The Daily Hustle: How Afghan women working for NGOs are coping with the Taleban ban

Roxanna Shapour

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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Afghan women who were studying at university or working for NGOs have now had a few weeks to take in the implications of two decrees issued by Taleban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada which denied them a university education and banned them from working for NGOs. The announcements had come as successive blows to women who had already seen their rights and freedoms rolled back by the Emirate since it came to power in August 2021. For the latest instalment of The Daily Hustle, our series that features individual accounts about one aspect of daily life in Afghanistan, we hear from two women who used to go out to work, but since the latest decree, are no longer going..

Sonita supports her family of five – husband, two children and her elderly parents – with her salary working for an international NGO in Kabul as a project officer.

24 December 2022 was a very cold winter day. I’d been working in my room all day, wrapped up in several patus (traditional woollen blankets) with a hot water bottle on my lap. Around six in the evening, I heard my mother rustling as she quietly came into my room. I thought she’d come to fetch me for the evening prayer, but I could see something was wrong as soon as I saw her. Her face was ashen, taut with anxiety. “The Taleban have banned women from working for NGOs,” she said. I dismissed what she was saying with a wave of my hand and told her that it must be a rumour, but she shook her head and said it was being reported on all the television channels. I quickly started to check on social media, scrolling down timelines until I saw the decree – a few short lines in Pashto saying that women were no longer allowed to work for national or international NGOs. I sank deeper into my chair, wrapped the patus closer around me and started sobbing.

Khalida lives with her husband, two sons and four daughters in one of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in Kabul. She has worked for the same Afghan NGO as a cleaner for nearly two decades.

We didn’t have electricity in our neighbourhood that night, so we couldn’t watch TV. I found out about the ban from the chowkidar (guard) when I went to work the following day. I thought he was joking, but he didn’t look like he was. Then my manager told me to go home because the Emirate had made a rule that women couldn’t work for NGOs anymore. He said they’d keep paying my salary as long as they could afford it, even though I was no longer working. I wondered how long ‘as long as they could’ meant, but I didn’t ask.

I’ve been very lucky with work. I’ve been a cleaner at the same office for 18 years. My job is good and my organisation is stable and takes care of us. Last year, I used some of our savings to help my sons open a little shop in our neighbourhood, but the economic situation is bad and the shop makes only a little money. My husband is retired. He hasn’t received his pension since the Taleban came back. There are rumours that the government will start paying pensions and also give us all the money they owe, but we haven’t got any money so far. Now, I don’t know how my family would manage if I lost my job.

Facing an uncertain future

Sonita and her husband both lost their jobs when the Islamic Republic collapsed in August 2021, and she counts herself lucky because she was able to find work with an NGO:

I’m the only breadwinner in my family. Who is going to support my family now? For many Afghan women, working for an NGO is one of the only ways to earn a living. I count myself as one of the lucky ones because I was able to secure a job after the economy collapsed in the wake of the Taleban takeover. The job matters to me in so many ways. It’s the only source of income for my family. It keeps a roof over our heads and food on the table. It pays for books and pens for my children and my parents’ medical care. But the money also helps the economy. It’s a source of income for the shopkeepers in our neighbourhood where we buy things and the taxi drivers who drive me to work. I even use part of my salary to help those less fortunate than us.

My colleagues have been really supportive. They urge me to be strong and their reassuring tone is a comfort. My organisation has assured me that they will keep paying me until the situation is resolved and I can go back to the office. But this is not only about money. I love my job. It gives me satisfaction and a sense of purpose. Only two weeks earlier, my supervisor and I had done our annual appraisal and agreed on my work plan for 2023. What will happen now to those plans?

Khalida worries about making ends meet, even though her family owns their own home and they have some savings to cushion the blow:

I try to put a brave face on for my daughters. I joke around with them and talk about us visiting my parents in our village. After dinner and the evening prayer, after the girls have finished their evening chores and have gone to bed, my husband and I sit down with my sons to see how long we can survive on our savings and the meagre income from the shop. If we tighten our belts and keep our expenses down, we think we could stretch our savings out for another six months. I would also get severance pay, but I don’t know how much, and I don’t know if they could afford to pay that.

Thank God we own our own house. My husband gave me a small piece of land when we got married, and many years ago, with the help of some colleagues who loaned me money, I was able to build two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. So we don’t have to pay rent. We also keep some chickens, so we have some eggs every day and sometimes we cook one of the chickens. But I worry about our other expenses. Everything is so expensive now. My salary also supports my elderly parents in the village. My father is too old now to work the land. He rents it to one of my cousins, but that cousin hasn’t been able to make a go of it because of the drought and so he can’t pay my father any rent for the land. I don’t have any brothers and it’s up to my sister and me to support our parents.

Making plans to cope

Khalida is pragmatic about the possibility of being allowed to work again and talks about plans to keep at least one son employed:

I’ve been talking to the other two women who work in my office. They said our manager had told them that our jobs were not in danger and that they were talking to the Ministry of Economy to see if they could get exemptions or workarounds to the ban. They told me there was already an exemption for women health workers, but we’re not health workers, we’re cleaners.

My older son wants to go to Iran for work and leave my other son in Kabul to run the shop. But the economy is bad there too and their currency isn’t worth as much as it used to be. I don’t think he’ll be able to send any money back to us, even if he does go. I think the Taleban only want men to work. A few months ago, they said women [employees] should send the men in their families to work in their place. I’m thinking of asking my office if my older son could take my job. If it’s allowed, I could train him to do the cleaning, but I’m not sure they would agree.

Sonita moves between hope and dejection

My spirits rally when I see the news about international NGOs that have suspended their operations and issued statements condemning the ban and the UN delegation that came to Afghanistan to talk to the Emirate about reversing it. I know my own organisation, and others, will do their best to find a way to keep women working for NGOs, but I also have to be realistic about the future.

For the past sixteen months, I have stayed strong and remained optimistic. I focus on my work and my family’s well-being. But these days, there is little hope. I stay close to home and do a lot of housework. I grieve for myself and for all women in Afghanistan. I mourn all the freedoms that we’ve lost, one after another, in the past year and a half. I also spend a lot of time talking with my husband behind closed doors and in hushed voices, so my parents and children don’t hear us. We talk about all the doors that have closed, the possibilities that are no longer available, and the plans that might never be realised. We talk about leaving Afghanistan. A day might come when we will have to pack our bags and leave our homeland. But that day is not today.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour

The Daily Hustle: How Afghan women working for NGOs are coping with the Taleban ban