Women make up almost half Afghanistan’s population (49.5 per cent according to the World Bank estimate). Yet, they have lost almost all of their basic human rights and freedoms since the Taleban took control of the country two years ago. A joint report published on 15 June 2023, by the two United Nations independent experts, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett and Chair of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, said that between September 2021 and May 2023, more than 50 orders were issued, but it listed by the date and content only 13 (see also this interactive timeline on the Taleban gender-related orders published by United States Institute for Peace). According to the report, “the edicts are believed to be primarily issued by Amir-ul-Momineen [Taleban Supreme Leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada] to relevant administrative entities, who then issue them to the public” in a multitude of ways – “official instructions… by central and provincial authorities, in speeches by officials and via social and mainstream media.” (see footnote 1 for a list of the orders).
Among so many restrictions that suspend or severely limit the rights of women and girls to education, work and freedom of movement, the Taleban’s Supreme Leader issued only one decree affirming some rights. It stressed that “a woman is not a piece of property, but a genuine human being” in the context of her right to marry and inherit.Taken together, the bans limit women’s active engagement in society and confine them largely to roles within the family. The recent UN joint report, assessed the bans to be “violating girls’ and women’s rights to education, work, freedom of movement, health, bodily autonomy and decision-making, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and access to justice,” and amount to “gender persecution” (see this AAN report for a discussion of this term). They reported:
Women have described the continual announcement of restrictions as “day by day, the walls close in”, feeling “suffocated”, and the cumulative effect leaving them “without hope”. A journalist monitoring the announcement and implementation of restrictions since the Taliban came to power explained that “at early press conferences, we asked ‘what is your intention for women and girls?’ We were told, ‘wait, wait, you will understand our position on women.’ Initially, we thought this meant that a few small things would be changed, and we could continue to work, go to school, etc. But over time, we have come to the realization it was their intention to slowly erase women.”
Unlike the 1990s, the Taleban have not issued an outright ban on paid employment for women. However, their many restrictions on where women can work outside the home has hit the female workforce hard. In addition, indications are that the economic crash hit women workers and business owners harder than their male counterparts. According to a World Bank report from November 2022, nearly half of women previously employed in salaried work had lost their jobs since the takeover. Since then, the bans on women working for NGOs and the UN have further dented women’s right to paid employment. In another recent blow, the order closing beauty salons across the country, issued on 24 July 2023, cost an estimated 60,000 jobs, according to the BBC. At the time the Emirate suspended the right to higher education for women until further notice, in December 2022, over 100,000 female students were enrolled in government and private higher education institutions, according to UNESCO estimates. It reported that the number of women in higher education had increased almost 20-fold between 2001 and 2018, and before the suspension, one out of every three young women was enrolled in universities. It also estimated that since the Taleban takeover, 1.1 million Afghan girls and young women were without access to formal education. Although not all Afghan girls were sent to school and indeed, not all Afghan children (boys or girls) had schools to go to, “by August 2021, 4 out of 10 students in primary education were girls,” UNESCO said.
Taleban officials do not always implement orders comprehensively; in some places, there is room for manoeuvre locally, on schooling, work, dress and movement, although in others, officials apply restrictions more onerously than official orders require. Even so, the overall trends are clear: there are now fewer women in paid employment, far fewer girls going to secondary school and none to university.
Afghans, generally, have seen basic freedoms diminished: since taking power, the Emirate has increasingly clamped down on freedom of assembly, of protest and of speech, including by detaining and ill-treating demonstrators and others accused of dissent, a trend widely documented by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights and UNAMA. Yet, for women the new restrictions have been particularly heavy-hitting. Previously, some had public roles – in government, parliament, the civil service and as teachers in universities. Now, they are ruled by a government which believes that women should live lives largely confined to the home.
A day in the life of a young Afghan woman
While millions of Afghan girls and women face new restrictions on their lives, those who had been studying or working before the Taleban takeover have been particularly hard hit. They had a social life outside the family, regularly travelled to university or a workplace, frequently met with peers and dreamt of a life very different from the one the Emirate now has mapped out for them. To understand how these women are coping with their new predicament, we approached 11 women aged 20 to 26 who had either studied and/or worked until recently with a questionnaire consisting of eight open-ended questions.
A 23-year-old who was in her final year at Kabul University’s Psychology Faculty before the ban said that:
Before the Taleban, I was going to university, teaching freely and comfortably. There was motivation for work and life, and I was thinking about a better future. Now, my days are boring. Although I’m still teaching maths secretly, I’m unhappy because I can’t study anymore.
