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Afghan activists document forced marriages as Taliban chief says women have better rights under them

The Taliban’s supreme leader has claimed in a rare audio message that his ultra hardline regime, which has kept girls and women out of schools and workplaces, has ensured their rights better than any previous government.

Hibatullah Akhundzada, the leader of the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan since 2021, said his regime does not marry off women and widows by force – a claim countered by women activists witnessing the crimes on the ground in Afghanistan.

“We have issued a six-principle decree regarding women’s rights. The previous governments have not provided the rights of women. We said don’t marry women by force, don’t violate mahr [amount paid by groom to the bride at the time of marriage as a traditional gift], don’t force women for nikah, don’t marry a widow by force. We give women the heritage,” Mr Akhundzada said, according to Tolo news on Thursday.

He claimed that so far, the Taliban have not implemented the Islamic punishment method of Hudud, which includes amputation, flogging, stoning and death against crimes deemed extreme. These punishments were predominant in the Taliban’s previous regime in the 1990s.

“Tomorrow, we will implement hudud and the women will be stoned in public. Tomorrow, we will implement hudud and will lash [people] in public. All of these are in contrast with democracy. For each, you will need to fight and struggle,” he said in the audio message announced in Kandahar.

Mr Akhundzada claimed that previous governments in Afghanistan did not pay attention to the rights of women.

But the nonprofit Human Rights Watch said the reality was far from what Mr Akhundzada claimed. There was a spike in forced marriages after the group stormed to power in August 2021.

“As always, we should look to the Taliban’s actions, not their words – especially because we have seen them tell outrageous lies about their approach to women’s rights, again and again. What we know from their conduct on the ground is that there are credible reports of serious increases in child and forced marriage since the Taliban took over,” said Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights division at the Human Rights Watch.

“We also know that widows – and women in general – have almost no access to justice, so any rights they might have on paper are virtually meaningless,” she told The Independent.

The Taliban, she added, seem to see women and girls as “the property of their male relatives, and they will not tolerate any system that stops men from being able to do whatever they like with the women and girls they ‘own’”.

Ms Barr pointed out that these claims are hardly a surprise “when one of the first things the Taliban did after taking power was to systematically dismantle the entire system that had been put in pace to protect women from gender-based violence, from shelters to legal and social services to specialised courts and prosecution units, and indeed the 2009 Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women”.

Sharing the photos of a 15-year-old’s marriage with an elderly man, Afghan women’s rights activist Maryam Marof Arwin said that the Taliban’s blatant edicts issued from the mouth of Mr Akhundzada “disregard exactly these rights and lead to thousands of crimes against women”.

A minor girl married off to an elderly man in Afghanistan (Sourced/ The Independent)
A minor girl married off to an elderly man in Afghanistan (Sourced/ The Independent)

She confirmed that nothing has progressed for women under the Taliban rule and added that they were prohibited from travelling without a male guardian. Women were now being coerced into wearing the hijab. These actions represent a clear violation of women’s rights and have been met with widespread condemnation.

“This only deceives the international community and the United Nations for interacting with this group. All the international stakeholders and the UN officials should come to see closely in Afghanistan how much the crime of this barbaric group has increased day by day,” said Ms Marof Arwin, the head of Afghanistan Women and Children Strengthen Welfare Organisation and Purple Saturdays movement.

Zahra Joya, an Afghan journalist and editor-in-chief of Rukhshaana media, a news website reporting on Afghanistan, says she has reports of Taliban men having not just second but third marriages in the country.

“We have a lot of documents to prove this claim. It’s not that the Taliban have done a great job on women’s rights. It’s absolutely the opposite of what they’re saying. As a journalist, as a woman, I am always in contact with the people, it’s absolutely a lie,” she told The Independent.

She added: “They are arresting women, they are forcing women to stay at home, there’s no education, no work, even no space for them to breathe fresh air. It’s all that I have to say, all the Taliban leadership is saying is a lie.”

In September 2021, a month after US and Nato troops withdrew from Afghanistan following two decades of war, the Taliban announced that girls were barred from studying beyond sixth grade.

They extended this education ban to universities in December 2022. The Taliban have defied global condemnation and warnings that the restrictions will make it almost impossible for them to gain recognition as the country’s legitimate rulers.