Quote card by Opinion.

Last summer, the international political arena was shaken with the news of the Taliban’s reemergence in Afghanistan, as they once again gained power after 20 years of a more liberal, democratic government that emerged in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2001. Along with this news came the fears, hardships, and overall instability that many Afghan families had faced previously when the Taliban was in power. The Taliban has long been a strong opponent of many of the social developments that we’ve worked toward in the United States over the years — women’s rights, LGBTQ+ inclusivity and more. Naturally, with its renewed power and no American presence to hold them back, many Afghans assumed that the Taliban’s retrograde social views would return as well. 

But interestingly enough, the Taliban came back with a new, updated approach to human rights, releasing its own “decree on women’s rights.” It declared that women were not property, prohibited the forced marriage of women and declared that women are free human beings. By forcing a man to define the role of a woman, it strips all women in Afghanistan of their feminine identity rather than promoting it. More importantly, it commits the fault of attempting to define what it means to be a woman, something no government, especially an almost all-male one, is capable of. The declaration promotes the idea that a woman should stay at home and be an obedient housewife, even if it ostensibly aims to achieve the opposite.

As women in America, the mere fact that our existence is proclaimed as valid is something we take for granted every day. Thankfully for us, our government has no say in what we can call ourselves as women. Most women have the ability to be in any occupation or even redefine their own gender identity. We all have our own definition of what it means for us to be feminine, and the government does not restrict that. 

But unfortunately, the Taliban hasn’t afforded the same freedom to the women of Afghanistan. Their problem doesn’t lie in what they outwardly declare women are not, but in what it does not declare women can be. In their seemingly all-encompassing definition of a woman, they forget to even recognize the idea of a woman working a job or pursuing an education.

Banning forced marriages is a progressive policy, but devoid of the assertion that women also have the right to work in the same way as a man, it inherently defines a woman as a wife. While they have finally acknowledged women as citizens, they have ignored their existence as humans, with all of the ambitions and desires that come with that. The women of Afghanistan may live in a foreign country, but it’s not a different planet. They share the same desires as we do to have a voice, be successful or even just to have the same rights as men. The decree the Taliban has written simply outlines everything they see femininity as: a voiceless entity tied to a man, even if they now have the opportunity to choose which man they’re tied to. While this decree may technically expand women’s rights, it still denies women the fundamental right to define themselves.

The concept of abstract feminist ideas being put into laws is something that we’ve often dealt with in our own society. As women, we still fight for equal pay, equal voice and in general, a level playing field with the men around us. But this practice of categorizing us as an entire group has failed every time, as one thing that can never be defined is the female experience. Every single woman has a different story, identity and background. The true journey of being born as second-rate human beings is something that can only be lived. So the Taliban’s unconvincing effort to rebrand themselves as “progressive” has only done the opposite. It has reinforced what we’ve experienced since the day we were born — our power only lying in our proximity to men. 

There has been a sharp decline in female workers ever since the Taliban took power, as well as arbitrary laws set in place, such as the banning of long trips for women unless escorted by a man. Nevertheless, there is reason for hope. Tons of women have even risked their lives protesting the outdated laws that they face. Try as they might, the Taliban will not be able to take away Afghan women’s femininity.

Sreelakshmi Panicker is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at sreep@umich.edu.