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How the New Taliban Crackdown Fits in Afghan Women’s Saga

Female students arrive for entrance exams at Kabul University on Oct. 13, 2022. 

Female students arrive for entrance exams at Kabul University on Oct. 13, 2022. 

Photographer: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
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Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been the subject of debate and conflict for more than a century, with efforts to improve their status followed by moves to roll them back. When the radical Islamists of the Taliban returned to power in 2021, two decades after they’d been ousted by US forces, they first said they’d moderated their views regarding women. That pledge proved short-lived, however. In the latest restrictions of women’s rights, women were banned in December from attending university and working for aid groups. 

King Amanullah Khan, who ruled for a decade starting in 1919, pushed for Western-style reforms intended to modernize the country. Inspired by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, he introduced a new constitution that sought to guarantee rights for women as well as men. Child marriage was banned, polygamy discouraged, and the jurisdiction of religious leaders narrowed. Women were no longer required to wear the veil. Queen Soraya, who opened the first girl’s school in Kabul, became a champion of women’s rights. The fast pace of change was lauded abroad but rattled conservatives in the largely tribal society, provoking revolt. The king was eventually forced to abdicate in 1929. His successor, Mohammed Nadir Shah, repealed the most progressive policies, but the backlash was short-lived. Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973 and was the last king of Afghanistan, reintroduced many of Amanullah’s initiatives, albeit more cautiously. In 1964, women helped draft a new constitution, which gave them the right to vote and allowed them to seek elected office. They got jobs, ran businesses and entered politics. Tensions with traditionalists never went away, but women protested any attacks on their rights.