Amid the Biden administration’s bloody, headlong rush to Afghanistan’s exit doors, the president gave Afghan women the courtesy of at least acknowledging the miserable fates to which he was consigning them. “We’ll continue to speak out for basic rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls,” Joe Biden said, “as we speak out for women and girls all around the globe.” It would be wildly insufficient if this White House responded to the inhumane circumstances they left behind in Afghanistan with talk alone. But Afghanistan’s women aren’t even getting that much.
On Saturday, Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a decree once again imposing the burqa on Afghan women who dare to venture out in public. The return of mandates around the “traditional and respectful” head-to-toe covering, which is necessary “in order to avoid provocation when meeting men who are not mahram (adult close male relatives),” represents a dramatic reversal of freedoms Afghan women had enjoyed for two decades. Indeed, given that the average age of Afghan women is just under 20-years-old, that liberty is all many Afghans have ever known. And given the Taliban’s short reign, from 1996 to 2001, most Afghan women’s living memories of compulsory head and face coverings are probably quite limited.
Although the burqa was not an uncommon sight in rural Afghanistan under its elected government, it wasn’t common in the nation’s cities. For now, reports suggest that most women in relatively urbane Kabul have disregarded the edict. But they fear the Taliban’s religious police will soon become more active enforcers of this rule and more enthusiastic punishers of rule breakers. Still others expect that this draconian restriction on how women can behave in public is only the beginning. As Akhundzada stressed in his decree, for women who have no important business outside the house, it’s “better they stay at home.”
This latest rollback of freedoms for Afghanistan’s women follows the Taliban’s effort to curtail the freedoms enjoyed by Afghanistan’s girls. On March 23, the Taliban announced that the long-anticipated reopening of Afghanistan’s schools for young girls would not move forward as planned. “We inform all girls’ high schools and those schools that (have) female students above class six that they are off until the next order,” the relevant Taliban-led ministry said in a statement announcing the indefinite closure of girls’ schools, which were set to begin educating young women again on that very day. The regime noted that it would take some time to figure out how educating young girls could comport with “Sharia law and Afghan tradition,” and they still haven’t made much progress in the intervening weeks.
In some parts of the country, girls’ secondary schooling facilities have remained open despite the Taliban’s decision to impose a de facto ban on educating women. Students at those schools face regular harassment from Taliban officials, and teachers are made to enforce strict dress codes that only allow for a student’s eyes to be seen. The Taliban’s sumptuary laws are so capricious that they are difficult to follow. “Our sleeves should be large to hide our elbows and the shape of our arms,” one student told Human Rights Watch researchers. “But then we were reprimanded because when we write on the board, our sleeves roll back, and our arms are revealed.”
In November 2021, each of the 24 women occupying a seat in the U.S. Senate sent a letter to the White House reminding Biden that he had “committed to press the Taliban to uphold the rights of women and girls,” and they expected to “enable those efforts through legislation and engagement with your Administration.” Since then, the Biden administration has shown little willingness to do more than issue perfunctory statements of opposition to the Taliban’s conduct, and the president himself has not spoken out as he said he would.
The Taliban assured the world that it would not engage in these kinds of assaults on the dignity and rights of women when it was still trying to persuade the international community against sanctioning its new regime, but these were lies. Like the regime’s pledge not to pursue violent reprisals against the Afghans who worked with Westerners or served the elected Afghan government, these promises were made to be broken. But the White House cannot dwell on the Taliban’s duplicity because its logic for withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan rested on the notion that the Taliban could be trusted.
“The Taliban has committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including Al Qaeda and ISIS-K,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told an incredulous group of lawmakers last September. That statement of faith in the Taliban’s willingness to maintain the West’s tempo of counterterrorism operations struck even Obama-era Defense officials as nonsensical, but what else could Blinken say? That NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan not only made the world less safe but that it paved the way for the abuses we’re now forced to witness?
It was a lamentable but foreseeable outgrowth of the Biden administration’s willingness to sacrifice the Afghans to the Taliban that it would not be able to make good on its commitment to even speaking out forcefully against the regime’s inhumane conduct. To do so would be to hang a lantern on the Biden administration’s complicity in those abuses, even if only because this White House presided over the regime’s restoration. The administration’s approach to the torment of Afghanistan’s women and girls has been to treat it like a political problem to be managed, not an attack on basic human dignity to be condemned loudly, forcefully, and often.
“I’ve been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy,” Biden said in the breath that immediately followed his promise to speak out on behalf of Afghanistan’s women. The Taliban, it seems, aren’t the only ones who have been been lying to you.