On several occasions in August 2021, as the Taliban closed in on Kabul and America’s rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan was exposed as an unambiguous debacle, President Joe Biden reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to human rights.
“We’ll continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people—of women and girls—just as we speak out all over the world,” he said repeatedly. That is precisely and exclusively what the Biden administration has done: talk.
When the theocratic Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, they made some initial overtures to the civilized world. Among them, a pledge to observe the basic human rights of women and girls and to provide amnesty for anyone who worked for the pro-Western government they’d just overthrown. The violent reprisals against those who served the legitimate, elected Afghan government began almost immediately, but it took some time before the Taliban fully committed to the total repression of the country’s female population.
Immediately upon seizing power, girls’ schools were shuttered, and women were barred from most professional opportunities (though exceptions were made for places like hospitals, where all available hands were needed to help manage the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the Taliban’s return to power). But the new regime insisted that this was a temporary arrangement, at least for school-age girls. The Afghan education ministry repeatedly stated that all-girl high schools would reopen on March 23. But when the day arrived, the Taliban abruptly abandoned their pledge.
“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 ministry declared in a statement. You see, the regime had not yet decided on female school uniforms that comply with “Sharia law and Afghan tradition.” The teachers and students who had already eagerly assembled on their campuses to resume education were abruptly informed of the heartbreaking news that their schoolhouse doors would remain closed. Students were left broken and in tears, according to reporters on the ground. “We all became totally hopeless when the principal told us,” one unnamed student told Reuters, “She was also crying.”
True to its pledge, the Biden administration responded to this assault on the rights of Afghan women by unleashing a furious volley of words. The U.S. “rejects the Taliban’s excuses” for keeping girls’ schools closed, Sec. Anthony Blinken said in a statement. This decision, he continued, “will profoundly harm the Afghan people, the country’s prospects for economic growth, and the Taliban’s ambition to improve their relations with the international community.” Such a statement is predicated on the assumption that the Taliban are as interested in improving their global reputation as they are in imposing a repressive theocratic mandate on the people they hold captive. Every indication we have suggests they value the latter over the former.
The Biden White House’s expressions of indignation are unlikely to reassure advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan, most of whom were consumed with white-hot rage even before the Taliban’s latest assault on human dignity. “I’m angry at the whole world, especially Biden,” said Afghan journalist and women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj in January. She had predicted that women would be allowed access to employment opportunities and education out of a sense of self-preservation alone. Neither the global community nor the Afghan people, having experienced 20 years of democracy, would stand for such oppression. It is terribly regrettable that she may have been wrong.