Published:

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham & Rainham and a former Adviser to Benazir Bhutto. Dr Bashayer Al Majed is Professor of Law at Kuwait University, Visiting Fellow at Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies, and an adviser to the Kuwait Parliament.

As we approach International Women’s Day 2022, we must look at the challenges that women and girls are facing around the world, simply because of their gender. In this article, we want to look at the situation facing women and girls in Afghanistan six months on from the fall of Kabul after the Taliban took control of the capital by force.

Whilst the world focusses on the grave situation in Ukraine, and we must do all we can to protect an international rules-based order and democracy, some authoritarian states around the world are using the situation as a pretext to further suppress human rights in their countries.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021, they made a statement that they would operate “within the framework of Islam”. Six months later, the international community, and organisations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and key stakeholders, need to now judge the Taliban on their actions and not their words. This article explores the rights of women and girls in Islam, and their role from the very outset of when the religion was formed in the 7th Century, in line with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

As the international community has not recognised the Taliban as a legitimate government and has the finance to hold the Taliban to their word, these two levers should be used to help safeguard the rights of women, girls and religious minorities in Afghanistan.

In the last six months women and girls in Afghanistan have not had access to a full and inclusive education. In September 2021 Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Higher Education Minister, indicated that women would be allowed to study in Afghanistan, but not alongside men, stating:

“Coeducation is in conflict with the principles of Islam and, on the other hand, it is in conflict with national values and is against the customs and traditions of Afghans.” 

Afghanistan’s previous government under President Ashraf Ghani had its flaws, however, progress was made with regards to women in society. Rula Ghani, the former First Lady of Afghanistan, was an active voice for women’s rights. She was revered in Afghanistan for undertaking humanitarian work to aid and empower children, refugees and women, showing the world the capability, independence and strength of Afghani women. She pressed for women’s rights and participation in the peace and leadership of the country.

In 1999, no girls were officially attending secondary school, and only 9,000 attended primary school. By August 2021, the figure had risen to 3.5 million girls in school, with women making up a third of all university students (public and private). In 2019, more than 1,000 Afghan women had started their own businesses; however, this progress is now under threat by the Taliban’s regime.

With regards to Islam itself, firstly, the Prophet said: “I advise you to treat women kindly.” There are several hadith where it is announced that forced marriages are not permitted in Islam, likewise if a woman marries and is unhappy the marriage can be ended.

In 12th-century Uzbekistan, Fatima al-Samarqandi was a respected scholar and jurist. She educated men and women and served as advisor for the Syrian leader Nur-al-din-Zangi. Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988-90 and 1993-96, and the first female leader of a Muslim state in modern times. Significantly, Bhutto led the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, demonstrating that that there is no limit to what female Muslims can achieve.

Many more female Muslim national leaders followed in Bhutto’s ground-breaking steps. For example, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia (2001-2004), who stabilised her country’s democratization process and eased the relationship between the legislative, executive, and military arms of the nation.

Dr Hawa Abdi of Somalia, a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, obtained a scholarship in Kiev, studied medicine, then returned to Somalia to be the nation’s first female gynaecologist. She continued to study law, and gained a professorship of medicine, opening a clinic and setting up a foundation to offer free healthcare, shelter and education to families displaced by the war.

Sammera Moussa received a PhD from Cairo University in atomic physics, the first woman to do so. She was the first non-US citizen to be invited to tour the American atomic energy facilities, whilst on scholarship there. She established the International Atomic Energy for Peace Conference to work towards developing safe methods to deliver cost-effective nuclear-based medical treatments.

Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel opened the door for Muslim athletes in the Olympics in 1984, being the first to win a gold medal in the 400m hurdles and the first Muslim woman to join the International Olympic Committee in 1998. She later held office as Morocco’s Minister of Sports. We now have Muslim women competing in many sports including Taekwondo, karate, show jumping, 100m, and swimming, some with hijab, some without, depending on their own preference.

In August 2021, 175 female Westminster MPs pledged support for the 69 female Afghan MPs in a statement written by Harriet Harman MP, recognising their talent in Parliament and their role in inspiring other Muslim women.

Additionally, further to a debate in Parliament, 70 MPs signed a statement of support to religious minority faith and belief communities across Afghanistan, written by Rehman Chishti MP. This shows that the issue of human rights and women’s empowerment is of crucial interest to UK parliamentarians.

Six months on from the fall of Kabul, we must now judge the Taliban on their treatment of women and girls in all sectors of society. The international community has the financial leverage to ensure that the Taliban are held to their word on female rights in Afghanistan, in line with Islam, and the role that Muslim women have played around the world, including leading majority-Muslim states.

This lever must be used to help facilitate concrete change on the ground in Afghanistan to ensure that the rights of women and girls are upheld, along with the other lever: state recognition.