One year on: how life has changed for Afghanistan’s women and girls
Afghan Witness assesses how the Taliban’s return has impacted women’s access to education and employment, their freedom of movement and dress, and their ability to access support services.
9 Aug 2022
Twenty years after they were toppled by U.S. and NATO forces, on August 15, 2021, the Taliban returned to power in Kabul. While life has changed for many, these changes have been most tangible in the lives of Afghan women and girls.
Upon their return, the Taliban claimed women’s rights would be respected and that their regime would be more moderate than previous periods of Taliban rule, but the restrictions introduced so far – and the treatment of female activists – have raised serious concerns over the Taliban’s interpretation of women’s rights and the place of women in Afghanistan.
Afghan Witness (AW) has been monitoring women’s rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, tracking the regulations imposed upon women, speaking to sources, and verifying incidents using open source techniques (OSINT) where possible.
As the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul draws near, AW looks retrospectively at how the lives of women and girls have changed in the first year since the Taliban returned.
Women and girls were banned from education and work during the Taliban’s first stint in power between 1996-2001. Post-Taliban, girls’ access to education soared; figures show more than 3.6 million girls had enrolled in schools by 2018 – more than 2.5 million in primary school and over 1 million in secondary schools.
In September last year, with most educational institutes closed since their return, the Taliban’s education ministry announced the reopening of boys’ secondary schools, but made no mention of girls’ secondary schools. The Taliban never declared a direct ban on girls' secondary schools, but after U-turning on their decision to reopen girls’ secondary schools on March 23 this year – insisting that a policy needed to be formulated in accordance with “Sharia and Afghan” culture – there is still no indication of when girls might be able to return.
While girls’ secondary schools have remained open in some regions, such as the northern province of Balkh, girls have reportedly been subject to strict dress codes and there have been reports of the Taliban ordering private institutions in Samangan province to stop teaching girls above grade 6. The restrictions on girls’ secondary education have had substantial effects on students’ mental health according to medical professionals – something also stressed by a girls’ high school teacher AW spoke to, who also mentioned her struggle of living on a reduced and irregular salary.
With the de-facto ban on girls' secondary education soon to reach one year, female students have turned to online or “secret schools” where possible, and some from more affluent families have been able to access private education. Withstanding all efforts made by students, and the support provided through charities and online initiatives, in April, Save the Children estimated that 80% of secondary school girls in the country are missing out on education.
While women have not been restricted from university education, they must adhere to strict rules on conduct, dress and segregation. Male and female classes were first arranged at different time slots intended to avoid mixing, though in April, the Taliban went further by allocating specific days of the week for male and female students to attend.
In late March, AW spoke to a number of female students in Kabul, Balkh, Baghlan and Samangan provinces. Students voiced their concerns about the Taliban’s harsh treatment of female students for minor violations of their code of conduct and dressing. Similarly, in mid-May of this year, reports – as well as footage that AW was able to verify – emerged of the Taliban preventing girls with colourful headscarves from entering the Kabul Education University. There were also reports of female university students being beaten by female university guards for their alleged failure to comply with the Taliban’s hijab rule at Balkh University.
Much like their approach to girls’ secondary schools, the Taliban have not explicitly banned women from working. However, since the takeover, there are widespread reports of women in most parts of the country being told to stay home, while others are paid reduced and irregular salaries. Before the Taliban takeover, women’s participation in the Afghan civil service increased to 27%, and the former government aimed to increase participation to 30% by 2020, however, nearly a month after the takeover, Taliban officials at Kabul municipality told their female employees to stay at home.
Similar stories have been echoed in other sectors and offices too, such as the General Prosecutor’s Office, where women were also reportedly told to stay home and were not allowed to enter their offices, according to a female prosecutor and former lawyer who spoke to AW in early March this year. A female employee of the Education Department in Bamyan province says she and female colleagues in the department were told by Taliban officials to stay home until further notice, and, most recently – after a year of barring them from work – Taliban officials at the Ministry of Finance told their female employees to introduce male relatives to replace them. In late February, reports emerged that the Taliban fired 44 female staff from the Kabul Airport’s border brigade. In the official dismissal letter, signed by the airport's air traffic manager, it was stated that women’s appointment at the brigade was merely symbolic and that there was no need for them anymore.
Women’s work in the government sector is now mostly limited to healthcare and teaching roles. In some cases, female government workers have held protests in an attempt to demand their right to work, and to pressure the Taliban to allow them to return to their jobs.
