ALMOST two years after they seized control of Kabul, the Afghan Taliban are still engrossed in suffocating Afghan women. Education for girls in secondary school and women in university was banned a while ago. Then a ban was imposed on women working in NGOs, adding to the restrictions on women working for the government.
This plethora of curbs eliminating and erasing women from the public sphere was not enough for the Taliban. Recently, women working in beauty parlours came to work to find out that the faces of women on signs advertising their parlours had been erased.
They soon learned that this was the work of the Taliban who have now imposed a ban on beauty parlours as well. According to them, these all-women establishments were offering services “forbidden in Islam” making a blanket ban necessary.
The offensive and un-Islamic practices, which they identified, included the shaping of eyebrows, the use of other people’s hair to augment a woman’s natural hair and the application of make-up.
This latest ban is expected to have a huge economic impact on Afghan women who inhabit a country where already 85 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. “The beauty salon was our only income, and now I don’t know what to do. How should we pay for our expenses?” one Kabul salon owner told AP. Her husband, an ex-policeman, was already out of a job.
It is expected that the ban will affect at least 60,000 women, if not more, impacting a number of livelihoods. Beauty parlours owned and run by women are at the centre of the women’s economy, and this new directive will force them underground, with innocent women who cut hair or apply make-up subject to jail time. “We have no hope in this country,” said one salon owner whose business has been affected. “Women have no place here.”
A new generation of Afghan women living under Taliban oppression is starved of hope for a better future or even just a mood-lifting haircut.
Since the day the Afghan Taliban seized power in 2021, they have sought to eliminate and erase women. As ban after ban has been imposed, women have slowly and systematically been pushed out of the public sphere.
In the case of the beauty parlour ban, women offering and availing their services are not even in the public sphere. Men are not permitted into these parlours which are a haven for women who have few other means of interacting with other women. Now this last door has also been shut.
It is unsurprising that the Taliban’s policies are having an impact on the mental health of Afghan women. If 20 years of war were not enough to scar them, the throttling of their existence under the Taliban has left them bereft.
The Washington Post has reported that cases of Afghan women suffering from mental health issues have seen an increase as a barrage of bans has descended on Afghan women. Mental health practitioners have encouraged women to pursue the few activities that are not yet banned but are running out of suggestions as the circle of bans grows bigger and bigger.
One woman told the Post that she worries when her friends tell her that they are ‘feeling better’. She knows that this doesn’t mean that they are better but more likely that they have just given up and are resigned to their fate. Other reports, including by the UN, are confirmation of this and the fact that rates of depression among teenage girls are increasing.
Around 80pc of suicide attempts in Afghanistan are carried out by women. These reports have noted that Afghan women suffer from a very high level of psychological distress.
The beauty parlour ban also makes little sense from an economic perspective. It is true that the US withdrawal triggered the collapse of an aid-based economy in the country. The haphazard US withdrawal was followed by most NGOs in the country either greatly reducing their services or closing shop altogether.
But even with the growing number ofcurbs on women, the Taliban say that Afghanistan wants to work with the international community and that assistance to the country should not be limited to humanitarian help but also extend to trade. In sum, the Afghan Taliban seem oblivious to the fact that the international community may (rightfully) have issues working with such an utterly misogynistic regime.
Afghan women represent a category that has been used and abused by nearly everyone. The United States used the pretext of ‘liberating’ Afghan women as a means of justifying their invasion of Afghanistan. This may have situated Afghan women as somehow ‘complicit’ in the invasion of their country.
When the US decided to leave after two decades, they did nothing to safeguard the rights of Afghan women leaving them to be devoured by the very same Taliban that the US had promised to eliminate. Because the US used women’s rights as a cover for their cruelties in Afghanistan, subjecting women to ever increasing and hellish proclamations feels like victory to the Taliban. The bans, therefore, keep coming.
There is little anyone can do for Afghan women. The boycott of the Afghan Taliban regime by the international community means that they have little leverage to coax the Taliban into taking back these bans. Consequently, the bans keep coming and the self-perpetuating cycle of Taliban misogyny and the international community’s condemnation endures.
In the meantime, a new generation of Afghan women, who have spent their entire lives under US occupation and are now living under Taliban oppression, is starved of hope for a better future or even just a mood-lifting haircut. Isolated and silenced, Afghan women are left to endure the cost of the Taliban’s obscurantist and misogynistic vision of a war-torn and forgotten country.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2023