KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban government on Saturday ordered all foreign and domestic non-governmental groups in Afghanistan to suspend employing women, allegedly because some female employees did not wear the Islamic headscarf correctly. The ban was the latest restrictive move by Afghanistan’s new rulers against women’s rights and freedoms.
The development comes just days after the Taliban banned female students from attending universities across the country. Afghan women have since demonstrated in major cities against the ban, a rare sign of domestic protest since the Taliban seized power last year. The decision has also caused outrage and opposition in Afghanistan and beyond.
The order came in a letter from Economy Minister Qari Din Mohammed Hanif, who said that any NGO found not complying with the order will have their operating license revoked in Afghanistan. The ministry’s spokesperson, Abdul Rahman Habib, confirmed the letter’s content to The Associated Press.
The ministry said it had received “serious complaints” about female staff working for NGOs not wearing the “correct” headscarf, or hijab. It was not immediately clear if the order applies to all women or only Afghan women working at the NGOs.
More details were not immediately available amid concerns the latest Taliban ban could be a stepping-stone to a blanket ban on Afghan women leaving the home.
“It’s a heartbreaking announcement,” said Maliha Niazai, a master trainer at an NGO teaching young people about issues such as gender-based violence. “Are we not human beings? 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 was important because she was serving her country and is the only person supporting her family. “Will the officials support us after this announcement? If not, then why are they snatching meals from our mouths?” she asked.
Another NGO worker, a 24-year-old from Jalalabad working the Norwegian Refugee Council, said it was “the worst moment of my life.”
“The job gives me more than a … living, it is a representation of all the efforts I’ve made,” she said, declining to give her name fearing for her own safety.
Also 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 the witnesses, about two dozen women were heading to the Herat provincial governor’s house on Saturday to protest the ban — many chanting: “Education is our right” — when they were pushed back by security forces firing the water cannon.
Video shared with the AP shows the women screaming and hiding in a side street to escape the water cannon. They then resume their protest, with chants of “Disgraceful!”
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 towards 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 armed men,” 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. Around 11 am they brought out the water cannon.”
A spokesperson for the provincial governor, Hamidullah Mutawakil, claimed there were only four-five protesters.
“They had no agenda, they just came here to make a film,” he said, without mentioning the violence against the women or the use of the water cannon.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the university ban, including from 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 industrial nations that the policy will have consequences for the Taliban.
An official in the Taliban government, Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim, spoke about the ban for the first time on Thursday in an interview with the Afghan state television.
He said the ban was necessary to prevent the mixing of genders in universities and because he believes some subjects being taught violated the principles of Islam. He also added that the ban would be in place until further notice.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule respecting rights for women and minorities, the Taliban have widely implemented their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, since they seized power in August 2021.
They have banned girls from middle school and high school — and now universities — and also barred women from most fields of employment. Women have also been ordered to wear head-to-toe clothing in public and have been banned from parks and gyms.
Afghan society, while largely traditional, had increasingly embraced the education of girls and women 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 female higher education in their homeland and demanded the immediate reopening of campuses for women.
One of them, Bibi Haseena, read a poem depicting the grim situation for Afghan girls seeking an education. She said she was unhappy about graduating outside her country when hundreds of thousands of her Afghan sisters were being deprived of an education.