Sixteen months since its takeover of Afghanistan, the Emirate has imposed sweeping new restrictions on women’s lives, kicking female students out of universities and education centres, and banning women from working for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The bans have come on top of the continuing closure of girls’ high schools, the banning of female civil servants from offices, curbs on women’s independent travel and what they can wear, and denying them access to parks, gyms and public bath houses. In this second report in a three-part series exploring how Afghan women’s lives have changed since the Taleban takeover, Roxanna Shapour and Rama Mirzada consider the responses of Afghan women and their male relatives to the Taleban’s cataclysmic encroachment on their rights: How do you keep going when you have no hope?18-year-old Marwa protests alone outside Kabul University on 25 December 2022 against Taleban’s decision to close universities to her and female students. Her sign quotes from the Quran: Muslims believe that “Iqra!” or “Read!” was the first word of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation. Marwa told AFP that even though she was taunted and insulted by the Taleban guards, "For the first time in my life, I felt so proud, strong and powerful because I was standing against them and demanding a right that God has given us." (Photo: AFP)
The first report in this series, How Can a Bird Fly On Only One Wing? Afghan women speak about life under the Islamic Emirate, published in November, surveyed the consequences of Taleban policies which marginalise women and erase them from public life – on household economies, women’s dreams of education and personal and professional growth, and on the power dynamics within families. Many women described how their independence had been undermined, along with their sense of self-worth and self-confidence, and how they were now struggling to maintain a sense of personhood. For a timeline of the main restrictions on the lives of women and girls since the Taleban came back to power, see footnote 1.
This second report focuses on how women are responding to the onslaughts on their rights and freedoms. We spoke to 19 women living in 15 provinces, all of whom were working or had been working before the takeover. The interviews were conducted in June and July 2022. Their voices have only become more pertinent as Taleban restrictions have tightened through the autumn and into winter, affecting more and more areas of their lives. The interviewees provide significant insights into how women are trying to navigate this ever more difficult landscape, where they often feel no hope, and for some, receive little support from their families. The interviews have been edited for clarity and flow. The names used aren’t their real names.
Where there is no hope
In the summer of 2021, we asked our interviewees how they were coping with the constraints placed on their lives since the Taleban came to power and how they felt about their future prospects as women in Afghanistan. What resonated most was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and dejection, a feeling of being strangers in their own country, and a lack of options reaching into the lives of generations of Afghan women to come.
The Taleban say they have fought for 20 years to free Afghanistan. When they say this, I feel like we aren’t from Afghanistan, that we are strangers who have come from another place. I am deeply saddened when I think about these things, I try to give hope to other people, but it is impossible for me to remain strong; I always cry because I have no other options.
Nilab, 24-year-old single Baluch school principal, Nimruz province
People are disappointed because the Taleban don’t compromise, and their government is not recognised yet. The girls are hopeless and weary. They’re very talented, hardworking and don’t want to waste even a day of their lives, but now they’re staying at home and thinking that the school gates might never reopen to them.
Ghuncha, 39-year-old married Tajik former civil servant, Ghor province
I have no hope that men and women in Afghanistan will be able to go to work freely. I don’t think this group [Taleban] will ever stop condemning us and I can’t imagine a time when we’ll be able to walk in Kabul freely.
Khwaga, 32-year-old single Pashtun protestor and former civil servant, Kabul City
I am disillusioned about living in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, giving birth to a girl is a big mistake because there are so many problems for them here.
Kamala, 29-year-old married Pashtun, Kunar province
Increasingly rigorous enforcement
We asked the interviewees if there had been any changes in how the Taleban enforced restrictions on women. While most reported that enforcement had increased, their experiences varied according to where they live, but also what had been ‘normal’ social practice before the Taleban takeover. The NGO worker in Nuristan said not much had changed because women in her area covered their faces and going out with a mahram even before the fall of the Islamic Republic and therefore there was no need for vigorous enforcement.
One point to note here is that, unlike other parts of the Muslim world, when Afghans refer to ‘hijab’, it is a reference to clothing that is bulky and covers both head and body and possibly face, either the chadori (burqa), which covers the face, or the abaya, with or without a niqab, or in some areas, an Iranian-style chador. When our interviewees speak of having to wear ‘hijab’, therefore, they are referring to garments which cover the head, the shape of the body and possibly the face. In Afghanistan, all women and even very young girls always wear headscarves.
