For Women Under the Taliban, ‘Gender Apartheid’ Is Their New Life

Afghan feminists began using the term shortly after the takeover. Now, it's spreading globally

For Women Under the Taliban, ‘Gender Apartheid’ Is Their New Life
Women hold placards during a protest in Kabul on Nov. 24, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)

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Across the world, journalists and human rights advocates, many of whom are Afghan, regularly note how many days have passed since the Taliban banned teenage girls from going to school. Today is day 623.

The ban on education is part of an ever-expanding list of restrictions placed on Afghan women since the Taliban seized power almost two years ago, ending America’s longest war.

The Taliban’s oppression of half of the country is not new: Improving the lives of Afghan women and girls was at the heart of the U.S.-led military campaign, and Washington often cited the group’s previous, notoriously brutal rule of the 1990s as something America would make sure would not happen again. And while the United States and its NATO partners disastrously failed on that as well as other fronts in the 20-year war, there is a new dynamic emerging amid the world’s furore this time round, taking the form of a clarion call: Treat the Taliban’s systemic attacks on women as another famous struggle against inequality — that of apartheid.

After members of the Taliban triumphantly walked into Kabul, Afghan women saw many of their hard-won gains evaporate literally overnight. It is increasingly hard to keep track of the crackdowns, many as they are, which include limits on women working and traveling abroad, access to contraceptives, going outside without their entire bodies covered and entering public parks as well as even previously all-female spaces in gyms and bathhouses. Most recently, Taliban edicts have banned women from being employed by aid agencies, leading major organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council to pull out of the country; many other charities are debating whether they can continue their work in Afghanistan. The stranglehold on Afghan women seeks to “extinguish our basic humanity,” Afghan activist Zubaida Akbar told a recent United Nations Security Council meeting. The number of incidents of gender-based violence, including forced and child marriage, is surging, as well as suicides by young women.

The erasure of Afghan women from public life captured the ire and imagination of Hollywood star Jennifer Lawrence, who has produced a documentary with Afghan filmmaker Sahra Mani. Their film, “Bread and Roses,” premiered in Cannes last month and follows the day-to-day lives of three women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It was shot clandestinely, including some footage by the women themselves as they enter safehouses with their friends and relatives. The film was “born out of emotion and necessity,” Lawrence told the BBC. The documentary is one of several focusing on the plight of Afghan women since the fall of Kabul, including the BBC animation “Inside Kabul” and Netflix’s “In Her Hands.”

Afghan feminists started using the term “gender apartheid” shortly after the Taliban takeover; on International Women’s Day in March of this year, a group of prominent Afghan and Iranian women launched a campaign, asking for it to enter international law as a specific crime. The joint move followed protests by women from both countries, who took to their streets to demonstrate against their patriarchal oppressors. Signatories in an open letter included female members of the former Afghan Parliament and the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.

“This treatment has a name: gender apartheid. This war on women must end now,” they wrote.

Since then, a slew of U.N. officials, including its chief, Antonio Guterres, have applied the term “gender apartheid” to Taliban rule.

And it’s spreading.

In February, the European Union’s foreign affairs and security senior official, Josep Borrell Fontelles, used the phrase when talking about Afghanistan. In April, former Swedish Foreign Minister Margaret Wallstrom tweeted that Afghan women are “living in what must be called gender apartheid.” Last month, David Alton in the British House of Lords called for the U.N. to make gender apartheid a war crime, saying, “As a schoolboy I joined the anti-apartheid movement. … But there’s a new kind of apartheid today … and it’s directed at women, purely because they are women.”

Naming the Taliban’s behavior perhaps won’t make them change. But in some way, using the term is meant to signal that these acts are a collective policy, directed against only one gender. In other words: They are a political decision. “It is not a magic bullet, but I fully believe it is one of the most promising approaches in view of the disastrous situation in Afghanistan,” Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law and human rights at Michigan Law School, told New Lines.

For most of the globe, the word apartheid evokes South Africa, charismatic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and an international campaign against that country’s brutal, institutionalized racial segregation. Its etymology is distinctly white South African: In the Afrikaans language it means “aparthood” or “apart-ness.” The policy separated the majority Black population from the whites in South Africa and what is now Namibia, and included the prohibition of mixed marriages and the restriction of movement based on ethnicity and skin color. In place for almost 50 years (it was practiced across parts of the country before becoming official policy), apartheid is a crime against humanity and punishable by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

And while there have been allegations of apartheid by rights groups and minority groups in at least a dozen countries, from Israel in the Palestinian occupied territories to the Saudis’ treatment of non-Muslims to the Myanmar authorities’ discrimination against the ethnic Rohingya, the crime of apartheid has never been prosecuted in a court and therefore has not resulted in a single conviction, even in South Africa.

The ICC’s official definition of apartheid, which was included in the 2002 Rome Statute, states that the term means the “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.” Interestingly, the term first surfaced in U.N. parlance in reference to Afghanistan during the Taliban’s first rule in the 1990s, according to Bennoune. She traces it to 1999, when Tunisian U.N. official Abdelfattah Amor used the term “religious apartheid” to describe the treatment of Afghan women under the Taliban.

In South Africa, apartheid finally came to an end in 1994, after a decades-long global campaign of sporting boycotts and economic sanctions, when Mandela, four years out of prison, was elected president of South Africa in a fair election — the country’s first to allow voting by nonwhite citizens — that stunned the world.

Mandela’s widow Graca Machel has even made the link with Afghanistan, telling the British newspaper The Telegraph in an interview last month, “More than the definition, it is for me to say the same vigor and the same persistence which was applied to fight apartheid should be applied in the case of Afghanistan.”

She stopped short of describing specific measures the international community could introduce to combat gender apartheid but said that the Taliban, as the white South African government before it, should be “squeezed” to the point that it must be ready to accept that it must change.

The issue gets to the crux of the question of how to engage with Afghanistan’s new rulers: Should the world work with them or further isolate the regime? So far, there are few answers. Denying aid to one of the world’s poorest countries would make the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan considerably worse, bringing it even closer to famine and creating more internally displaced people and refugees. It would also lead to doubly punishing Afghan women and children, who have played no part in creating the current state of affairs. And while the international community has moved towards normalizing the term gender apartheid, calls for action tend to fall on the ears of the deaf and the jaded. Few in the West have the appetite to challenge the Taliban in any real way, wary after an ignoble, protracted war.

“Slavery and apartheid,” Mandela famously said in London’s Trafalgar Square, just over a decade after his release, “are man-made.”

How right he was.

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