Zahra was at the finish line. In December, the 21-year-old woman was preparing to take the final exams for her diploma in political studies at a private university in Kabul, Afghanistan. “It was a goal,” she told Grid, the thing that had kept her going as her country’s prospects dimmed under the rule of the Taliban, the militant group that took control of Afghanistan after the departure of U.S. troops in 2021.
The exams were scheduled for mid-December.
But Zahra never took the tests. Last month, just as she was doing her final cramming, the Taliban issued its latest decrees for women in Afghanistan. One of which banned women from attending university.
“It was a shock,” said Zahra, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They announced it in the evening. I only found out when I came to my university in the morning.”
It was a devastating blow — not only for female students in Afghanistan, but also for anyone still harboring hopes for a more moderate Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. It also confirmed the worst fears of those who had argued from the beginning that the militants hadn’t changed.
Beyond the new rules about education, another new decree bans aid groups in Afghanistan from hiring female employees. Both measures have already had a far-reaching fallout. The university ban immediately extinguished the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of women nationwide; the nongovernmental organization rule ends a vital source of employment for tens of thousands of Afghan women and is already damaging aid work done on behalf of millions of hungry Afghans.
Samira Sayed Rahman, communication and advocacy coordinator with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Afghanistan, had just returned to the country from a trip abroad when the ban on female aid workers was announced.
“I first saw it on social media, and at first I believed it to be fake,” Rahman, who is a Canadian citizen, told Grid. “In Afghanistan over the course of the last year, we’ve had a lot of different fake decrees that have been circulating on social media. But unfortunately, when I was able to check, we found out that this was in fact, legitimate, coming from the ministry of the economy.”
Together, the strictures constitute a tightening of the noose around women’s rights and freedoms that has been underway ever since the militant group returned to power. The immediate aftermath of the U.S. departure saw the Taliban restrict education for hundreds of thousands of adolescent girls, earning Afghanistan the unfortunate distinction of being the only country in the world where girls were banned from attending high school. Then came rules to limit how far women could travel without a male chaperone and edicts imposing conservative dress in public places. The economic and humanitarian crisis, meanwhile, led to deep job losses — and by multiple accounts, those losses have hit women the hardest.
Pre-Taliban, women were slowly beginning to occupy prominent public posts — in the judiciary, in the civil service and in important ministries. There are now no female judges or ministers, no female parliamentarians, and women have been driven out of the civil service hierarchy. There are few areas where women can work and no official way for them to get an education.
“The ban on universities and NGOs was both a shock, but also it was not a surprise,” said Manizha Wafeq, a longtime proponent for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Wafeq now lives in the U.S.; she left before the Taliban’s return. But she has been paying close attention to the plight of her female compatriots back home as they face a wholesale, state-backed crackdown to drive them “back into their homes,” as she told Grid.
The clear lesson from the latest decrees? “This is not a different Taliban,” Wafeq said.
Turning back the clock — and leaving millions hungry
But it is a different Afghanistan. Twenty years under successive U.S.-backed governments had seen women and girls make precious gains in education and work. Now, the list of areas where they can work is painfully short — and even in cases where there are no restrictions, employers are wary of keeping female staff.
In the private sector, several Afghans told Grid, women are theoretically allowed to work, and some still do, in bank branches and other private business. But many say the absence of a ban is misleading.
“I tell people, don’t be so happy that there isn’t some clear ban in the private sector,” said Wafeq, who, before she left Afghanistan, cofounded an advocacy group to lobby for women in business and industry. Recently imposed restrictions on dress and the movement and travel of women make it hard for women to operate in public spaces, and employers, seeing the trend of Taliban policies, are less and less interested in hiring women or keeping female staff. “They remove women first when there are job losses,” Wafeq explained.
Women are generally welcomed in the medical field — in part to ensure that female patients are seen by female professionals when possible. But here, too, there are restrictions. The rule is that “women in the clinics, female doctors, they should observe Islamic dress,” Wafeq told Grid. “They also need to make sure that patients observe full Islamic dress.”
Why men suffer as well
The fallout doesn’t just affect women; society at large is suffering from these policies, as households lose precious sources of income. And the ban on aid workers is already affecting the distribution of humanitarian support at a time when the need in Afghanistan is profound; the U.N. has said that 28 million people are in urgent need of basic food and medical assistance.
Several international organizations said they struggled with a choice when the decrees were issued: abide by the new rules and continue to operate without women, or leave the country in protest and abandon the work.
“It was just very devastating news for all of us, but in particular, our female Afghan staff,” Rahman, from the International Rescue Committee, told Grid. “Across the country, we have over 3,000 staff that are women. They’re devastated and fearful of what’s to come. We had to make a very difficult decision.”
Ultimately, the IRC and several other large international organizations — including Save the Children, Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council — opted to suspend their operations.
“We don’t see how we can possibly implement any of our activities,” Rahman said, “if we don’t have women working in our organization.”
Tens of thousands of women are believed to have worked with international aid groups in Afghanistan, making the NGO sector among the largest employers of women in Afghanistan.
Jan Egeland, a former top Norwegian diplomat and now secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, flew to Kabul earlier this month to appeal in person to the Taliban to reverse its decree.
The group has worked in Afghanistan since 2003 and employs 470 women in the country. Its operations provided precious assistance to more than 840,000 people last year.
“They all say that they want us to continue work and hope we will continue without females,” Egeland told the Associated Press, following meetings with Taliban officials. “But when I say we’re not willing or able to work with males only, [Taliban officials] realize that the population is totally dependent on international assistance at the moment.”
The Taliban leaders may understand the stakes, but it’s unclear whether appeals and negotiations will bear fruit. And international leverage over the Taliban remains limited: The group still hasn’t been recognized by much of the international community — in part because of its treatment of women — and that has made it difficult for the Taliban to access international funds earmarked for previous Afghan governments.
The idea in 2021, after the U.S. withdrew its troops, was that isolation would force the militants to behave differently. At a press conference soon after the Taliban returned to power, its spokesman said that “women are going to be very active in society, but within the framework of Islam.”
But the Taliban’s actions since then have resulted in a very different reality. Certainly there is no opportunity at the moment for women to be “very active in society.” As Faiza, a 16-year-old from Kabul who had hoped to become a lawyer and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Grid: “I didn’t think about the possibility that I would never be able to go to school or university.”
She said her father and brother had been lost their jobs in the economic collapse that followed the U.S. withdrawal. In the early days after the Taliban’s return, Faiza said that those setbacks within her family had only strengthened her own resolve to secure an education — and eventually, earn enough to support her family.
But now, she said, “I see that I cannot do that.” The Taliban has taken something fundamental from her — what Faiza calls her ability to “make choices” for herself.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.