Taliban orders all NGOs to stop employing women over alleged hijab violations

Move sparks outcry, coming less than a week after Islamist authorities banned women from attending universities; Afghan women are effectively being squeezed out of public life

Taliban security personnel stand guard along a road in Kabul on December 21, 2022. (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)
Taliban security personnel stand guard along a road in Kabul on December 21, 2022. (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers ordered all national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to stop their female employees from working after “serious complaints” about their dress code, the economy ministry said on Saturday.

The order, which drew swift international condemnation, threatened to suspend the operating licenses of non-governmental organizations that failed to implement the directive.

The latest restriction comes less than a week after the Taliban authorities banned women from attending universities, prompting global outrage and protests in some Afghan cities.

While the Taliban had promised a softer form of rule when they returned to power in August last year, they have instead imposed harsh restrictions on women — effectively squeezing them out of public life.

“There have been serious complaints regarding the non-observance of the Islamic hijab and other rules and regulations pertaining to the work of females in national and international organizations,” said a notification sent to all NGOs, a copy of which was obtained by AFP and confirmed by an economy ministry spokesman.

“The ministry of economy… instructs all organizations to stop females working until further notice,” the notification said, warning that if a group ignores the order, its license “will be canceled.”

Afghan female university students stopped by Taliban security personnel stand next to a university in Kabul on December 21, 2022. (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

It was still unclear whether the directive impacted foreign female staff at NGOs.

Two international non-governmental groups confirmed they had received the notification.

“We are suspending all our activities from Sunday,” a top official at an international NGO involved in humanitarian work told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“We will soon have a meeting of top officials of all NGOs to decide how to handle this issue.”

Dozens of national and international NGOs continue to work in several sectors across remote areas of Afghanistan, and many of their employees are women.

A female employee at an Afghan NGO was distraught after the ban.

“What will those women who have no men to support their families and are working in such NGOs do?” she said, asking AFP not to reveal her name. “It’s only that salary that had prevented us from falling into poverty.”

Afghan women pass next to a Taliban fighter in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

‘Deplorable’ order

Another official working at an international NGO involved in food distribution said the ban was a “big blow to women staff.”

“We have women staff largely to address humanitarian aid concerns of Afghan women,” the official said. “How do we address their concerns now?”

The order was a “clear breach of humanitarian principles,” said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN chief’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

Rights group Amnesty International tweeted that the ban was a “deplorable attempt to erase women from the political, social and economic spaces” in Afghanistan.

The International Rescue Committee said in a statement that more than 3,000 female staff members in Afghanistan were “critical for the delivery of humanitarian assistance” in the country.

The European Union — a major funder of aid organizations that work in Afghanistan, though it does not recognize the Taliban as the country’s official government — condemned the decision and said it was assessing “the impact it will have on our aid on the ground.”

“Our foremost concern will continue to be the welfare, rights, and freedoms of the people of Afghanistan,” Nabila Massrali, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, told AFP in a statement.

Afghan women walk through the old market as a Taliban fighter stands guard, in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, May 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Mounting restrictions

The order is the latest assault on women’s rights in the country.

On Tuesday, the authorities banned all women from attending universities, triggering condemnation from the United States, the United Nations and several Muslim nations.

The Group of Seven industrialized democracies said the prohibition may amount to “a crime against humanity.”

That ban was announced less than three months after thousands of women were allowed to sit university entrance exams.

In response to the order, around 400 male students on Saturday boycotted an exam in the southern city of Kandahar — the de facto power center of the Taliban — a rare protest staged by men.

The students’ walkout was dispersed by Taliban forces who fired into the air, a lecturer at Mirwais Neeka University where the protest happened told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Taliban had already barred teenage girls from secondary school, and women have been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from traveling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa.

They are also not allowed to enter parks or gardens.

The Taliban have also resumed public floggings of men and women in recent weeks, widening their implementation of an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

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