In many areas of the country, the picture that emerged is a gradual hardening of enforcement, such as in Kunarwhere Kamala lives:
In the beginning, there weren’t many restrictions for women going shopping. Now they warn women when they don’t have a mahram or because of their hijab. They also warn women who work with NGOs to have a mahram when they travel to other areas. Amr bil Maruf (the virtue and vice police) is active here and claim they’re defending women’s rights, but actually, they cannot because in the past, women could visit [government] offices to solve their problems.
According to 28-year-old married Uzbek former teacher, Sima, who lives in Samangan, it was still possible in summer 2022 to move around without a mahram in Mazar-e Sharif where her mother lives:
During the first six months, there was little enforcement [of rules], but now it’s very strict. I was going [from Samangan] to Mazar without a chadori [burqa] or mahram and no one told me anything, but in the past two months, we haven’t been able to go anywhere without a chadori, or abaya, and a mahram. Today [in Mazar], I went to the hospital with my mother in a taxi. No one told us anything, but it is impossible to do this where I live.
38-year-old former civil servant Khalida recounted her experiences in Kabul:
The enforcement of the restrictions has increased. The Taleban tell me to cover my face and hair whenever I go out. A few days ago, in front of Gulbahar Centre, a Taleb told me that God would not forgive me. I asked why? He said that, because my face was not covered, all non-mahram men could see it. Another time. I was waiting for my friend at Haji Yaqoob Square so we could go to a book fair together. The Taleban came several times to ask me why I was standing there, who I was, and who else was with me. Life is strict for women here. The Taleban try to show the world that nothing [bad] is happening in Afghanistan. The Taleban said that women [government] employees must introduce their husbands or brothers to work in their place. They know this is impossible because everyone’s field of study and work experience is different. They just want to marginalise women and trick people.
For most women we interviewed, fear was a powerful motivator for compliance, and rumours fuelled anxieties. 28-year-old Tamana, a married Tajik primary school principal told us that while they had not witnessed strict enforcement in her area in Takhar province, news reports and rumours were causing women to restrict themselves:
I don’t wear short clothing at school, even though only my [female] colleagues are there because we are afraid of spies. Three months ago, my baby got sick and my husband, mother-in-law and I went to Taloqan. We passed through three checkpoints. The Taleban asked about our mahram and our relationships with each other. One of my friends told me that on the way to Taloqan, the driver lied to the Taleban at a checkpoint and told them that [the woman in his taxi] was his wife and that the Talebs asked him to kiss her [to prove it].
The Taleban have not restricted us in my area from going to the bazaar, but the fear lies in our hearts. We hear that the Taleban have beaten women in other places, but it hasn’t happened here yet. That’s why we are afraid. Yesterday one of my friends went to Khwaja Bahawuddin. She says the Taleban have banned black abayas and ordered all women there to wear the chadori. There is a change in my clothing too. I now wear a very long chapan [coat] and a chadori. I used to wear a shorter chapan because I don’t feel comfortable wearing long clothes. My previous clothes were also modest, but this year we were ordered to wear long chapans.
28-year-old Najia, a married Pashtun NGO director living in Nangrahar province, told us that while not much had changed for women in her area since the Taleban takeover, she had started to place restrictions on her own movements:
I used to go places in a rickshaw, but now I don’t because I’m afraid, even though no one has said anything about it. I now have a mahram with me because of my own fear, not because it is enforced. The women here can go shopping as before. Women were already wearing the chadori, so there hasn’t been much change in what we wear. I still wear an abaya and niqab now as [I did] in the past.
24-year-old Nilab recounted how the Taleban in Nimruz stop wedding ceremonies where music is being played:
Women must wear hijab and men must grow beards. People obey these restrictions because they’re afraid of being arrested and punished. The restrictions have increased. They can’t bear even the sounds of people’s happiness. When there is a [wedding] ceremony, the Taleban arrive suddenly and order people to turn the music off or they arrest the men of the family.
The interviews also provide insights into enforcement tactics. In many areas, the Taleban use mosques as a platform to deliver messages about restrictions on women to their menfolk, urging them to ensure the women in their families comply or prepare to face reprisals. Nilab also told us that enforcement had become less visible in her area in Nimruzand that the Taleban were delivering messages in mosques and verbal cautions to men:
They’ve been enforcing the restrictions from the beginning, but now there is Amr bil Maruf – they monitor the clothing of the students and teachers near schools. A month ago, they stopped us going shopping without a niqab and mahram. They told the shopkeepers not to let women without a mahram into their shops. Now [visible] enforcement has decreased, but they still monitor us from afar. Women can go shopping without a mahram, but if they’re not wearing a niqab and a big chador or if they’re wearing makeup, the Taleban find out where they live and threaten their guardians. The Taleban have advised men at the mosques that they should not permit their women to go out of the house, go shopping or go to any public place without them. They said at the mosque that if they see a woman alone and without [proper] hijab, it will be a problem for her guardian. The Taleban also warned taxi drivers not to allow women without a mahram into their cars.
