Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan

With their capture of Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, the Taliban completed their conquest of the country and inaugurated a regime characterized by a severe suppression of human rights.

Summary of Event

In 1989, after a ten-year occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union withdrew its military from the country. Three years later, the Soviet-backed Afghan government collapsed, and Afghanistan lapsed into lawlessness and civil war. A new regime may be said to have been established four years later, when, on September 27, 1996, a fundamentalist Islamic organization known as the Taliban captured the nation’s capital, Kabul. The Taliban had already taken the important eastern city of Jalālābād earlier in the month; by the following June, the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan. Taliban
Human rights abuses;Afghanistan
Afghanistan;human rights abuses
[kw]Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan (Sept. 27, 1996)
[kw]Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan, Taliban Begins (Sept. 27, 1996)
[kw]Human Rights in Afghanistan, Taliban Begins Suppression of (Sept. 27, 1996)
[kw]Rights in Afghanistan, Taliban Begins Suppression of Human (Sept. 27, 1996)
[kw]Afghanistan, Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in (Sept. 27, 1996)
Human rights abuses;Afghanistan
Afghanistan;human rights abuses
[g]South Asia;Sept. 27, 1996: Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan[09560]
[g]Afghanistan;Sept. 27, 1996: Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan[09560]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Sept. 27, 1996: Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan[09560]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 27, 1996: Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan[09560]
[c]Human rights;Sept. 27, 1996: Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan[09560]
Omar, Mohammad

Islamic fundamentalist former students (talib) had founded the Taliban Islamic Movement of Afghanistan in 1994 in Qandahār, in the southern part of the country. The group of founders, graduates of Pakistani Islamic schools known as madrassas, was led by a one-eyed cleric, Mullah Mohammad Omar, then in his early thirties. The Taliban sought an Islamic revolution based on strict adherence to the traditional Islamic legal code known as sharia. Sharia The group’s stated aim was the creation of a “pure and clean Islamic state.”

The Taliban’s founding leadership had attended fundamentalist Islamic schools while living in the refugee camps that sprang up along the Pakistan border during the Soviet occupation. The organization was backed by armed forces whose soldiers were mostly the same “holy warriors” who had vanquished the Soviets with Western (mostly American) military assistance. From the beginning, the Taliban went about the task of instituting a fundamentalist version of a proper Islamic social order, especially through enforcement of sharia. In doing so, the regime cast aside the entire extensive range of individual rights and human treatment long regarded as human rights and enclosed the nation in a long reign of cruel and barbaric theocratic rule. In September, 1999, the director of the Voice of America wrote that “Afghanistan has become [a] land of terror, torture, and injustice,” including “war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and cultural genocide.”

As the Taliban understood the requirements of the Islamic faith, many of the liberties that Afghans had long taken for granted had to be outlawed. The Taliban thus decreed that Islamic law forbade music; any representations of living things, including photographs and toys such as stuffed animals; and most forms of entertainment, including games, television, and radio, with the exception of its own station.

Among the regime’s most flagrant, extreme, and widespread abuses of human rights were those directed against women. These abuses so shocked Western norms and sensibilities that the Taliban were soon accused of waging a “war against women.” Women;in Afghanistan[Afghanistan] Not long after the Taliban took power, girls in Afghanistan were no longer allowed to be educated in the schools. The ban on education for girls was later partially rescinded, but to little effect. Girls were allowed schooling until the age of eight, but they were allowed to learn only about Islam.

With few exceptions, women were also barred from all employment and were forced to remain at home. They were banned from all public gatherings and were permitted to leave their homes only in the company of male relatives; even then, they were allowed out only for religiously sanctioned purposes and were required to be dressed in the burka, a garment that covers the whole of the body, with only a mesh area at the eyes for sight. Because the burka restricts vision, many women were hit by vehicles they could not see approaching. Outside the home, women’s shoes were to make no noise; inside the home, windows through which women might be seen were to be blacked out, ensuring their nonvisibility. Women could not be photographed or filmed. For the women of Afghanistan, these policies resulted in a regime of brutalization and systematic neglect enforced by beating, rape, arbitrary imprisonment, and execution.

Western journalists were able to document the beatings of Afghan women by smuggling video cameras into the country and filming the beatings in the streets. Women found attempting to escape the country with men other than their husbands or male relatives were stoned to death for presumed adultery. In addition, there was trafficking of women and girls, who were forced into prostitution and marriage. Knowledgeable Western sources reported that Afghan women were voiceless, invisible, nonbeings with no right to an independent existence.

Among the worst human rights abuses of women concerned health care. In September, 1997, the Taliban announced that health care was segregated by sex into separate hospitals. This rule became strictly enforced during the following September. In Kabul, health care for 500,000 women was confined to a single poorly equipped hospital that had only thirty-five beds. After a concerted international outcry, the Taliban leadership partially relented, permitting the limited opening of women’s wards in a few selected hospitals. However, this dispensation did not resolve the Afghan women’s health care crisis, which continued throughout the Taliban’s five-year reign of terror. Many women died in childbirth or from infectious diseases left untreated by Taliban edict. The situation was made worse by the restrictions forbidding women to move around freely. In one case, a woman rushing a sick child to a hospital failed to stop when challenged by a teenage enforcer of the Taliban’s “Virtue and Vice” codes, and the boy shot the woman several times.

Few women doctors were allowed to work, and male doctors were permitted to treat women only with proper chaperons, if at all. Even then they could not adequately examine these patients, as they were prohibited from touching or viewing women’s bodies. One dentist reported to Western researchers that he dared examine a woman’s teeth only with a lookout posted when her veil was lifted. Dentists and their patients risked beatings, and dentists also risked jailing and closure of their practices.

