But there may be reason for hope. Today’s Afghanistan is different in important ways from when the Taliban last held power. There has been significant progress in Afghan women’s and girls’ access to education, jobs, and political participation. Most notably, literacy rates among girls have doubled. Of the 9 million students enrolled in school in 2018, 3.8 million were female. When compared to 2001, when virtually no girls were enrolled in school, this represents enormous progress.iii
In urban areas, before the recent takeover by the Taliban, 45% of girls attended secondary school. (Although in rural areas, progress has been much slower with only 17% of girls advancing to secondary school.) Over the past 20 years, the number of schools increased 10 times and the number of female primary teachers grew to approximately one-third of the nation’s teachers.iv Public support for education has also dramatically increased. A 2019 survey across all 34 of the country’s provinces found that 87% of women and 85% of men supported women’s access to education.v
In the past two decades, women have also seen important gains in terms of access to jobs. As of 2017, approximately 40% of working-age adults were female. There are more women-run businesses than there were 20 years ago, and there have been meaningful improvements in women’s participation in the Afghan Parliament, police, and judiciary. While surely not enough, these are nonetheless important milestones of progress.vi
With the situation still evolving, it is this generation of educated women who are emerging as seeds of hope. As of late September, women across Afghanistan were publicly protesting Taliban edicts that would ban them from holding government office and entering the workforce. They are risking their lives, knowing that such protests have already been brutally repressed. But they have not been deterred, and the world has been astounded by their bravery.
Afghan women inside and outside of the country recently launched an online media campaign protesting the new restrictions on dress. Using hashtags like #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture, women are posting pictures of themselves on social media wearing traditional Afghan women’s clothing characterized by bright colors and embellished with embroidery and small sparkling mirrors. In doing so, these women are not only rejecting niqabs and burkas but reclaiming their identities as well. As one Afghan women’s rights advocate explained, “Our traditional clothes represent our rich culture and history of 5,000 years, which makes every Afghan feel proud of who they are.”vii
Propelling these brave women is the thought of a life without the rights to work, education, or self-determination; a life confined to their homes; and a life stripped of books, music, laughter, and hope. For them, this is no life at all.