For an extended period since the end of the Cold War, the status and safety of women in Afghanistan have been considered under tremendous threat due to an influx of puritanical religious ideology and patriarchal tribal culture. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the winning military forces, the Mujahadin, found themselves split among several factions of varying political and religious outlooks.
The ensuing civil war saw massive trauma for Afghan women when thousands were raped and/or murdered. Severe restrictions on the rights and public access of women were imposed across the country, especially after the civil war with the victory of the Wahhabi-influenced Taliban. The Taliban, heavily influenced by the Saudi Arabian-backed Wahhabi religious schools in Pakistan, imposed a strict regime on women that severely hampered labor options for females, restricted their public appearance to heavy cloaking and accompaniment by male relatives and denied them access to health care. Educating girls became forbidden.
The imposition of these rules had a drastic effect on the already imperiled economy of Afghanistan, as many professionals were women who had been trained under Communist rule during the Soviet era or during the rule of the former Afghan monarch who had promoted Western modernization and opportunities for women. The Afghan economy suffered mainly because of the denial of the right to work to former teachers, many of whom were women, thus hampering even the permissible education of Afghan boys. Many female doctors were allowed to continue in order to treat female patients, but limits on women's health care inhibited their work as well. Afghanistan fell under a regime of strict modesty, enforced by public officers who used corporal punishment. The state of women's rights was notorious during the five-year rule of the Taliban, which was heavily criticized by international human rights organizations.
Following the September 11th attacks on the United States, the reputation of the Taliban as abusers of women and religiously oppressive became more well-known, increasing support for an American war against the Taliban. The American-led invasion resulted in the fall of the Taliban and creation of a new national government. With the support of the international community in mind, the interim leadership repealed any and all restrictive laws on women and included a quota on the number of women in the popularly elected Afghan National Assembly. Dress restrictions were relaxed, limiting the appearance of the burqa -- a head-to-toe full body garment with only a mesh screen for visual mobility -- despite the common appearance of veils and head scarfs.
Despite these changes, the advanced status of women is said to have gradually declined again as Afghanistan has been plagued by a Taliban-led insurgency and the inability of the central government to assert itself as the dominant force in rebel areas. These areas, usually Pashtun under the control of conservative tribes, still maintain strict and oppressive practices against women. Women have decreased their participation in voting, which declined approximately 10 percent between the 2004 and 2008 election cycles. The increasing aggressiveness of the Taliban has maintained the need for transitional government institutions like the Ministry for Women's Affairs and various human rights bodies.
The declared policy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been to reconcile politically with the Taliban leadership, leading to tremendous fear that much of women's progress will be compromised along the way. These prospects have increased humanitarian support for the NATO-led war in Afghanistan and the maintenance of foreign troops to police the country. In 2010, Time magazine ran a cover story about a woman whose nose had been chopped off according to a Taliban-rebel decree because she had left the home of her apparently abusive in-laws. The fear of the decline of women's rights has also convinced some human rights organizations that foreign occupation would be preferable. The still-undefined Islamic Law mentioned in the Afghan constitution leaves the possibility that restrictive interpretations of women's rights could be imposed on the country, undermining many women's confidence in the government's commitment to protect them.
The issue also brings up controversies about the meaning of sovereignty as many complain that Westerners are imposing their values on the country; Afghan women in prominent positions view that idea as gender-centric and excluding the right for women to judge Afghan policy as well. Some alternative strategies for the NATO effort in Afghanistan propose a de facto partition where areas dominated by insurgents would be abandoned and other, particularly non-Pashtun areas, would be consolidated as a separate and potentially more stable state. That idea has been criticized as a way of abandoning the human rights effort, namely for women, begun in those areas.