP

"Some legislation made by man can be changed, but not the rules made by God," Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, told the ABC.

"No-one in the Islamic world, anyone calling himself Muslim, can change the Islamic rules," he said.

What rights did women have under the last Taliban rule?

When the Taliban took power in 1996, they enforced strict dress codes for both men and women and largely barred women from work and education.

"During the regime's brutal previous rule, girls were forbidden from classrooms and could only leave their homes with a male 'guardian'," Plan International Australia CEO Susanne Legena said.

"Girls as young as 12 were forced into marriages."

Women risked severe punishment if they showed their faces uncovered outside of the home. Cinema, television and non-religious music were banned.

But it is important to note that many of these restrictions were already widely practised as part of Afghan tradition, culture and beliefs, particularly in rural areas.

After the Taliban rule ended in 2001, women slowly gained some rights in Afghan society, at least in urban areas.

But it was still a far cry from the equality reached in countries like Australia.

Long before the Taliban retook their cities, women like Raha were still campaigning for the right to use their own names in public, rather than being defined by the name of their closet male relative.

In rural areas, many women still remained covered, uneducated and largely confined to the home.

With the Taliban in control, even the minimal rights gained by women in the past 20 years could be at risk.

"What we are witnessing unfold in Afghanistan in real time is devastating and heart-breaking," Legena said.

What will women's rights look like under the new Taliban rule?

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said women would be "very active in this society".

"Women are a key part of society and we are guaranteeing all their rights within the limits of Islam," he said during a press conference on Tuesday.

"They are going to be working with us, shoulder to shoulder with us.

"The international community, if they have concerns, we would like to assure them that there's not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have.

"Our women are Muslim. They will also be happy to be living within our frameworks of sharia."

Pushed further on the issue of women's rights and the exact make-up of those laws, Mujahid said that would become clearer once a government was formed.

Speaking to the ABC before the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, Shaheen said women in Taliban territory were already working in clinics and schools.

"There is a war situation ... in a normal situation [the role of women] will expand," he said.

In some Taliban-controlled areas, women have been allowed in schools and the workforce, but they followed strict dress codes and were often separated from males.

There have also been conflicting reports in other areas of girls being refused education, and women being ordered to leave their jobs.

Taliban officials have said such inconsistencies are due to security issues and varying levels of acceptance of girls' education within the communities themselves.

In the city of Herat, civilians reported that media, universities and entertainment programs had all closed since the Taliban took control last week, while state television was broadcasting information about new laws and dress codes.

But some female students said they were informed the university would reopen and they would be allowed to return, but with new restrictions.

What do Afghan women think?

A well-respected educator from the city of Herat, who did not want to be named, told the ABC this was "a challenging new chapter" and everyone was trying to adjust.

But she said while the Taliban have made many promises and have so far "shown they are different", people are still afraid because many remember what they were like before.

"I think that they are trying to change - is it good or not? I don't know," she said.

"Just time will tell what's going to happen in the future."

But she said this was not a time to give up, and women must remain united and keep fighting for their rights.

Young people who have grown up knowing only democracy and modernisation "deserve our full support more than ever", she added.

"Many more rules will come out after this, but as long as we have access to schools, we have access to justice, women have access to work and earn money, then we have time to get together and make sure that Afghanistan will be a better place for our generation and for future generations."

But Raha told the ABC she had no faith in the words of the Taliban, calling them "hypocrites and deceivers, especially about women".

"The tolerance that the Taliban are now having with the people is because they want to make the international community believe that they have changed," she said.

"In their beliefs, a man can do anything to her wife/sister/daughter to make her stay home.

"So the law the Taliban are preparing to implement is far more horrific than the world imagines.

"Women and girls will face countless acts of violence inside their homes. Their wills will be killed.

"They will be forced to completely erase the dream of a woman as a human being from their minds."

But Raha said, although the world had left them, the women of Afghanistan would stand up for their own "hopes, ideas and wants".

"We fought for our rights, lives and future, but everything is going backwards," Raha said.

"Of course we will fight and use our last power to go forward, to defend what we have [achieved]."


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs