Most of Afghanistan was ruled by a small religious group called the Taliban (or 'Taleban') from 1996 until the end of 2001. During their administration Afghanistan was one of the poorest (perhaps the very poorest) nation in the world, and suffered from constant low-level warfare. The civilian infrastructure was all but destroyed, a large number of people were killed or disabled by war or land mines, and the average life expectancy was about 43. There were human rights abuses against religious and racial minorities (especially the Shia muslims and Hazaras) and violations of human rights. The irregularly enforced religious law was comparable to that of other Islamic countries (including the situation in Afghanistan both before and after the Taliban).
Despite all this, the treatment of women in this obscure country was singled out for especial attention in the west. Three main groups were interested in drawing attention to the plight of women; secular political opponents to the Taliban in Afghanistan, western feminists and the US government.
Secular opponents may have decided that framing the abuses of the Taliban as abuses against women would be more likely to generate sympathy in the west, as it had done recently in Yugoslavia and East Timor. Feminists took up the horror stories as examples of 'discrimination' against women, without mentioning that conditions men faced were comparable. Finally in 2001 the United States government used concern for women's rights along with anger over the September 11 Terrorist Attacks as a pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban were accused of requiring women to stay at home, forbidding women to work in any public place, forbidding the education of women and refusing to give women medical attention.
The Taliban themselves claimed that their policies were favourable to women, but made little attempt to promote a positive image of themselves and their policies outside of Afghanistan. Inside Afghanistan they seem to have made more of an effort, for example by crediting the creation of the Taliban to a desire by Mullah Omar to end the rape and abuses against women that were common place in the period before the Taliban, and by appealing to the idea that women needed extra protection during the period of fighting.
Exaggerated claims Several claims made about the treatment of women in Afghanistan have a grain of truth, but are exaggerated as propaganda.
Women and education Women were banned from getting an education, yet several people ran secret schools that taught girls. The education of women became public after the fall of the Taliban.
Women and work Women were banned from getting a job except in health care areas. If a husband left a woman, she would be hard-pressed to make a living.
Women and health The one profession that women were able to be in is health care, due to the fact that health care is separated between men and women. Both genders had allegedly poor facilities.
Dress codes Women were forced to cover up in a burqa when in public, and wore shoes that did not make noise. Violations of such laws brought on a caning in public. Also, if a house had a woman inhabitant, the front windows of that house must be painted over as a measure to curb skirting of this law.
Women and travel