Another young woman, a 24-year-old high school graduate who has lost her job at a private company said:
My average day is very boring because I stay at home and I have no job. There’s not much to do except household chores, not only for me but also for most girls and women. We don’t even have [the right to] a recreation or a pastime. The Taleban have imposed a lot of restrictions on us.
Most of the interviewees said they were much more anxious now that they live in a restricted environment and are unhappy and depressed because of being confined to their homes.
I feel desperate because I can’t foresee my future. Even if I read or do something useful, I can’t see my place in the future. For instance, in the past, we [girls] could finish our schooling, participate in the kankor [university entrance exams] and enter a faculty that would help us find our place in the future. But now, no one’s place is definite, whether we study [at school] or at home [on our own]. Besides my madrassa studies, I do the simple chores that housewives do. For example, I do the washing-up and cleaning. Sometimes, when there’s no work at home, I move the furniture around to cope with the mental stress.
(A 20-year-old madrassa student)
My days are filled with worries. Every day there is a new restriction. My days are so different now. I was going to university, I was happier, I was able to meet my friends and I had freedom. Now, there is no freedom. I miss my university so much. Whenever I pass my university, only God knows the pain in my heart. I am asking what our sin is that we can’t go to university, but boys can go easily and study…. The boys who were my seniors have graduated, but we girls can only watch them finish their studies. I miss studying at university in the summer heat and the cold of winter, [I miss] being hungry and thirsty there.
(A 25-year-old who was in her 4th semester at Kabul Medical University before the ban)
Our interviewees reported that they were now meeting with their peers online. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report highlighted that women face difficulty meeting in public with other women: “Groups of more than three or four women are routinely dispersed by officials, arguing the need to prevent protests.” Some of our interviewees said they did leave the house occasionally, but always in the company of a male family member. One described how even family picnics, a favourite Afghan pastime, have been subject to inspections and directives by Taleban officials:
We don’t enjoy going out anymore because there are so many restrictions. For example, they tell us where [we should] and where we should not go. They tell us not to go where men are [present] in places like Qargha or Paghman [favourite picnic spots on the outskirts of Kabul]. Both places are restricted for women [on their own] … This is why I prefer to stay home. About a month ago, I went to Qargha with my family; we were in the car when the Taleban told us to go to a place where there were no men. It’s the same with restaurants. Most of the time, they enforce restrictions so that families must eat in a dark and secluded place inside the restaurant.
(A 23-year-old who studied engineering at Kabul University’s Polytechnic Faculty before the ban)
Passing the time and meeting friends online
Confined to their homes, the interviewees described their social life as having moved far more online. They reported spending between half an hour and several hours a day on the internet chatting with friends and family in Afghanistan and abroad. Most of them use online communication platforms and/or messengers.
When I don’t read books or watch movies, I spend some time online every day. In fact, I am online more than before. I chat with my friends and classmates and stay in touch with them.
(A 21-year-old student at Kabul University’s Faculty of Language and Literature)
I spend almost two hours online every day. I meet and chat with my friends online. I WhatsApp them or chat with them on Facebook Messenger. I also talk to one brother in Turkey and another who works in Iran.
(A 26-year-old high school graduate who lost her job at a private company)
When I am done with the household chores, I spend some time online every day. When I feel unhappy, I visit social media and chat with my friends and classmates.
(A 20-year-old midwifery student)
However, scrolling through their social media accounts is not the only thing these young women do in their free time. Most of our interviewees said they read or watch television in their free time, if they have electricity. However, a 20-year-old former law student pointed out that all that she does feels like just passing the time.
I read, but not as much as before because I’ve lost my place in society. What can I do even if I read? Now, I watch more movies than before without knowing why I’m watching them. I just know that by watching movies, I can pass the time.
(A 20-year-old former law student)
One interviewee, a 25-year-old, who was in her 4th semester at Kabul Medical University before the ban, was still trying to learn. She volunteers two or three times a week at a hospital in the city:
I go to the hospital from nine to three o’clock, two or three times a week. I work as a volunteer to learn from the doctors. I tried to join online classes but couldn’t [afford to] continue studying online. I also wanted to get a job, but I can’t because I don’t have a university degree. I am not hopeful that the universities will reopen [for women]. I have heard that the Taleban have closed them for girls permanently.
