‘My Hope Died Forever’: Taliban Restrictions Are Forcing Afghan Women Out Of The Workforce
Khadija spent a few hours in the Taliban’s custody after she was arrested for attempting to organize a protest to demand the right to work in September 2021. She was questioned for hours by the Taliban and forced to vow not to provoke further protest. Since then, the Taliban have been keeping a close eye on her.
“I can’t do or say anything without thinking they’re watching and listening,” Khadija, a lawyer from Afghanistan who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, told HuffPost over WhatsApp.
Khadija majored in Islamic law, passed the bar exam, and spent four years working as a criminal defense attorney. However, when the Taliban came to power she was no longer allowed to work and was forced to remain at home with a backlog of cases from her clients. The Taliban justice ministry took lawyer licensing control from Afghanistan’s independent bar association and asked lawyers to renew their licenses to work under the Taliban. But women don’t have the right to take the bar exam or renew their licenses anymore.
Khadija had been the sole income for her family of six and suddenly found herself in a dire financial situation.
“I no longer can practice law as a woman,” she said. “This results from the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam, which forbids ‘women in the position of judgment and authority’ and ‘women’s legal guardianship over men.’”
Over the past 12 months since the Taliban came to power, human rights violations against women and girls have mounted steadily in Afghanistan. The Taliban banned girls from attending school past the sixth grade and suppressed women’s movements. Women are not allowed to travel long distances without a male chaperone, and unchaperoned women are increasingly being denied access to essential services. Women hold no cabinet or decision-making positions in the Taliban’s de facto government.
Before the hard-line group took control last year, female participation in Afghanistan’s labor force had climbed from around 15% in 2009 to nearly 22% in 2019. The arrival of the Taliban particularly impacted women’s employment in certain sectors. Most ex-government workers, police members, soldiers, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, teachers and journalists have not been able to return to work, unlike their male counterparts.
Khadija decided to continue working on her pending cases after months of staying at home, but her role in these cases was reduced. Without her license, she can only represent someone in court if they grant her power of attorney.
Most of her clients are male, and she is constrained by the Taliban’s rules that forbid men and women from openly communicating in public unless they can show they are Mahram (closely related).
“When the Taliban authorities are around, it’s difficult for me to talk with my male clients,” Khadija said. She typically meets with her clients in private and tries to limit or avoid any interaction in court unless it is required.
Most of the women who previously worked as judges, prosecutors or defense lawyers, along with those whose profession involved terrorism and criminal cases, are now in hiding or have fled the country. About 5,000 women who worked for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense and army, Ministry of Interior and police, and the National Directorate of Security or Afghanistan’s secret police have done the same.
“Most of them are in hiding,” Fereshta Abbasi, a researcher in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told HuffPost. “Going back to work for them under the Taliban rule is not an option.”
More than 80% of women journalists have lost their jobs, according to a survey by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA) Foundation. Those who have kept jobs in the industry have been subjected to Taliban restrictions.
In May, authorities instructed media outlets to make sure that female presenters covered their faces when on air. Many prominent female journalists have fled the country and are now living in exile. Additionally, hundreds of media outlets have been shut down due to a lack of funding and the Taliban’s restrictive policies on the media and freedom of speech.
Some women in certain sectors, such as health or education, have been allowed to keep their jobs if they cannot be replaced by men or if the position is deemed not to be a “man’s job,” according to Amnesty International.
Yet there is no uniform policy or clear data that indicates whether women are permitted to return to work. This varies widely among sectors, job functions and regions. For instance, the Taliban have asked women working at Afghanistan’s finance ministry to send a male relative to do their job while some departments still allow female employees in the office.
“We were only allowed to return to work when we agreed to their terms,” Fatima, a government employee who wants to be identified by a pseudonym because she’s concerned for her safety, told HuffPost. She was instructed to dress head-to-toe in black with a mask over her face, not wear jeans, stay in a makeshift office built inside a container, and never speak to male colleagues.
The Taliban’s ministry of virtue and vice — which established its headquarters in the same building that had formerly housed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs — is infamous for its abuse of women’s rights and is responsible for enforcing most of these repressive policies.
Fatima said the ministry often makes random visits to women employees’ work areas monitoring their hijabs and behavior.
She feels that establishing such rules is an attempt to discourage women from participating in the workforce. Many of her female coworkers resigned in the last few months because they were unable to work under the strict new rules and they were not assigned any tasks, she said.
Dozens of national and international NGOs that promoted human rights, freedom of speech, education and other development projects stopped operating once the Taliban took control, which resulted in thousands of people losing their jobs. Still, the number of women employed by NGOs remains relatively high when compared to other industries — but the Taliban’s restrictions continue to hamper their ability to work effectively and efficiently.
“Women have been told, for instance, that they must cover their faces at work,” Abbasi told HuffPost. “Men and women are segregated at work in several provinces, which has discouraged smaller organizations from hiring women since they cannot afford separate buildings and offices. Women have also been told that they must be accompanied by a Mahram not only when traveling but also while at work.”
The number of female aid workers is still not sufficient, Abbasi said. The deficit has affected the capacity of humanitarian aid organizations to ensure that aid reaches Afghan women.
The private sector has also dismissed many women in high-level positions. Huda, a financial adviser, told Amnesty International she noticed a change when reviewing job openings online. “I was using the same platform before, and there used to be high positions for women… [like] finance manager, HR manager, chief operating officer,” she said. “But now it’s all interns [and] assistants.”
Female business owners in Afghanistan have also been hurt by the restrictions imposed by the Taliban. Before the group took over, there were 17,369 women-owned businesses in Afghanistan, according to the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The majority of these businesses were less than five years old and had created more than 129,000 jobs with over three-quarters of positions held by women.
“I had to close the store I had spent years working and saving for,” Zahra, who had recently opened a shop in Kabul to sell her art told HuffPost. She lost thousands of dollars as Taliban restrictions forced her to close her shop and only sell online. She said orders completely dropped off after a few months. “With my shop and money gone, my hope died forever,” she added.
“Women, especially educated Afghan women, have been an integral part of the economy in Afghanistan,” Abbasi said. “Afghanistan wouldn’t be able to have a progressive economy without women contributing to that, [therefore] it is an obvious thing to say that women need to join the workforce.”
With so many Afghans out of work, the country’s economic crisis — which is among the worst in the world — will only get worse. At least 900,000 Afghans have lost their jobs since the Taliban took control last August, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
“It worries me to see that when people are dying out of hunger and are in need of food in Afghanistan,” Abbasi said, “the Taliban’s priority is to put more restrictions on women.”