At least in some areas, there do not seem to be serious consequences for violators. For example, 20-year-old unmarried Pashtun midwife Usha who lives in Uruzgan province said no one in her area was following the rules, and she herself was carrying on very much as before:
The Taleban don’t stop women to advise them because they make their announcements in the mosques when men go for prayers, or in the offices where they tell the managers about the orders. For instance, in the hospital there were some rooms used by both males and females, and the Taleban told the director to separate them. It was announced in two or three mosques that women must not go out alone or even with two or three other women, but no one obeys, and the Taleban have not enforced it. I’ve gone to the bazaar, my friend’s home, and taught classes; the Taleban have not said anything to me yet.
Parvana, 26-year-old unmarried Tajik schoolteacher from Panjshir province said that restrictions had increased, but went on the talk about how restrictions were being driven by the ongoing conflict in the province:
I think the enforcement of the restrictions on women has increased and girls cannot go to school or university and women cannot go to work. The Taleban say the situation is normal and there’s peace here, but actually there isn’t. There is fighting in Panjshir, so families are afraid to send their daughters to university for fear of the fighting, car explosions and rape on the way. The university is almost two hours away, so families don’t send their girls – or their boys – because the situation is unstable.
Some interviewees, such as the 35-year-old Hazara NGO worker, Manija, who lives in Mazar-e Sharif city,reported a scaling back of enforcement since the early days of the takeover:
In the beginning, the enforcement of the restrictions was very serious; now they’re not too strict on women. I don’t know the reason. In the early days, they were rude; for instance, they stopped cars by pounding on them and shouting impolitely. They asked why the women were sitting in the car’s front seats. I don’t know why they’re more polite now. They used a wooden baton to show women to cover their hair and faces. They didn’t look women in the eye when they told them this, but now they look us in the eye and I feel that slowly they too like to see women [outside]. I wear a chadori or an abaya and a mask or no mask and I go out without a mahram. No one has said anything to me yet.
However, 25-year-old protestor, Kowkab, reported a different story from her sister who was at university in Mazar:
In Mazar, girls who live in the [university] hostel cannot go home because the Taleban don’t allow them to travel without a mahram. In the past, female students did everything by themselves, including travel. I know the majority of the female students have no mahram.
There does appear to be some room for negotiation, at least in some areas or workplaces, such as for Usha the midwife we interviewed in Uruzgan province:
I can move freely and have no problem, though there are a few restrictions on women’s clothing; for instance, the Taleban ordered us to observe hijab inside the hospital and offices; no one is following these orders yet, and no one has been forced to obey them. When the Taleban ordered female staff to observe hijab in the hospital, we told them we can’t wear an abaya inside the hospital because cleaners wash the floors with chlorine and an abaya would get dirty on the wet floor. Now, we’re wearing the clothes we wore in the past, such as shalwar kamiz and our white lab coats.
The Taleban also ordered the female staff to come to work with a mahram. The hospital told the Taleban that female staff work separately from the men, so there is no need for a mahram, and they’re not necessary because the hospital does not allow them to enter the women’s ward. Female staff aren’t allowed to come to the hospital in a taxi, rickshaw or on foot, even if another woman accompanies them. They must either come with a mahram or use the hospital transport. Female patients aren’t allowed in the hospital without a mahram. The hospital announced this order, but no one follows it and there has been no serious enforcement. For me, there’s no change. I use the hospital transport. I wear the clothes I wore during the Republic in the hospital, and a chadori outside.
Are men in the family supportive?
When we turned to how the men in their families viewed Taleban restrictions on women, nearly all respondents said their close male relatives were generally opposed to the restrictions. This was particularly the case when it came to the closure of girls’ schools, to which most male family members appeared to be unanimously opposed. Many interviewees, however, said their extended families viewed the Taleban’s restrictions positively. The interviewees, themselves, often broadened the conversation to include the socio-cultural dynamics at play when it comes to women’s rights.
