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Masuma, an Afghan teacher, is used to her clothes being scrutinized. The girls’ school where she works—among a minority to have reopened after most girls’ secondary schools were closed when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last year—has long required her to wear a uniform consisting of a dark, ankle-length dress, and a black headscarf.
In recent weeks the pressure has increased. On a hot late spring day in April, the school supervisor told Masuma her uniform did not comply with the Taliban’s latest guidance, which advised that women cover their faces in public. He said that she needed to wear gloves and a burqa (the flowing, covering head-covering garment) despite the heat. When she told him she had a respiratory condition that meant she could not cover her face, he said she should watch out for “Vice and Virtue”—the ministry notorious for its often violent enforcement of such restrictions. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she recalls him saying.
Masuma was shocked that the Taliban had ruled on May 7th that Afghan women were required to cover their faces when they went public. For not adhering to the dress code, two of her coworkers had been fired. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in April that the Taliban had threatened to close girls’ secondary schools in Balkh province—one of only a few provinces where they had been able to remain open—if female students and staff did not take heed.
Learn More Afghan Girls Consider a Future Without Schools after the Taliban Backtracks
Masuma (whose name has been withheld in her defense) is one of the few Afghan women who have been allowed to retain their jobs since August when the Taliban took control. These women—teachers, government employees, and aid workers—were kept on because their jobs required them to have contact with women and girls, so could not be done by a man. They are now finding their work difficult due to restrictions placed on all aspects of life, from how they dress to where they go. “We cannot accept this,” says Masuma, 34, speaking by phone from Balkh’s provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif.
Many Afghan women don’t just want to work; they need to as the sole breadwinners in their families. Afghanistan is a country with high unemployment and hundreds of thousands widows.
There is less space now for Afghan women to work. In addition to effectively mandating the burqa in public, the latest decree advised that the “first and best sign of observing hijab is not to leave the house.” If a woman does need to leave, she should obey the dress code and in some parts of the country, be accompanied by male relatives.. Many female employees in government have already been expelled from offices, and they were told not to return to their jobs to get their pay. Women claim that they have been told by their bosses they could be fired for not following the most recent recommendations.
“We have to fight back. I’m not covering my face and I have no intention of doing so. I just hope I won’t get fired,” Masuma says. “We’ll try to fight this even though we are tired, we’re exhausted. I’ve worked outside my home for 16 years… But [the Taliban] are treating us as though we don’t know anything.”
In a cruel twist, the decree makes women’s male relatives responsible for ensuring they comply—or face fines or jail time if they don’t. Women’s rights activists have warned that placing the onus on Mahram, or male “guardians,” could exacerbate domestic violence in a country where it’s already widespread. The United Nations reports that nine in ten Afghanistan women are victims of some type of domestic violence.
Women wearing burqas walk down a Kandahar street on May 7, 2022.
Javed Tanveer—AFP/Getty Images
Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at HRW, called the Taliban’s decree an “alarming escalation” and said the threat to punish male relatives removed what little power women had left to make decisions for themselves.
“A lot of the media coverage has focused on the restrictions on clothing and women have to cover their faces… What is actually more serious is that the Taliban has said that women shouldn’t be leaving their house unless they really need to and have a specific reason to,” she said in a WhatsApp voice message.
Many of the working women interviewed for this story see the Taliban’s latest decree as part of a wider campaign to pressure them to stop work. On March 1, the Taliban announced that secondary education would be closed for girls and made a sudden change to the rules. The Taliban had already made it clear that all women who travel long distances should be accompanied at all times by a male guardian. Women who work said that local Taliban officials had enforced the rule, even for shorter distances. This made it almost impossible for women to commute to work.
Repeated requests from the Taliban for comment were ignored by them. Akif Muhajir, spokesman for the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, has previously defended such restrictions—saying they aimed to protect women’s honor.
Samar, a northern Afghanistan elementary school teacher, recalls being stopped at 3 different Taliban checkpoints on a single journey. She was then asked why. MahramWith her. The woman had traveled with three women and had one other man with her. But they both needed a male chaperone. Samar decided to go under a pseudonym because of safety fears.
“They stopped the car and questioned each of us individually,” says Samar, 25, who is the sole breadwinner in her family of 11. She is currently looking for work and her father cannot travel with her.
Learn More What Afghanistan’s Women Stand to Lose
The United Nations warned on May 9 that restrictions on women were preventing them from working and exacerbating Afghanistan’s dire economic problems, which have left more than half the country in need of humanitarian assistance.
Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost since the Taliban takeover last August, with women particularly hard hit, the U.N.’s International Labor Organization estimates. Women’s participation in the workforce reached a high of about 22% just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, after a decade of steady gains. Since then, it has been falling steadily—first as a result of the pandemic, then the Taliban takeover. While the Taliban’s labor ministry declined to provide any data on the current situation, the ILO estimated on Jan. 19 that women’s participation had decreased by 16% in the third quarter of 2021.
It has far reaching consequences. According to World Food Programme data, more than half of Afghanistan’s population is struggling to obtain enough food. 85% of Afghan female households are resorting to extreme measures in order to feed their families, while 62% are headed by male households.
When Afghan aid worker Bahar (who also asked to use a pseudonym) started her current job in the central province of Ghor in January, the 25-year-old was told she should wear her burqa at all times—even when at her desk in a gender-segregated office. Bahar inquired why and was advised that it was due to men passing by the office windows. “The Taliban don’t like women working in the offices, and that is why they are always rude and disrespectful to female employees,” she says. “They don’t even look at us; they only look at our feet.”
Over the past two decades, many thousands of women have been trained to become police officers. Few remain within the police force. The 33-year-old woman who is a female police officer in Kabul, Afghanistan, said she fears for her job. “Everybody knows that the Taliban are against women working,” says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “We go to work with fear, and we come back home with fear.”
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