Women wait in line to vote at a polling center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Oct. 27, 2018. As global attention remains fixed on Gaza and Ukraine, it is crucial to recognize a severe and ongoing violation of human rights elsewhere. The Taliban have been perpetuating a disturbing, gender-based form of apartheid in Afghanistan.

Women wait in line to vote at a polling center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Oct. 27, 2018. As global attention remains fixed on Gaza and Ukraine, it is crucial to recognize a severe and ongoing violation of human rights elsewhere. The Taliban have been perpetuating a disturbing, gender-based form of apartheid in Afghanistan. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)

During a speech after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, Kofi Annan, then the special representative of the United Nations’ secretary-general, said: “Today, in Afghanistan, a girl will be born. ... But to be born a girl in today’s Afghanistan is to begin life centuries away from the prosperity that one small part of humanity has achieved. It is to live under conditions that many of us in this hall would consider inhuman.”

That was more than two decades ago, but sadly, the same holds true today for girls and women in Afghanistan.

As global attention remains fixed on Gaza and Ukraine, it is crucial to recognize a severe and ongoing violation of human rights elsewhere. The Taliban have been perpetuating a disturbing, gender-based form of apartheid in Afghanistan.

Since seizing control in August 2021, the Taliban have been suppressing the rights of women. They closed schools for girls after the sixth grade, prohibited women from participating in events in public spaces, and restricted their ability to work alongside men in office settings.

As if the restrictions weren’t enough to satiate the Taliban’s anti-female sentiment, an additional significant punishment has been imposed. Under the pretext of women’s “protection,” the new decree calls for the closure of shelters for abused women and instead sends them to jail.

CBS reported that the Taliban are imprisoning women for their own “protection from gender-based violence.”

But Sahar Wahedi, a tech startup CEO and women’s rights activist, told CBS News that the report “reveals a stark absence of a clear and coherent framework for justice in Afghanistan, significantly hindering the process of reporting and addressing gender-based violence. This ambiguity, particularly with the Taliban’s vague reference to ‘Shariah law,’ places an immense burden on women.”

The Lancet reported “estimates from the United Nations Population Fund suggest that 87% of women in Afghanistan experience at least one form of gender-based violence … and 62% are subjected to multiple forms of violence.”

Researcher Asia Abbasi wrote for Human Rights Watch that “there is no country in the world where the basic human rights of women and girls are more restricted than in Afghanistan … and no government anywhere has expressed support for the Taliban’s policies there.”

In an essay for LSE Public Policy, Narges Nehan writes that “The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan stretches back to the nineteenth century.”

Former Member of Parliament Shukria Barakzai, who currently resides in exile, like other members of the former Afghan government that fled the country shortly after the Taliban takeover, told me that the Taliban are driven by a radical religious ideology. She emphasized the need for the United States and the rest of the free world to establish a non-governmental commission to formally denounce the Taliban regime as anti-woman.

There exists a misconception among those not fully familiar with Afghan culture, perpetuated by the Taliban and their supporters, that Afghanistan is a tribal society where Afghans are resistant to sending female members of their families to school. This is not accurate. I was born there; women in the past held an esteemed status in traditional Aghan society.

Allow me to share an Afghan proverb that reflects the stature women held in Afghan society. The saying goes, “My mall (material) position is to be sacrificed if my head is in danger, and I am willing to sacrifice my head to protect my namoos (my wife and the female members of my family).” The proverb suggests that Afghans had a firm line between the religion and traditions. But not anymore.

During a decade of Soviet invasion in the 1980s, thousands of jihadis, especially from the Arabian Peninsula, poured into Afghanistan to fight alongside the Afghan mujahideen (once called freedom fighters) to combat non-Muslim invading forces. But after the Soviets left, Afghan institutions and social structures fractured. A new order replaced the old Afghan traditional one, replacing it with a more fundamental version of Islam. One could describe it as “Islamization.”

The Islamization of society cast a profound influence into all aspects of life, and the most obvious victims were women and their loss of human rights.

But the trend reversed in 2001 when the U.S. freed Afghanistan from the yoke of the Taliban, and for two decades of American presence in Afghanistan, there was considerable progress for women in terms of education and political participation.

Unfortunately, advancements in women’s rights primarily materialized only in the capital Kabul and a few other cities. The rural areas saw minimal impact from the positive changes. The disparity between urban growth and rural neglect provided fertile ground for the recruitment of extremists, including the Taliban, al-Qaida and other Muslim extremist groups.

Now the Taliban are in full control of the country and want to impose their strict rules of Islam on all citizens. This is what they were taught in religious madrassas in Pakistan. Since coming to power, they have focused all their attention on full Islamization of society, women’s rights among them. When women raise their voices for their rights, they face potential peril.

The BBC reported that women were beaten for demanding their rights after taking to the streets with banners reading “Bread, Work, Justice.” This is a stark departure from Afghan tradition; a man raising a hand against a woman was formerly viewed as an act of cowardice.

I am in solidarity with what the women are protesting and the human rights activists who signed a letter on Oct. 5 from the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project, together with the Global Justice Center. The joint letter and legal brief urges the international community to codify the crime of gender apartheid in the United Nations’ Crimes Against Humanity Treaty. The letter and legal brief were endorsed by dozens of prominent jurists, scholars and civil society representatives.

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls cannot go to school beyond the sixth grade, women are barred from working and even going to hairdresser salons. In fact, they are imprisoned in their homes.

I urge the global community to unite in support of Afghan women on moral grounds and declare the Taliban regime an apartheid system. Just as the sanctions imposed on Nov. 6, 1962, when the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 1761, condemning South African apartheid policies, it is imperative that we take a stand against the Taliban’s discriminatory rule. Failing to do so implicates us in aligning with a gender-biased regime that has unjustly declared war against half of its own citizens.

As the Nobel Laureate Malala Yosufzai said, the world needs to recognize and confront the “gender apartheid” against women and girls imposed by the Taliban.

If Kofi Annan were still U.N. secretary-general, I am sure he would have done everything in his power to rescue Afghan women from their horrific situation.

Despite living in terror, Afghan women have not surrendered. Many take the forefront of resistance to the Taliban. As an example, I conclude by pointing out an Afghan folk-hero named Malala. She fought alongside Ayub Khan and was responsible for the Afghan victory at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. She is also known as “The Afghan Jeanne d’Arc.”

When the Afghans began to fall back, Malala grabbed a flag (some say she used her veil) and shouted: “With a drop of my sweetheart’s blood, shed in defense of the Motherland, will I put a beauty spot on my forehead, such as would put to shame the rose in the garden!”

Malala was herself struck down and killed by a British soldier.

Wahab Raofi is a graduate of Kabul Law School and worked at various levels for the Ministry of Justice in his native Afghanistan. He immigrated to the United States and has a home in Orange County, Calif., and for more than a decade he worked with the NATO/International Security Assistance Force as an interpreter in Afghanistan. His articles have been published in major U.S. newspapers and media outlets worldwide, including The Washington Post, San Diego Union-Tribute, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Examiner, Stars and Stripes, Global Post and the Orange County Register.

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