KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban government on Saturday ordered all foreign and domestic non-governmental groups in Afghanistan to suspend the employment of women, allegedly because some female employees did not wear the Islamic headscarf properly. They also separately banned women from attending religious classes in the mosques in the capital, Kabul.
The bans are the latest restrictive measures by Afghanistan’s new rulers against women’s rights and freedoms, coming just days after the Taliban banned female students from attending universities across the country.
Afghan women have since demonstrated in major cities against the ban – a rare sign of domestic protests since the Taliban took power last year. The decision has also sparked international outrage.
The NGO order came in a letter from Economy Minister Qari Din Mohammed Hanif, who said that any organization that does not comply with the order will have its license to operate in Afghanistan revoked. The ministry’s spokesman, Abdul Rahman Habib, confirmed the letter’s contents to The Associated Press.
The ministry said it had received “serious complaints” about female staff working for NGOs not wearing the “correct” headscarf or hijab. It was not immediately clear whether the order applies to all women or just Afghan women working at the NGOs.
More details were not immediately available due to concerns that the latest Taliban movement could be a springboard to a blanket ban on Afghan women leaving the home.
“It’s a heartbreaking announcement,” said Maliha Niazai, a master trainer at an NGO that teaches young people about issues such as gender-based violence. “Aren’t we human? Why do they treat us with this cruelty?”
The 25-year-old, who works at Y-Peer Afghanistan and lives in Kabul, said her job was important because she served her country and is the only person supporting her family. “Will the officials support us after this announcement? If not, why are they taking meals out of our mouths?” she asked.
Another NGO worker, a 24-year-old from Jalalabad who works with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said it was “the worst moment of my life.”
“The job gives me more than a… living, it’s a representation of all the efforts I’ve made,” she said, declining to give her name for fear of her own safety.
The United Nations condemned the NGO order and said it will try to meet with the Taliban leadership to get some clarity.
“Taking away women’s free will to choose their own destiny, disenfranchising them and systematically excluding them from all aspects of public and political life is taking the country backwards, jeopardizing efforts for any meaningful peace or stability in the country,” it said a statement from the United Nations.
In another edict, a spokesman for the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, Fazil Mohammad Hussaini, said late Saturday that “adult girls” are prohibited from attending Islamic classes in mosques in Kabul, although they can still go to independent madrassas or religious schools.
He gave no further details and did not elaborate on the ages affected by the ban or how it would be enforced. It was also not explained why the measure only applies to Kabul mosques.
Earlier on Saturday, Taliban security forces used a water cannon to disperse women protesting the ban on university education for women in the western city of Herat, witnesses said.
According to witnesses, around two dozen women were on their way to Herat’s provincial governor’s house on Saturday to protest the ban – many chanting: “Education is our right” – when they were pushed back by security forces who fired water cannons.
Video shared with the AP shows the women screaming and hiding on a side street to escape the water cannon. They then resume their protest, with chants of “Shameful!”
One of the protest organizers, Maryam, said between 100 and 150 women took part in the protest, moving in small groups from different parts of the city towards a central meeting point. She did not give her last name for fear of reprisals.
“There was security on every street, every square, armored vehicles and armed men,” she said. “When we started our protest, in Tariqi Park, the Taliban took branches from the trees and beat us. But we continued our protest. They increased their security presence. Around 11 o’clock they brought out the water cannon.”
A spokesman for the provincial governor, Hamidullah Mutawakil, claimed there were only four or five protesters.
“They had no agenda, they just came here to make a film,” he said, without mentioning the violence against the women or the use of the water cannon.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the university ban, including from Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as warnings from the United States and the G-7 group of major industrialized nations that the policy will have consequences for the Taliban.
A Taliban government official, Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim, spoke about the ban for the first time on Thursday in an interview with Afghan state television.
He said the ban was necessary to prevent mixing of the sexes at universities and because he believed some subjects taught violated the principles of Islam. He also added that the ban would remain in effect until further notice.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule that respects the rights of women and minorities, the Taliban have largely implemented their interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia, since taking power in August 2021.
They have banned girls from middle school and high school – and now university – and also blocked women from most fields of work. Women have also been ordered to wear head-to-toe clothing in public and have been banned from parks and gyms.
Afghan society, while largely traditional, had increasingly embraced the education of girls and women over the past two decades of a US-backed government.
In the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, dozens of Afghan refugee students protested Saturday against the ban on women’s higher education in their homeland, demanding the immediate reopening of campuses for women.
One of them, Bibi Haseena, read a poem depicting the dire situation of Afghan girls seeking an education. She said she was unhappy about graduating outside her country when hundreds of thousands of her Afghan sisters were denied an education.
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