(A 25-year-old student of medical sciences)
For such young women, the sudden end to their hopes, dreams, freedom of movement, social status and ability to earn a living is a calamity, but as the Special Rapporteur’s recent report underlined, the consequences for the nation as a whole will also be catastrophic. He cited, for example, a visible shortage of first-year interns in a maternity hospital in Kabul:
[T]he experts noticed the absence of first-year interns. It was a stark reminder of the longer-term prospects for women’s health care if the ban on education for girls continues. As girls and women can be provided care only by female doctors, unless the restrictions are reversed rapidly, there is a real risk of multiple preventable deaths, which could amount to femicide.
There is a long tradition of Afghan women trained in the medical sciences and working to aid their compatriots. The first Afghan girls’ primary school graduates from the Queens Soraya school, established in 1921, were sent to Turkey in 1928 to a high school for nursing. Trained nurses were needed for Afghanistan’s first women’s hospital, which opened in the late 1920s. Today, we may be witnessing an end to this century-old tradition of educating Afghan women to help other women maintain and improve their health.
Déjà vu with a twist
If the Taleban’s restrictions on women and girls today feel like déjà vu, a return to the strict conditions placed on society during the first emirate (1996-2001), it is worth returning to one of the sharpest analysts of that time, Nancy Hatch Dupree, to try and understand what is going on. In a journal article from 2004 about the Afghan family during times of crisis, she argued that Taleban restrictions on women – namely enforcing the wearing of burqas (chadari),excluding women from educational institutions and places of employment, inhibiting women’s movement in public except when accompanied by a mahram and rigorous segregation of men and women under all circumstances – could be seen as political acts. She contended that the restrictions were a means of controlling society and that they had a deep impact on the Afghan family, which she saw as the backbone of Afghan society. She wrote:
Taking advantage of the deeply embedded attitudes toward the centrality of women in the social concepts of family and honour, Taliban policies wrapped entrenched customary practices and patriarchal attitudes in the mantle of Islam. They were then manipulated to maintain power. By imposing strict restraints directly on women, the new rulers sent a clear message of their intent to subordinate the personal autonomy of every individual, and thereby strengthened the impression that they were capable of exercising control over all aspects of social behaviour. These policies were among the most potent instruments of their rule. […] Women eventually learned to cope, but beneath their burqas emotions boiled. At home, mental stress disturbed family harmony. Stricter seclusion curtailed the normal social interactions that formed an integral part of their daily lives, creating a sense of isolation.
The more than 50 orders aimed at controlling women and girls issued by the Taleban since re-taking power suggests they are using the same strategy. Yet, unlike the 1990s, there are today many more Afghan women are who are educated and have had salaried employment, as well as millions of girls who have grown up believing they could contribute to society beyond household and motherhood. The statistics on schooling alone are striking. In 1995, just before the Taleban came to power last time, around 29 per cent of girls were enrolled in primary school by 1999, that percentage had dropped to only four percent of girls enrolled in primary school, according to the World Bank estimates. In 2019, 85 percent of Afghan girls were enrolled in primary schools.
The young women we interviewed, as one put it, used to have a place in their own futures. For now, at least, they are reduced to trying to pass the time, without enjoyment or little to make them feel useful. As Dupree reported, during the first emirate women did eventually learn to cope, but at great cost to their mental wellbeing and that of their families. This time, our interviewees at least are still wondering how they are going to get through these days. As one 20-year-old former law student put it:
As our mothers say, when your heart is broken, nothing can be done, but if your legs are broken, you can still do everything.
This in turn raises the question: What, this time, has been broken?
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Kate Clark
|↑1||The list below is based on that given in the June 2023 joint report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, along with a timeline by the US Institute of Peace and AAN’s own reporting and monitoring of the Afghan media and coverage:
27 August 2021: female employees of the Ministry of Public Health only told to report to work; most other female government employees have never been asked to return to work/told to stay at home (see this AAN report);
18 September 2021: schools not opened to girls beyond grade six (see this AAN report);
20 September 2021: ordered professional working women to stay at home until further notice (see USIP timeline)
23 December 2021: (male) drivers instructed not to accept female passengers who are not wearing what the Taleban consider to be hijab, or, for journeys greater than 72 kilometres, do not have a mahram (close male relative acting as a chaperone);
2 March 2022: women banned from entering health centres without a mahram (see USIP timeline)
13 March 2022: enforcement of segregation of women and men’s offices (see USIP timeline)
23 March 2022: girls secondary schools do not open or are quickly closed for the new school year following a last-minute, high-level order from Kandahar (see this AAN report);
27 March 2022: women banned from boarding domestic and international flights without a mahram;
7 May 2022: women ordered to observe hijab, defined either as a burqa or a black gown with face covering (niqab), or best of all, not to leave home without good reason (“the first and best form of observing hijab”) (see this AAN report);
21 May 2022: female television presenters required to cover their faces;
1 June 2022: all girls in fourth to sixth grades required to cover their faces while commuting to school;
23 August 2022: female moral police department under the Ministry for Preventing Vice and Promoting Virtue established (see USIP timeline);
25 August 2022: ban on women going to parks where park authorities cannot ensure segregation between men and women (see USIP timeline);
10 November 2022: women prohibited from using gyms and parks (see USIP timeline);
20 December 2022: the right of women to attend university is “suspended”;
22 December 2022: girls beyond grade 6 banned by Ministry of Education from attending private courses (see USIP timeline);
24 December 2022: NGOs instructed to “halt the work of all female employees… until further notice” (with subsequent unofficial exemptions for women working in the health and primary education sectors – see this AAN report);
12 March 2023: Taleban banned the issuing of transcripts and certificates for female university graduates (see USIP timeline);
