Kabul, Afghanistan — The Taliban government on Saturday ordered all foreign and domestic NGOs in Afghanistan to stop hiring women, allegedly because some female employees did not properly wear the Islamic headscarf. They also separately banned women from attending religious classes in the mosques in the capital, Kabul.
The bans are the latest restrictive moves by Afghanistan’s new rulers on women’s rights and freedoms, just days after the Taliban banned female students from universities across the country.
Since then, Afghan women have been demonstrating in major cities against the ban – a rare sign of internal protests since the Taliban seized power last year. The decision has also caused international outrage.
The NGO order came in a letter from Economy Minister Qari Din Mohammed Hanif, which said any organization not complying with the order would have its license to operate in Afghanistan revoked. Ministry spokesman Abdul Rahman Habib confirmed the contents of the letter to The Associated Press.
The ministry said it had received “serious complaints” about female staff working for NGOs not wearing the “proper” headscarf or hijab. It was not immediately clear whether the order applies to all women or only to Afghan women working in the NGOs.
Further details were not immediately available amid fears that the Taliban’s latest move could be a springboard for a blanket ban on Afghan women from leaving the home.
“This is a heartbreaking announcement,” said Maliha Niazai, a master trainer at an NGO that educates young people on issues such as gender-based violence. “Aren’t we human? Why are they treating us with this cruelty?”
The 25-year-old, who works at Y-Peer Afghanistan and lives in Kabul, said her job is important because she serves her country and is the only person supporting her family. “After this announcement, will the officials support us? If not, why are they snatching food out of our mouths?” she asked.
Another NGO worker, a 24-year-old Norwegian Refugee Council worker from Jalalabad, said it was “the worst moment of my life”.
“The job gives me more than a … livelihood, it’s a representation of all the endeavors I’ve put into it,” she said, declining to give her name for fear of her own safety.
The UN condemned the NGO order and said it would try to meet with the Taliban leadership to get clarity.
“Depriving women of the free will to choose their own destiny, disempowering them and systematically excluding them from all aspects of public and political life is relegating the country and jeopardizing efforts towards meaningful peace or stability in the country,” it said in a UN statement.
In another decree, a spokesman for the Hajj and Religious Affairs Ministry, Fazil Mohammad Hussaini, said late Saturday that “adult girls” are banned from attending Islam classes in mosques in Kabul, although they can still attend standalone madrasahs or religious schools.
He gave no further details and did not elaborate on the age groups that would be affected by the ban or how it would be enforced. Nor was it 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, eyewitnesses said.
According to witnesses, about two dozen women were on their way to the Herat provincial governor’s home on Saturday to protest the ban – many chanting “education is our right” – when they were pushed back by security forces firing water cannons.
Video shared with the AP shows the women screaming and hiding in a side street to escape the water cannons. Then they continue 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 to 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 gunmen,” 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. At around 11 a.m. they brought out the water cannon.”
A spokesman for the provincial governor, Hamidullah Mutawakil, claimed there were only four to five protesters.
“They didn’t have an agenda, they just came here to make a film,” he said, without mentioning the violence against women or the use of water cannons.
The university ban has been widely condemned internationally, including by 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 have.
A Taliban government official, Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim, first spoke about the ban in an interview with Afghan state television on Thursday.
He said the ban was necessary to prevent gender-mixing at universities and because he believes some subjects being taught go against the principles of Islam. He added that the ban would apply until further notice.
Although the Taliban initially promised a more moderate regime respecting the rights of women and minorities, they have largely implemented their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, since seizing power in August 2021.
They have banned girls from middle and high school – and now from universities – and also excluded women from most jobs. Women were also ordered to wear head-to-toe clothing in public and were banned from parks and gyms.
Afghan society, while largely traditional, has become increasingly committed to girls’ and women’s education over the past two decades of a US-backed government.
In the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, dozens of Afghan refugee students protested on Saturday against the ban on higher education for women in their homeland and called for the immediate reopening of campuses for women.
One of them, Bibi Haseena, read a poem depicting the dire situation of Afghan girls seeking education. She said she was unhappy at having graduated outside her country while hundreds of thousands of her Afghan sisters were denied an education.