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Ten ways life has changed for Afghan women since last International Women’s Day

Since August, restrictions on women's education, work, travel, and dress have come into effect.


8 Mar 2022

Cover image: "Afghan Women Queue at World Food Programme Distribution Point" by United Nations Photo is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Last year’s International Women’s Day looked different for women in Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul on August 15 last year, Afghan girls and women enjoyed relative freedom: they could work, attend education with male classmates, and choose what to wear.

On International Women’s Day this year, six months on from the Taliban takeover, the situation for women has changed significantly.

Afghan Witness (AW) explores ten ways in which women’s rights have been impacted by the Taliban’s restrictions.

1. Women’s Affairs Ministry replaced

In September, the Taliban replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul with the ‘Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’, which was previously responsible for enforcing the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic religious law, known as Sharia, when the group were first in power between 1996 and 2001.

2. University classes segregated

During the Taliban’s previous rule, women and girls were banned from schools and universities.

In September 2021, the Taliban’s Higher Education Minister, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, indicated that women would this time be allowed to study – just not alongside men.

But with so few female professors to teach female students, it has become increasingly difficult for Afghan women to access education.

3. Dress code and curriculum changed for female students

The Taliban also announced a review of the curriculum and introduced a new dress code which states that women – both staff and students – must attend university wearing ‘full hijab’.

The Taliban’s interpretation of ‘hijab’ is unclear, as the majority of Afghan women already wear headscarves.

4. Schools remain temporarily closed for girls beyond grade 7

Young Afghan girls sit in their Aliabad School classroom near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, March 10, 2012 - Sgt. Kimberly Lamb (U.S. Armed Forces)

Since August, girls in most of Afghanistan have not been allowed back to school beyond grade 7, which the Taliban say “is a question of capacity”.

According to Al Jazeera, a small proportion of girls older than grade 7 have been allowed back to classrooms in state-run schools, but only in about a dozen of the country’s 34 provinces. Most teachers have not been paid since last June.

In January, the Taliban announced that they would open classrooms for all girls and women in the Afghan New Year, which starts on March 21, but some girls have expressed doubt around this claim.

5. Female employees restricted from working

Afghan police women prepare to graduate from Women’s Police Corps training,Mazar-e-Sharif, 2011 - Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kristina Newton

Under their previous rule in the 1990s, the Taliban barred women from working. A report released by the UN Development Program indicated that women accounted for 20% of the country's workforce in 2020, with a growing number of them running small businesses.

Since returning to power, while not explicitly banning females from working, the Taliban has continued to eliminate women from workplaces.

In September, a Taliban senior figure told Reuters that Afghan women should not work alongside men. This was followed by another decree issued by the interim mayor which instructed female employees of Kabul's city government to stay home.

A small number of women in essential services like nursing have been asked to resume work, but their pay remains precarious.

6. Women banned from traveling alone over 72 km

Woman clad in burqa walking in Afghanistan - Mark Reldy

In December, the Taliban announced that women travelling further than 72km (45 miles) should be accompanied by a close male family member.

The guidance, issued by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – which replaced the former government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs – also called on vehicle owners to refuse rides to women not wearing headscarves.

Human Rights Watch heavily criticised the guidance, with Heather Barr, the group’s associate director of women’s rights, stating that the move “shuts off opportunities for [women] to be able to move about freely, to travel to another city, to do business, (or) to be able to flee if they are facing violence in the home.”

7. Heads of mannequins removed

At the beginning of the year, a video went viral of a shopkeeper sawing the heads off female mannequins after the Taliban ordered shop owners in western Afghanistan to remove the heads of mannequins, insisting the life-sized figures violate Islamic law.

While not aimed at female mannequins alone, most of the mannequins are inevitably female.

8. TV shows featuring women restricted

In November, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice issued a statement that broadcasting channels were no longer allowed to air dramas or soap operas featuring women, and told broadcasters not to screen films or programmes that are “against Islamic or Afghan values”.

In the Taliban’s previous stint in power, between 1996-2001, television, films and most other forms of entertainment were deemed immoral, and as a result, were banned.

9. Female TV journalists must cover their hair

In the same month, female TV journalists and reporters were also instructed to cover their hair when broadcasting.

Afghan journalists in general have expressed concern around press freedoms under the Taliban’s rule – particularly when it comes to reporting on anti-Taliban protests.

10. Women’s shelters shut

"16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence starts" by UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Women’s services and organisations face uncertain futures with the Taliban’s return.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban has “systematically” shut shelters for women and girls escaping violent and abusive partners.

The response from campaigners

Since the Taliban returned last August, female campaigners and activists have protested to protect their rights and fight against the growing restrictions.

While the Taliban have issued a quasi-ban on public demonstrations, campaigners have continued protesting in provinces across the country.

A trend of indoor protests – held in offices and homes and photographed or filmed for social media – has also emerged due to there being a lesser risk of arrest or force from the Taliban.

However, activists and organisations remain fearful after several prominent women activists were recently detained.

While the Taliban have claimed women’s rights will be respected and their regime will be more moderate than previous periods of Taliban rule, the restrictions introduced so far – and the treatment of female activists – have raised concerns over the Taliban’s interpretation of women’s rights and the place of women in Afghanistan.

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