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  • Human Rights Research Center

“Women must be completely segregated from men”: The First Era of Taliban Rule in Afghanistan

May 2, 2024

Note: This is the third article in a series that will cover girls’ education and gender apartheid in Afghanistan. You can read the first and second articles here.

The Taliban started gaining influence and power over Afghanistan in 1994. Afghanistan was still reeling from a civil war that raged from 1978 to 1992. At the same time, women in Afghanistan were enjoying freedom and success. Women had the right to vote, more than 15% of Afghanistan’s legislative House of Elders were women, and in Kabul, the capital city, approximately half of university students were women, 40% of doctors were women, and 50% of government workers were women. Almost overnight, women's and girls’ dreams, hopes, lives, and freedom of movement were demolished by the Taliban. The first occupation commenced in 1996 once the Taliban officially captured Kabul and murdered President Mohammed Najibullah. This period from 1996 to 2001 is widely regarded as a time full of human rights violations, especially targeted toward women and girls. A simple story demonstrates this: A mother had a feverish baby at home who needed to see a doctor. The Taliban forbade women from leaving their houses alone, but she had no male relatives to escort her. She knew what was at risk if she took her infant to the doctor: a public whipping inflicted on her that could very well end her life. Compelled by her love for her child, she went outside dressed in a burqa and was shot over and over again by a young Taliban guard. She and her baby survived because of the kindness and bravery of onlookers, but this should have never happened. I wish these stories were fiction and that there weren’t countless others like this, but this was life under the Taliban.

Maulvi Qalamuddin, former leader of the Taliban’s religious police force spoke about gender segregation and Sharia law in 1997, declaring:

“Women must be completely segregated from men. And within us we have those men who cannot behave properly with women. We lost two million people in the war against the Soviets because we had no Sharia law. We fought for Sharia and now this is the organization that will implement it. I will implement it come what may.”

Education for both boys and girls had significantly worsened by 1997, during the first era of Taliban control. When women were barred from working, education was disrupted because the majority of teachers, about 70%, were female. Taliban leadership like Qalamuddin believed men would not behave appropriately if they were in contact with women, claiming “recruits would be weakened and subverted by the possibility of sexual opportunities and thus not fight with the same zeal”, hence “the oppression of women became a benchmark for the Taliban’s Islamic radicalism, their aim to ‘cleanse’ society and to keep the morale of their troops high”. This allows the Taliban to pretend it is protecting women when in reality they are shackling women to their homes and trying to render them invisible.

Quality of life for Afghans, in general, was dismal under the first Taliban occupation. The infant mortality rate was the highest in the world at the time, with 163 deaths for every 1,000 births. An astounding 25% of all children died before they turned 5 years old. Add to this the severe gender apartheid women and girls were subjected to and their exclusion from the public and education, Afghan citizens felt hopeless and terrified. Unsurprisingly, then, many Afghans became refugees and fled their country to try and provide a better life for their children.

But what happened to the people who stayed? Afghans who grew up under Taliban rule have higher rates of child marriage and poverty and lower rates of girls’ education due to their having to drop out of school. A 2016 study examined Afghan children ages 12-15 and their parents' views on education and gender. Researchers found significant gaps between the perception of education benefitting boys versus girls. 53.08% of respondents said that education increases boys’ self-sufficiency, while only 34.07% said the same for girls. More than 90% of parents expressed a desire for their children to make it through at least secondary school, with a “slight preference for school completion given to boys over girls”. Young boys were found to be more aware of the negative effects of child marriage on girls’ outcomes than young girls, with 31.52% versus 21.11%. This shows the disadvantage girls face in Afghanistan that is influenced by society and patriarchal cultural norms that favor boys.

As discussed in the previous article, the Taliban’s understanding and implementation of Islam and Islamic law is informed by Deobandi, a patriarchal rendering of women as invisible ghosts trapped in their homes. It is essential to note that Islam as a religion values and protects women and girls. It does not degrade, isolate, and strip women of their rights as the Taliban does. The Taliban’s war on women further paints harmful, untrue stereotypes of Arabs as bad people and Islam as inegalitarian and problematic. In the next several articles of this series, we will explore the improvements that came with the fall of the Taliban in 2001, aided by the West, and how progress plummeted when the Taliban rose to power again, exactly 20 years later.



  • Burqa- an outer garment that entirely covers a woman’s body and face, these were required for women to wear every time they left their homes under the first Taliban occupation.

  • Deobandi- a strongly patriarchal, extremist movement within Sunni Islam that strips women and girls of their rights and freedoms.

  • Gender Apartheid- the segregation of the genders, male and female, instituted in public life through laws. 

  • Human Rights- the rights every human being is entitled to, as listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • The Taliban- a fundamentalist militia organization that rules Afghanistan, enforcing extremist policies that relegate women and girls to the home.


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