With the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan, the fate of around 14 million women remains uncertain. From when they ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban were notorious for their mistreatment of women and girls, imposing restrictions on almost all aspects of their lives, from the daily dress code to their participation in the public sphere. Thus, it is no surprise that women took to the streets to oppose the Taliban’s fundamentalist policies, hoping to maintain some of the gains they have made over the last two decades.
However, a non-trivial proportion of Afghan women might not be bothered enough by the Taliban’s rule in order to protest. Some might even support the group’s fundamentalist policies. Days after the Taliban took over the Afghan capital on August 15, hundreds of women took to the streets to welcome the group’s return to power. Millions of Afghan women took no public stance over the fundamentalist movement.
The Media Embrace the Martyrdom of Afghan Women
Given the Taliban’s long history of misogyny and extremism, it might be puzzling that some women might express their public support or indifference to the loss of their rights.
Why Some Women Support Extremist Groups
Whether globally or in the Muslim world, it is not an anomaly that some women might support misogynistic leaders or political organizations. In the Middle East, women played a role in different political Islam movements with varying degrees of conservatism. At its peak, recruiters for the Islamic State (IS) group managed to attract female supporters and convince them to migrate to their territories in Syria and Iraq at a time when harrowing stories were emerging about the organization’s treatment of women. So, even if such extremist movements are enemies of women, not all women view them in these black and white terms.
In a research paper published in the World Politics journal, Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer investigate why women might support Muslim fundamentalists. Their answer focuses on the availability of economic opportunities for women. When women lack enough opportunities to achieve their economic and social independence, they might choose to increase their attractiveness in the marriage market of a patriarchal society by becoming more conservative. Thus, limited economic possibilities can push women to trade some of their rights in exchange for financial security.
Afghan women have made significant gains over the last two decades. For example, according to the International Labor Organization’s estimates, female participation in the labor force grew from 15.5% to 22.74% of the female working-age population between 2001 and 2019. This means that more women are looking for inclusion in the labor market.
Yet when it comes to unemployment rates among Afghan women, there is barely any change over the same period. The unemployment rate among women in the labor force moved from 14.75% in 2001 to 13.81% in 2019. Hence, the opportunities available to the increasing numbers of women who choose to work have not significantly increased.
This economic explanation is only one side of the story. Indoctrination through various processes of socialization can also contribute to women’s conservative attitudes. Households, schools, religious institutions and online spaces are all realms where such attitudes are cultivated and reinforced.
Fundamentalist groups understand the importance of women’s indoctrination. Contemporary extremists such as IS and the Taliban rely on female recruiters to attract female members and build ideological support for their movements among women. In the early days of political Islam movements, Egypt’s Muslim Sisterhood was the female side of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Sisterhood was concerned with educating women about their roles in an ideal Islamic society.
But a more cynical explanation is that the lives of the vast majority of Afghan women are less affected by the rule of the Taliban. As anthropologists Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood point out, the decry against the Taliban’s rule is merely an urban phenomenon. Most Afghan women — about 76% —live in rural communities, where conservative social norms are enforced independently of who is in charge of the capital city. For example, in 2017, the percentage of rural women aged 20 to 24 who got married before 15 and 18 were 5% and 31.9%, respectively. This is compared to 2.1% and 18.4% among their urban counterparts.
Being away from the capital in a country plagued with underdevelopment, rural women also suffered disproportionally due to their higher economic vulnerability and exposure to the two-decade violent conflict between the Taliban and the government. Putting an end to the civil conflict may provide hope to some that their situation might improve.
We do not know precisely how prominent female support is for the Taliban. Yet the picture is more complicated than a simple fight between women-hating extremists and freedom-loving feminists. With successive Afghan governments failing to address the root causes of gender inequalities, seeing women protesting in the streets with Taliban flags becomes a less surprising anecdote.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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