UN expert says Taliban treatment of women could be ‘gender apartheid’

A United Nations expert has stated that the treatment of Afghan women and girls by the Taliban could amount to “gender apartheid” as their rights continue to be undermined by the governing authorities. The Taliban have accused the UN of “spreading propaganda against the Islamic Emirate”.

“Grave, systematic and institutionalised discrimination against women and girls is at the heart of Taliban ideology and rule, which also gives rise to concerns that they may be responsible for gender apartheid,” UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The UN defines gender apartheid as “economic and social sexual discrimination against individuals because of their gender or sex”.

“We have pointed to the need for more exploration of gender apartheid, which is not currently an international crime, but could become so,” Bennett told reporters on the sidelines of the council’s 53rd regular session.

“It appears if one applies the definition of apartheid, which at the moment is for race, to the situation in Afghanistan and [uses] sex instead of race, then there seem to be strong indications pointing towards that.”

His assessment came as Afghan rulers have banned millions of women from education and employment as part of their increasing curbs on women’s rights since they took over the country in 2021.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the main spokesperson for Taliban administration, has taken exception to Bennett’s remarks.

He accused Bennett, along with the UN and some Western institutions, of “spreading propaganda against the Islamic Emirate”.

“Islamic laws are under implementation in Afghanistan, objecting to them is a problem with Islam,” he wrote.

The Afghan rulers have justified the restrictions on women based on their interpretation of Islam. But some senior Taliban leaders have criticised the ban on girl schools, saying Islam grants girls and women rights to education and work.

No other Muslim-majority country bans girls and women from education and work.

The Taliban took power in August 2021 after the United States-led forces withdrew from the country, ending two decades of war and occupation.

The administration has since curtailed women’s freedoms and rights, including their ability to attend high school and university. Only primary schools are open for girls. The Taliban has gone back on its promise to open high schools for girls after an infrastructure upgrade to ensure gender segregation.

In a report covering July to December 2022, Bennett found in March that the treatment of women and girls by the Taliban “may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity”.

“These serious deprivations of women’s and girls’ fundamental rights and the harsh enforcement by the de facto authorities of their restrictive measures may constitute [a] crime against humanity of gender persecution,” Bennett reiterated on Monday.

In April, Taliban authorities began enforcing a ban on Afghan women working for the UN after stopping women from working for aid groups in December.

Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) also issued a report in May. In it, they underscored how the Taliban crackdown on Afghan women’s rights, coupled with “imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment,” could constitute gender persecution under the International Criminal Court (ICC).

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