Former civil servant Ghuncha, who lives with her disabled husband and two of her seven children in Ghor province, said that men, particularly in rural areas, were happy about the new restrictions on women:
They say it’s good for women to observe the hijab and good that women are forbidden to move around. In the first years [of the Republic], no one liked women being present at meetings, but [gradually] there was a big positive change in women’s roles. So, now, men are very happy again with these restrictions because they like a government that doesn’t give any authority to women, that makes women observe the hijab, and keeps them at home to do housework and not talk loudly. This is what men want, especially the ones in the villages. My husband thinks otherwise. He thinks educated women should serve society and help other women. He says that having a mahram is not bad, but what about those women who don’t have one? My husband is against school closures because he thinks society needs women to work in different sectors such as education, the military, and health.
The 28-year-old former teacher, Sima, from Samangan province, told us that while her husband was opposed to the restrictions, her own parents’ family were in favour of them:
All men like their wives to observe hijab and stay at home [but] my husband didn’t oppose me, he had no problem when I was going out without a mahram. He’s not happy with the new restrictions, but [the men in] my parents’ family are happy. My husband and I always worry about our children’s education. He says they should be able to study and become independent in the future. My husband wishes for me to have a job so I can help him manage our expenses.
Tamana lives in Takhar province with her husband’s family, who are in favour of the rules on the hijab and mahram, but would like to see older girls in education:
My husband’s family agrees with the hijab and mahram rules for women, but they’re not in favour of closing schools and keeping girls out of education. Families have different mindsets. For example, my father’s family was not too restricted when it came to the hijab and mahram. I had permission to participate in all programmes, but my husband’s family is not like that and now I am 25 per cent more restricted than I was before [I got married].
24-year-old single Nilab lives with her family in Nimruz province she believes that even those, like her father, who disapprove of the restrictions stay quiet about it for fear of Taleban reprisals and peer pressure from the neighbours and family members:
In general, Afghan society is traditional, the education rate is low, especially in my area where the majority of men support these restrictions. Those who are educated and know these restrictions are no good have no right to speak. If they speak, Taleban intelligence will arrest them for speaking against the Emirate. My father doesn’t support these restrictions, but he keeps silent to save himself from public embarrassment. He says the hijab we had before was perfect and if the Taleban’s government is Islamic then they should ensure women’s security, instead of restricting them.
The insurmountable challenge of finding a mahram
Making mahrams obligatory was particularly controversial among our interviewees; for them and their male relatives, it has proved an intractable logistics challenge, as 20-year-old Usha, who lives in Uruzgan province with her parents, eight sisters and a younger brother, explained:
My father agrees with the hijab rules and is happy about them. He says girls must study as much as they want, but use the hijab everywhere they go, even if they go abroad, because it is in Islam and in the Quran. My father is against the obligatory mahram. He says he cannot be in two places at the same time.
I was in Kabul when I learned about the obligatory mahram from my colleagues at the hospital. There were female patients who didn’t have a mahram, so they were asking other women with a mahram to tell the hospital they were from the same family. I don’t think the Taleban can enforce this restriction because there are so many patients and I don’t think all of them can bring a mahram. Most bring their small sons with them. Sometimes, when I have something to do and want to go two or three hours late to the hospital, it’s a big hassle. I have to first find out if my father is free to come with me. It would be difficult for me to obey the Taleban’s order that women must be accompanied by a mahram, even if I wanted to. In my family, my mother and I both have jobs. If my father comes with me, then who should go with my mother?
Taking a mahram along to work was also an added a financial burden for Manija in Mazar-e Sharif, given her already strained household economy:
It’s difficult for me to work because of the mahram [rule]. I must take my husband or my son with me to work, but this is so difficult to manage financially. The office doesn’t pay the travel cost of my mahram so I have to pay for it myself and if I don’t have a mahram, they stop me on the way.
Even Tamana who was able to go to work without a mahram because the school she taught at was so close to her home, reported that the requirement was limiting her professional options and the employment prospects and education of other women:
There’s a big change in women’s education and employment. In the past, the offices were recruiting women, but they don’t hire us anymore and women who work for most NGOs must have a mahram in the office. I don’t go to work with a mahram because the school is near home. My colleagues don’t come to work with a mahram either, but we can’t travel to [the provincial capital] Taloqan [for work] without a mahram. There are many checkpoints on the way and they check each woman’s mahram. I’ve worked in many offices in the past. I was going to the districts and provinces to participate in seminars and conferences without any problems. Now, that is impossible.
Finding ways to cope
In the end, after the initial shock of the takeover abated, uncertainty over the new rules gave way to resignation that they were there to stay and would, if anything increase. Still, most of our interviewees have devised at least some coping mechanisms to at least be seen to stay within the rules and minimise risk.