Afghanistan's worsening economic crisis, coupled with the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, has left women business owners and entrepreneurs facing difficulties keeping their businesses afloat, according to reports and AW sources. AW spoke to a female business owner in Nangarhar who claims that her business has shrunk and lost revenue, leaving dozens of her (mostly female) employees jobless. In late May, reports emerged from Herat province, where the Taliban’s provincial department of the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ministry reportedly closed down women-run restaurants.
Hijab and freedom of movement
Almost one month after the Taliban seized power in Kabul, they turned the former Ministry of Women’s Affairs into their authority on moral policing, known as the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (MPVPV). Since then, the ministry has mainly been responsible for the issuance of decrees and regulations over women’s covering – or “hijab” as described by the Taliban – and freedom of movement.
In late December of last year, the ministry reportedly banned taxi drivers from chauffeuring women, unless they wore the Taliban’s interpretation of hijab, and banned women from travelling without a male guardian beyond 45 miles. Yet the rule has been imposed at a time when many women have lost their male family members as a result of decades of conflict – with the number of widows estimated to be 2.5 million as of 2018.
In an interview with AW, a business woman from Nangarhar province voiced her concern, explaining how she had to remove one of her sons from school so that he could accompany her on business trips to the neighbouring Laghman province. Another woman we spoke to, who says she has been widowed twice, told AW she feels she has no option but to turn to prostitution, in order to feed her six children.
As with some of the Taliban’s other decrees, reports of the rule being implemented to varying degrees have emerged; for instance, in early January, the head of MPVPV’s provincial department in Herat said in an interview with Rukhshana Media that coffee shop owners were ordered to prevent women from entering “without a Mahram” (male guardian). In March of this year, the MPVPV reportedly sent letters to airlines informing them of a ban on women travelling without a chaperone. Following the ban, officials from two airlines reported that dozens of women were prevented from travelling alone on domestic and international flights from Kabul Airport.
In May of this year, the Taliban made international headlines for announcing that women must cover their faces in public, stating that the closest male relative of any woman who did not comply “would be visited and face potential imprisonment or dismissal from state jobs.” The extent to which the decree has been enforced, and whether it is considered mandatory or merely advice, is unclear. However, reports and AW’s interviews with women on the ground show that implementation has varied in different provinces.
For instance, in May, an activist from Bamyan told AW that women were ordered to cover their hands as well as their faces, while in Herat, at the same time, the order appeared to not be implemented to the same extent. In the meantime, reports emerged from Takhar – and were further corroborated by AW sources on the ground – that the Taliban had set up hijab checkpoints in different parts of Taloqan city, the capital of Takhar province, to instruct women to observe hijab and return those who did not to their homes.
Protests and activism
AW’s records show that the first women-led protest was on August 17, 2021, in Kabul – just days after the group seized the capital. However, since protests began, female activists have on some occasions been met with harsh measures from the Taliban, and AW has verified multiple incidents of protests being disrupted.
On January 19, several women protesters were reportedly detained by the Taliban. In a video circulated on social media, one of the protesters, Tamana Zaryab Paryani, desperately pleaded for help and stated that the Taliban had raided her house. Soon after this, reports emerged that the Taliban had detained Tamana, her three sisters, and another fellow protester, Parwana Ibrahimkhil. The Taliban publicly denied any involvement in the detentions of female activists – including in an interview with the BBC – going as far as accusing Paryani of staging the incident.
In interviews with AW in February this year, women protesters and civil society activists voiced their concerns on various aspects of the incidents, claiming the Taliban prevented family members of protesters from visiting them at the detention centres. Issues such as a lack of female staff and access to food and water were also raised by the activists, as well as the protestors' vulnerability to sexual harassment and abuse in the prisons. In their interview with AW, women protestors and activists alleged that the number of women detained by the Taliban was higher than figures in the media. Later that month, the Taliban’s interior ministry released a “confessional” video of a number of detained women protestors who said they had been encouraged by activists outside the country to protest by offering them the chance to leave Afghanistan.
Although the Taliban later released the detained protestors – allegedly on the condition that they would not talk to the media – it appears that the group were successful in silencing them, as many reportedly went into hiding or left the country. In an incident in early April, a group of female students from Bamyan َUniversity protested against the Taliban’s closure of girls' secondary schools at a university gathering. Reports later emerged that the Taliban detained a dozen of them, but the group rejected the claims.