24 July 2023: closure of all beauty salons across Afghanistan.
|↑2||A Taleban decree concerning the “rights for women” (number 83/ Vol 1) published in the Official Gazette (see here) says that the consent of an adult woman is necessary for nikah [marriage] and that “a woman is not a piece of property, but a genuine human being. No one can trade her for peace in a bad [marriage, ie to assuage a blood feud]”. It also says that “a widow cannot be remarried to her brother-in-law or anyone else” and that “receiving a dowry is a widow’s Sharia right.” The decree says that “women have a fixed inheritance right when it comes to the property of their husbands, children, father and other relatives” and that “No one can deprive them of this right based on either fardiyat [primary heirs] or asabiyat[residual heirs]. As well as that, “those with multiple wives are obliged to give their wives their rights according to the rules of Sharia and to observe fairness among them.”
Interestingly the Taleban only published the above-mentioned decree in the Official Gazette. Other orders that limit or suspend women’s basic rights have not been published in the Official Gazette.
|↑3||The quotes come for interviews with 79 Afghans (67 women and 12 men) and focus group with 159 women participants on the survey results in 11 provinces. A survey of 2,112 Afghan women across 18 provinces was conducted in March 2023.|
|↑4||The World Bank reported in November 2022 an increase in women’s participation in the labour force, as families try to maximise income in the face of economic difficulties. However, that participation is not generally as salaried workers: “Many who previously identified as housewives are now working, mostly as self-employed workers on the farm, tending to livestock, or engaging in small-scale economic activities from home, for example as seamstresses or mending or sewing clothes. Among women previously identified as students, approximately one-half have entered the labor force.”|
|↑5||In the first instance, Taleban authorities imposed some conditions on women’s beauty parlours in Herat province on 18 June 2023 when the provincial Amr bil-Maruf (the virtue and vice ministry) sent a letter containing 14 points regulating the work of women beauty parlours, as the news website Etilaatroz reported. These regulations included prohibition on the hair extensions and the eyebrow removal because they are seen as against Sharia, it also instructed women to perform ablution before applying make-up, and the makeup to avoid using substances that break the ablution. However, on 24 July 2023, the main Amr bil-Maruf issued a new order which said that the supreme leader had ordered the closure of all beauty parlours in Afghanistan.|
|↑6||See also two of our earlier reports on women’s lives under the Taleban, ‘How Can a Bird Fly On Only One Wing? Afghan women speak about life under the Islamic Emirate’ 22 November 2022 and ‘Strangers in Our Own Country: How Afghan women cope with life under the Islamic Emirate view living under Taleban rule’, 28 December 2023.|
How do you spend your days? What your average day looks like?
Do you help more than before with the house chores?
Do you read more than before? Do you watch more movies than before?
How often do you go out of the house?
Do you miss being on the University campus/going to work?
How much time do you spend online?
Do you meet with your friends online?
Have you started any alternative online/in presence course or activity to make up for the lost (study/job)?
|↑8||For little-known and interesting historical details about Afghan women, see Nancy Hatch Dupree’s timeless “The Women of Afghanistan,” published in 1998 by the Office of the UN Coordinator and available in an online archive of the Afghanistan Centre at the Kabul University (ACKU).|
|↑9||“The Family During Crisis in Afghanistan” by Nancy Hatch Dupree, published in Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2, (Spring, 2004), pp. 311-331.|
|↑10||Girls tended to drop out as they got older, but far more in some provinces than others. For more statistics and maps and a discussion of this and many other issues related to schooling, see AAN’s January 2022 report, ‘Who Gets to Go to School? (1): What people told us about education since the Taleban took over’.|