Reclaiming Women's Rights in Afghanistan: Between Realpolitik and Humanitarian Concern


Afghanistan has become a staging area for regional and worldwide proxy conflicts with a long history of gender inequality with young girls and women facing significant difficulties and barriers to education, employment, healthcare and participation in politics. 

The Taliban ruling the roost in Kabul today are basically the offshoot of the mujahideen who were supported by the US, Pakistan and other Muslim majority countries against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.1 Before the current turbulent situation, women in Afghanistan enjoyed periods of relative stability where they were not bound to stay inside, participated in elections, offices, and were part of ministries. However, the following Taliban control, the situation has deteriorated putting women’s rights at tremendous risk, relegating women to the periphery of society.

Ever since the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban on 15 August 2021, stringent restrictions have been placed on the scope of movement of women, including ban on secondary and university education, prohibition against visiting public places, the injunction that they need to be accompanied by a male relative if not travelling within a radius of 72 km, ban on their working in non-governmental organizations, and replacement of Ministry of Women’s affairs with the Ministry of Propagation of virtue and Prevention of vice. If an individual violates the established norms, she/her is given strict punishment and often beaten for their non-compliance with the principles of Sharia Law.

The Afghan women's movement being inherently interwoven with country’s politics, simply cannot be separated from it. The Taliban's harsh attack on women's rights has drawn widespread condemnation from the international community. Despite months of negotiations between the United Nations (UN) and the Taliban, the Taliban maintained their hardline position in early April 2023, prohibiting Afghan women from working for the UN missions and agencies within the country. The decision of the Taliban forbidding women from attending universities and keeping Afghan women from working for the UN and in non-governmental organizations has drawn widespread criticism at the international level. Beyond censure, the restriction on women working in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has caused international donors to suspend, reduce, or halt humanitarian assistance owing to the adverse impact it might have on women's rights, their own female employees, and aid delivery.

The Taliban took insights from their previous regime and came up with a modernized medium of communication on social media, namely, twitter (now X) which is novel, but they have not altered their thinking too much on women rights. When they were required to appear presentable to the international community during the Doha talks, their discourse on women's rights seemed to change as they promised to allow girls to study and women to work, but with a vague disclaimer‚Äē¬†along the lines "as permitted by Islam."2¬†According to Human Rights Watch, even when Taliban officials speak more gently about women's rights in interviews, a significant gap is evident between what is said and what happens on ground, where their subordinates frequently imposed harsh laws that contradicted their leaders' claims. When the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, everybody saw how far the Taliban went on their beliefs on what Islam authorised them to do. They prohibited practically all women's and girls' education, imposed punishments like as stoning, whipping, and amputation, and confined women to their houses unless accompanied by a male family member, limiting them access to most of the jobs.3

The Taliban base their activities on religious and cultural norms they hold sacrosanct as per their understanding of Islam. Perhaps female subordination is so ingrained in their version of Islamic rule that it is still regarded as unavoidable or natural. In reality it might look as a politically manufactured reality upheld by patriarchal interests, tribal social norms, Islamist ideology, and institutions.4

Now, while working for women‚Äôs rights is a crucial aspect of external agencies hoping to bring about positive change in Afghanistan, they should be practical and pragmatic in applying their principles rather than seeking to bring about a wholesale moral or ideological transformation if they intend to achieve their goals of working for the greater good of Afghanistan and International community. That is where realpolitik kicks in. For instance, during ‚ÄėThe Doha Agreement‚Äô, the US officials feared that any deal with the Taliban would have a pernicious effect on the Afghan government and its military by strengthening the Taliban. However, as the negotiations progressed, despite the concerns, there was a realisation that in pursuit of a wider political settlement, significant compromises involving women's rights might be made. Wider concerns about unceasing violence and the necessity to stop such violence as soon as possible for everyone to be safe, seem to have impacted ¬†the thought process in the American camp which could explain their readiness to make concessions on matters concerning the position and liberties of Afghan women.

There were critics who claimed that the Doha peace talks lacked robust and unambiguous protection measures for women's rights. The Taliban explicitly lacked commitments to safeguard women's rights; there was possible lack of solid enforcement mechanisms; there were genuine concerns about the prospect of a reversal of advances made since the end of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Realpolitik also brought about a change in the outlook of the European Union (EU) towards the Taliban in the aftermath of their return to power in mid-August 2021. While the EU has refused to recognise the new Taliban administration, it recognises the need to cooperate with it and has established a small presence on the ground in Kabul. Operating under these constraints, the EU has discontinued regular development assistance but continues to provide humanitarian assistance, livelihood and basic needs assistance, with women and girls as primary recipients. Even though UN bodies like United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), UN Security Council (UNSC), Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) are working with their entire potential for the betterment of Afghan women, yet pragmatic exceptions are often being made to ensure peace and .

In the ongoing reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, women's rights must be emphasized by advocating for their freedom and basic amenities in the international arena especially for women who are widowed, disabled or left unheard. Meanwhile, local communities and NGOs can work in a discreet manner at grassroot level as they are closest to the receiving community and can initiate help. While the progress made over the last two decades seems to have been reversed, there is an urgent need to focus on generating renewed progress.

Poorva Vyas is a first year BA LLB student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. Determined to make a positive impact, Poorva is currently interning with Assistance and Promotion of Afghan Women, an international NGO promoting women’s rights.


  1. Jon Armajani. ‚ÄúThe Taliban.‚ÄĚ Handbook of Islamic Sects and Movements, edited by Muhammad Afzal Upal and Carole M. Cusack, Brill, 2021, pp. 348‚Äď78. JSTOR, (Last accessed 21 December 2023)
  2. H. Barr, (2021, August 17). The Fragility of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch. (Last accessed 21 December 2023)
  3. Supra note 2
  4. McCabe, Eve. ‚ÄúThe Inadequacy of international human rights law to Protect the rights of women as illustrated by the crisis in Afghanistan.‚ÄĚ UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2000, pp. 419‚Äď60. JSTOR, (Last accessed 21 December 2023).