In June this year, AW interviewed two women protesters who were allegedly detained by the Taliban in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital city of Balkh province, in early September 2021. Both of the activists allege that they were taken to Taliban detention centres, beaten, and tortured. A recent Amnesty International report, released on July 27, also provides accounts from female protesters who say that they were harassed and beaten by the Taliban during their detainment.
On the other hand, indoor protests have emerged as a trend in Afghanistan. Women and girls mostly wearing masks – likely an attempt to further hide their identities – holding placards with slogans are shared almost daily on social media. In early July, AW spoke with an activist from Pen Path, a community-based education support network established in 2009 by Matiullah Wesa, an activist and educator from Kandahar province. The activist told AW how they had changed their approaches to campaigning, given the risks and limitations on the ground, but that the Taliban’s restrictions would not stall their campaigns for educational rights.
Justice system and gender violence
Before the takeover, a handful of organisations, including Women for Women International, ran a number of safehouses in Kabul and several other provinces, sheltering women survivors of domestic violence in the country. The US state department previously estimated that 2,000 women and girls – mainly in Kabul – used the shelters each year, with many referred into the system from provincial and capital offices of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Human Rights Commission, as well as from shelters, hospitals, and police stations across Afghanistan. Almost all of the safehouses reportedly closed down with the Taliban’s ascent to power.
In early March this year, AW spoke to a number of former employees of the safehouses and activists who voiced their concerns about the closure of the shelters and what they describe as women’s almost non-existent access to safety and support systems.
Since the takeover, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been replaced by the MPVPV, which is responsible for enforcing the Taliban's strict interpretation of Sharia law. Furthermore, the Taliban reportedly dissolved Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, along with five other key government entities deeming them “unnecessary” as the country faced a budget deficit of 44bn Afghanis ($501m) this financial year. The erosion of these two major institutions is compounded by the discontinuation of specialised courts and prosecution units, responsible for enforcing the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
According to the recent Amnesty International report, the rights of women and girls have been “decimated” since the takeover. The 98-page report – containing interviews with 100 women, girls, staff members at detention centres, experts and journalists – details a myriad of ways in which women have faced violence and oppression under the Taliban, from arbitrary detainment to physical and psychological torture in confinement, and a surge in the rates of child, early, and forced marriages. According to the report, in some cases, survivors of domestic violence were allegedly jailed while initially told they would be sent to shelters.
Women in media
The Taliban’s restrictions on the Afghan media, combined with the country's worsening economic situation, has reportedly led to the closure of media across the country. This year, Afghanistan dropped from 122nd place on the Press Freedom Index to 156th out of 180 countries. The closure of media outlets has had a disproportionate impact on female journalists: 72% of those who have lost their jobs in the media are women, and Afghanistan National Journalists Union (ANJU) says just 243 women were employed by media in Afghanistan at the time of their research in February.
In mid-November last year, the Taliban reportedly banned women from appearing in television dramas, soap operas, and entertainment shows, and, in the same month, female TV journalists and reporters were also instructed to cover their hair when broadcasting. A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released in March this year said that in some provinces, there were no longer any women journalists. Others who were still working described how their daily work routine had changed: they worked “in the background” and avoided appearing in video or audio recordings.
In mid-May, the Taliban issued another edict ordering women journalists to cover their faces while on air. The order received widespread condemnation both nationally and internationally. Yalda Ali, a female anchor of Tolo TV, posted a video of herself on social media putting on a mask, with the caption: “A woman being erased, on orders from the virtue and vice ministry.” Simultaneously, some local media reported that due to the Taliban’s restrictions and pressures, all female media workers had been ousted from their jobs in Herat province.
The Taliban’s restriction on women journalists and media workers over the past year has taken place against the backdrop of many women journalists fleeing the country, a number of whom have been stuck in countries such as Pakistan, awaiting their resettlement to Europe and North America.
Upon their return to power, the Taliban promised that women’s rights would be respected, but the restrictions issued over the past year have raised serious doubts among activists – both domestically and internationally. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index 2022, Afghanistan is ranked bottom.
The repercussions of the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s livelihoods, freedom of movement and access to education, have been worsened by the country’s economic downturn and the knock-on effects of increasing climate change and food insecurity, according to experts.
Many of the women and girls we’ve spoken to since the takeover fear for the future, but they also show a determination to keep going, regardless of the challenges. “For people reading my words now… never be silent, raise your voice,” one woman said in a recent interview with AW. “I believe dying with dignity and freedom is far better than life in humiliation and misery.”