24-year-old unmarried Tajik, Pakiza, from Paktika province recounted how she and her colleagues complied with the rules at the NGO where she works:
In the beginning, no one was going out for fear of being beaten by the Taleban. After a month, the women started going out. The Taleban here aren’t very serious about hijab but are serious about mahrams. In the beginning, the Taleban warned women to observe hijab and take a mahram. They warned me three times to always observe hijab and have a mahram. Now, when I have a [work] meeting with them, I wear an abaya and niqab and go with a mahram, but otherwise, when I travel to another province or to the districts, I wear my own clothes and a chadori. In the first meeting, the Taleban said that men and women in our office could work together in the same room, but there had to be a distance of one metre [between them]. When we have a meeting with them, there is a one metre distance between men and woman and our mahrams wait outside.
Similarly, Nilab told us how the Taleban in Nimruz had first demanded she send a male colleague to the Department of Education to file her paperwork, but finally relented:
The Taleban’s restrictions on women have affected my mental health. I can’t bear them. We have been ordered to wear a niqab or chadori, but the weather in Nimruz is so hot, when my face is covered, it feels like fire is falling on me like rain. In the past, I could go to [government] offices freely, but when I first went to the education department, they didn’t let me in. They told me I must send a man to process my work, so I sent a male school employee, but he couldn’t process the work properly or accurately. Now, we have permission to enter the office, but we have to call the Head of Education in advance. The Taleban guards let us enter after checking our hijab.
The latest edicts
As Khadija, a 42-year-old married midwife from Kandahar, explained, women have experienced the new restrictions to their lives not in a vacuum, but when they were struggling as well, with the calamitous crash to the economy, fear of worsening poverty and in a climate of uncertainty.
The situation is unacceptable, prices are very high, the fighting might start again and there are no jobs. People are anxious and everyone is waiting for what might happen next.
42-year-old married Pashtun midwife Khadija, Kandahar province
Khadija’s fears of what might happen next were not unfounded. This month two more blows have come in quick succession – to women’s potential to earn money and to any hope that education could be a way forward for some. On 20 December 2022, the Taleban barred female students from universities and on 24 December, they banned women from working for NGOs.
The decree denying Afghan women a university education was signed by Taleban amir Hibatullah Akhundzada, “with immediate effect.” As so many times since the Taleban takeover in August 2021, women in several cities across the country took to the streets to demand their rights (see here and here). The protests were forcefully quashed by the Taleban (see for example this video in Herat where the Taleban used water canon to disperse the protestors and this report from Kabul). This time, however, the girls were joined by some male students, who walked out of classrooms and exams in solidarity with their female counterparts (see for example here and here). At Nangrahar University, male students joined women protesters and at Kandahar’s Mirwais Nika University, they were beaten and fired upon by the Taleban for protesting. More than 60 university professors and lecturers have resigned in protest. The ban was strongly condemned by the United Nations, Western capitals (see here), Muslim-majority countries (see here) and even the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s leading centre of learning and jurisprudence, Ahmed El-Tayeb who slammed the move as contravening sharia. He urged the Taleban to reverse their decision (see here).
Afghan women were still trying to come to terms with this devastating blow when, four days later, the Emirate announced it was barring women from working for national and international NGOs (see here and here). For many Afghan families, the salaries of mothers and daughters working for NGOs has been a lifeline, keeping the household economy afloat and putting food on the table. For Afghan women, this ban was also a mortal blow to their hopes that the situation might improve over time. It looks to be a decisive move by the Taleban to demonstrate their resolve in removing women from the public sphere altogether. Many of the major international NGOs have called the ban a red line and suspended operations (see, for example, press releases by the International Rescue Commission, and Save the Children, Care International and the Norwegian Refugee Council). They have said that banning their female employees from working is not only a breach of humanitarian principles, but also makes their work, in practice, impossible.
The response to these last two edicts restricting women’s lives has already been greater than to all previous ones. Some Afghan men, students and university professors, have acted publicly in solidarity with female students, while the suspension of assistance in response to actions by the Afghan state that humanitarians find intolerable is a rare move, possibly unprecedented. That suspension of aid, at the start of winter when much of the population is already at breaking point, has the potential to touch off wider discontent across geographies and demographics. The Emirate may find itself under greater pressure than ever before.
Edited by Kate Clark and Martine van Bijlert
This article was last updated on 28 Dec 2022