The Taliban decreed on Friday that they were banning forced marriage of women in Afghanistan, a move apparently meant to address criteria the international community considers a precondition to recognizing the new government and restoring aid to the war-torn country.
The announcement was attributed to the Taliban’s reclusive chief, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, a cleric chosen as the group’s supreme leader who is believed to be in the southern city of Kandahar. It comes as poverty is surging in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August amid the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. Since then, foreign governments have halted funds that had been a mainstay of the economy.
“Both (women and men) should be equal,” said the decree, adding that “no one can force women to marry by coercion or pressure.”
It is unclear, though, how the decree would be enforced in practice. And the statement did not mention two issues — women’s access to education and the workplace — that have been of central interest to the countries and organizations that have provided aid to Afghanistan.
Women’s rights improved over the past two decades of international presence in Afghanistan, but are seen as under threat with the return of the Taliban. During their earlier rule of the country in the 1990s, the Taliban virtually cloistered women, and banned them from public life and schools.
But a conservative and patriarchal tradition long predates the Taliban in Afghanistan. Customs like so-called honor killings, and selling girls to pay family debts, known as baad, still take place in much of the country, despite being outlawed under the previous government.
Forced marriages, too, have become more common over decades of war and societal disruption, as the internally displaced marry off their young daughters in exchange for a bride-price that can be used to pay debts and feed their families.
The decree did not mention a minimum age for marriage, which previously was set at 16 years old.
With the decree, which was cast as a call to adhere to broader Islamic law about women’s rights, the Taliban have now publicly stated that they are against those practices. They also said a widow will now be allowed to remarry 17 weeks after her husband’s death, choosing her new husband freely.
Longstanding tribal traditions have held it customary for a widow to marry one of her husband’s brothers or relatives in the event of his death.
The Taliban leadership says it has also ordered Afghan courts to treat women fairly, especially widows seeking inheritance as next of kin. The group also says it has asked government ministers to spread awareness of women’s rights across the population.
Despite promises from the Taliban’s leaders after their takeover this summer that girls and women would continue to have access to education, some girls from grades seven to 12 have still not been allowed to attend school in some places. And most women have still not been able to return to their jobs.