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Afghan women determined, frustrated after Taliban NGO ban

2022 Dec 29, 13:24, Kabul

Even before the Taliban barred Afghan women from working at non-governmental groups, their forces visited the office of one local organization in the capital Kabul several times to check female staff was obeying rules on dress codes and gender segregation.

Already, the women in the office had been extra careful, hoping to avoid problems with the Taliban. They wore long clothes and masks along with the Islamic headscarf and stayed separate from male co-workers in the workspace and at meals, one female NGO employee said.

“We even changed our office arrival and departure times because we didn’t want to be followed” by the Taliban, she said, speaking on the condition her name, job title, and the name of her organization not be used for fear of reprisals.

That wasn’t enough. On Saturday, Taliban authorities announced the exclusion of women from NGOs, allegedly because they weren’t wearing the headscarf, or hijab, correctly.

The move prompted international aid agencies to halt operations in Afghanistan, raising the possibility that millions of people will be left without food, education, health care, and other critical services during the harsh winter months.

The agency coordinating development and relief work in Afghanistan, ACBAR, estimates that many of its 183 national and international members have suspended, stopped, or reduced their humanitarian activities and services since the order came into effect.

These members employ more than 55,000 Afghan nationals between them, around a third of whom are women. The agency says female staff plays an essential role in NGO activities, providing humanitarian services while also respecting traditional and religious customs.

Still, women in some local organizations are trying to keep providing services as much as they can under the radar and paying their staff as long as donor funds continue.

The NGO worker, who has two master’s degrees and three decades of professional experience in Afghanistan’s education sector, wanted to go to the office one last time to collect her laptop but was warned against doing so by her director because there were armed Taliban outside the building.

She is determined to continue helping others, even though she is now working from home.

“It is my responsibility to take the hand of women and girls and provide services for them,” she said. “I will work until the end of my life. This is why I am not leaving Afghanistan. I could have gone, but other women look to me for help. If we fail, all women fail.”

Her NGO advises women on entrepreneurship, health care, social advice, and education. Its activities are done in person in the capital, Kabul, and other provinces. It has helped 25,000 women in the past six months and hopes to help another 50,000 in the coming months, although how it will do this is unclear, given that most of its permanent and temporary staff are women.

Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, the Taliban are implementing their interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia.

They have banned girls from middle school, high school, and university, restricted women from most employment, and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. Women are also banned from parks, gyms, and other public spaces.

The NGO worker said many educated women left after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, costing Afghan civil society much of its capacity and expertise.

“They have been targeting women from the beginning. Why are they making enemies of women? Don’t they have wives, sisters, and mothers?” she said. “The women we help don’t have computers, they don’t have Zoom. It’s hard to do this job without being face-to-face. But I am hopeful we can start our work again in the coming weeks.”

Another Afghan NGO worker anticipates that donor funding will stop because of the drop in female participation. She also spoke on condition she not be identified to protect herself, her colleagues, and partner organizations.

She is frustrated but not shocked by the Taliban’s latest order. Her pragmatism leads her to believe in the importance of engaging with the Taliban as the country’s de facto rulers. “We pay our electricity bills to the Taliban, we get our identity cards from them. More Afghans need to find ways to sit down with them. We need to tell them these issues aren’t foreign-led.”


Taliban Afghan women dress codes gender segregation Islamic headscarf hijab Afghanistan humanitarian activities donor funds education sector Islamic law NGO worker
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