The Taliban’s elimination of the ordinary liberties considered basic to human rights applied to men and boys as well as to women and girls. Like women, men were subject to beatings, arbitrary imprisonment, and execution for a long list of infractions of religious law. Homosexuals were executed, although homosexual acts between men and adolescents continued to be widely practiced. Child labor was widespread, and boys as young as ten were coerced into military service.

Taliban fighters around the presidential palace on September 27, 1996, in Kabul. The rebels captured the capital, inaugurating a new era of human rights violations.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

To enforce its rules and policies, the Taliban regime created the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Members of this section of the Taliban government, some in their early teens, roamed city streets wielding implements to use as whips, searching for those disobeying rules. These enforcers were videotaped beating women for such petty offenses as wearing burkas of insufficient length or wearing shoes that made noise. Men might be arrested for having insufficient facial hair and jailed until their beards grew to the prescribed length. Due process of law and proper defense of the accused were nonexistent; arbitrary detention was commonplace. While in jail, men might be subjected to numerous human rights violations, such as beatings, torture, and gang rape. Others who were arrested might simply disappear, never to be seen again.

In addition to public beatings, torture, and executions, among the draconian punishments meted out by the Taliban was the amputation of limbs—a practice that recurred throughout the regime’s rule. It was possible for the wealthy, however, to bribe their way out of this punishment, leaving the innocent to pay the price. In one documented instance, after a wealthy man paid a bribe to escape punishment, a man imprisoned on a minor charge was chosen at random as a replacement, driven to the Kabul sports stadium, and subjected to amputation of his hand before a jeering crowd.

Finally, reliable sources documented many massacres of innocent civilians by the Taliban. In September, 1997, Taliban fighters massacred civilian villagers near Mazār-e Sharīf after failing to capture the city. When the Taliban succeeded in overrunning the city nearly a year later, between 2,000 and 5,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered over a period of several days. Among other similar events, some 600 civilians were reported massacred in Faryab Province in late 1997. The total number of massacre victims of the Taliban is unknown, but it is believed to amount to many thousands.


The opening of the Taliban era had a multitude of serious consequences, both within Afghanistan and beyond that country’s borders. The inauguration of Taliban rule led to innumerable human rights violations of the most serious nature, including exclusion from the economic, social, and political life of the nation of half its population, as women were confined to their homes except under limited defined circumstances. The regime’s policies led to the widespread suffering of millions of men, women, and children through execution, poor nutrition and resulting ill health, outright starvation, and lack of medical treatment. In addition, the population was visited with a wide range of severe, chronic human rights abuses such as mutilation through judicially sanctioned amputations, beatings, rape of men as well as women, arbitrary detention, denial of due process of law, denial of elementary freedoms of social and personal activity, and denial of education. The Taliban was also responsible for the deliberate destruction of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, including the gigantic sixth century c.e. Buddhist statues blown up in 2001 despite urgent international calls for restraint and offers to buy the offending objects.

The reign of terror and human rights abuse by the Taliban regime led to a worldwide outcry, replete with expressions of dismay and disgust. In Europe and the United States, knowledge of the Taliban’s abuses helped to increase the cultural and political distance between Islam and the West, even though most Muslims do not practice fundamentalism on the Taliban model. In the early twenty-first century, cultural tension between the Islamic world and the West appeared to be moving toward a deepening chasm of alienation and distrust. Public confrontation between Muslim and Western countries gave new weight to claims that the two sides are engaged in a “clash of civilizations”—a conflict capable of eventuating in international violence of the most serious order.

At the opening of the twenty-first century, the potential for such violence was already realized after the installation of the Taliban led to the migration to Afghanistan of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden Bin Laden, Osama and his many lieutenants and followers. Once established in the country, Bin Laden used its territory to train and further organize thousands of members of his formidable terrorist organization, al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda] Operations of the organization led first to a series of terrorist attacks on American targets in the Middle East and Africa. These operations culminated in the September 11, 2001, attacks September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. The export of terrorism thus must be accounted among the consequences of Taliban rule.

The September, 2001, attacks led directly to a military assault on Afghanistan by the United States and its allies that began in October of the same year, resulting in the destruction of the Taliban regime. The American action, aided by a number of other nations, in turn inflamed numerous Muslims in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Taliban
Human rights abuses;Afghanistan
Afghanistan;human rights abuses

Further Reading

  • Amanpour, Christiane. “Tyranny of the Taliban: A Visit to the Capital of Afghanistan’s Extremist Regime Reveals a Harsh World of Suppression and Despair.” Time, October 13, 1997. Well-known journalist’s account of her visit to the Afghan capital a year after its occupation by the Taliban. Provides brief but informative description of dealings with the Taliban and the fate of basic rights, especially those of women, under Taliban rule.
  • Marsden, Peter. The Taliban: War and Religion in Afghanistan. London: Zed Books, 2001. Account by the information coordinator of the British Agencies Afghanistan Group discusses the origins and development of the Taliban and the circumstances that led to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Describes what should be done to relieve the enormous burden of human suffering visited on the Afghan people during the Taliban period.
  • Palmer, Caitriona. “The Taliban’s War Against Women.” The Lancet (London), August 29, 1998, 734. Informative article focuses on women’s health, both psychological as well as physical, under Taliban rule. Presents considerable detail in a clear, concise style.
  • Skaine, Rosemarie. The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Comprehensive account of the treatment of women under Taliban rule. Contrasts how Afghan women lived prior to the Taliban takeover, when they worked in a variety of professions and occupations, with their transformation under the Taliban into virtual ghosts. Features interviews with Afghan women that provide detailed insights into their fate and human rights generally under Mullah Omar and his followers.

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