On the morning of last summer, Nasira* arrived for work in the government building in Kabul where she held a senior position to find Taliban had occupied her office. “I wasn’t allowed in,” said the 32-year-old. “When I asked why, I was told to wait for an announcement from the government, which never came.”
This was shortly after the Taliban seized power and seized Kabul, the capital, on August 15, 2021. It was the last day Nasira and thousands of women like her were able to go to work. Although the Taliban’s acting prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, has asserted that women will be allowed to continue working under Sharia law, female government workers in Kabul have been told to stay at home and only women whose work cannot be done by men were allowed to work.
Nasira is technically still employed and receives a significantly reduced salary. “They tell me, ‘we’re paying you, what else do you need?’ But money is not my priority,” she says. “I was responsible for our ministry’s services to citizens. I want to serve my people, especially the women of my country, who are not getting the services they need because there are no female civil servants to help them.
It is not just government positions that women have been forced out of. According to Reporters Without Borders, only 100 of Kabul’s 700 female journalists were still working at the end of 2021. In 2019, 36% of teachers in the country were women, according to World Bank data, the highest number for 20 years, but the Taliban’s March ban on girls’ education has forced many educators out of work.
Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, said this month: “Current restrictions on women’s employment are estimated to result in an immediate economic loss of up to $1 billion, or up to 5% of GDP. from Afghanistan. She added: “There is almost universal poverty in the country.”
Afghan academic and former mines minister, Nargis Nehan, says: “It is difficult to collect data under the Taliban, and access to information is limited, but under the previous government, 27% of civil servants and nearly 40% of teachers were women. But only a handful of women are allowed to work these days.
The latest in a series of decrees issued by the recently restored Ministry of Propagation of Virtue requires ‘all respectable Afghan women to wear a hijab’ – and identifying the chador (the blue Afghani burqa) as the “best hijab” of choice – will have a significant impact on the remaining women in public roles. The order also criminalized women’s clothing and said government employees who violated the dress code would be fired.
“According to the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce, we had over 3,500 small and medium business owners who were women, the majority of whom are now closed because they could not survive,” Nehan says. “Because how do you expect women to work or run a business under a chador or fear being punished for showing their face?”
A gynecologist from Herat, who wishes to be identified only as Dr Maryam, says: “Even before this decree, they made hijab compulsory for female doctors and forced female surgeons to wear long sleeves and a long scarf, even during surgery. It affects their way of working and is not safe. Armed Taliban officials often force their way into the hospital, she adds, particularly during night shifts, to “supervise the work” of female doctors and nurses. “They had also briefly insisted that female doctors have their Mahram [male guardian] with them at all times, which is impractical, especially in a women’s ward.
There are no figures on how many women have left health care posts, but according to a BMJ article, women make up almost half of the community health worker program in Afghanistan.
“A hospital in Kabul reported that segregation of men and women, for both staff and patients, had already been requested,” the BMJ said. “Women are particularly restricted in their freedom of movement and often ask male guardians to simply leave their homes. Even midwives must be accompanied during home visits. Due to the lack of information, some are entirely stuck at home, waiting for new directions.
“While these restrictions are not new – I remember working under the Taliban the last time they were in power and imposed similar restrictions – they are new to this generation and will discourage young women from join professions under the hateful gaze of the Taliban,” Maryam said. “Do we really want to go back to that time? How will this benefit Afghanistan?
The Taliban takeover prompted many female Afghan doctors, especially those working in reproductive and sexual health, to flee the country. Those who stayed now face threats from local Taliban leaders for not following their rules, Maryam says.
Afghan women have made significant inroads in various sectors over the past 20 years, following the fall of the Taliban in 2001. According to World Bank data, women made up nearly 22% of the Afghan workforce and their number steadily increased.
But a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in January found that employment levels for Afghan women fell by around 16% in the third quarter of 2021, compared to 6% for men. Women’s employment is expected to be 21% lower than before the Taliban takeover by mid-2022 if current conditions continue, according to the ILO, although this does not take into account employees such as Nasira who are still being paid without being allowed to work.
Preventing women from participating in economic and public activities will have a disastrous impact on the economy, a UN report warned last December. This could, for example, reduce household consumption by half a billion dollars alone.
Nasira’s supervisor, who wished to be identified only as Abdul, confirms that services have been affected since female colleagues were sent home. “I had seven women in my team and since the Taliban took over, none of them have been allowed to return to work. They were the backbone of the department and, to be honest, they were more hardworking than the men,” he says.
“Not only has our workload increased, but we are unable to provide adequate technical services to Afghan women, who were much more comfortable discussing our issues with our female staff. We are worse off without our female colleagues.
* Some names have been changed.
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