Taliban orders NGOs to prevent women from working because of hijab dress code

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers ordered all domestic and international NGOs to stop their female employees from working after “serious complaints” about their dress code, the economy ministry said on Saturday.

The order threatened to suspend the operating licenses of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that failed to implement the directive.

Harsh restrictions on women

The move sparked swift international condemnation, with governments and organizations warning of the impact on humanitarian services in a country where millions of people depend on aid.

The latest restriction comes less than a week after Taliban authorities banned women from attending universities, sparking global outrage and protests in some Afghan cities.

Although the Taliban had promised a softer form of government when they returned to power in August last year, they have instead imposed harsh restrictions on women, effectively excluding them from public life.

Watch: Taliban use water cannons on women protesting college ban

The notification sent to the NGOs, a copy of which was obtained by AFP and confirmed by an Economy Ministry spokesman, cited “serious complaints about non-compliance with the Islamic hijab and other rules and regulations relating to the work of women at national and international level organizations”.

The ministry “instructs all organizations to stop employing women until further notice,” the notification says, warning that if a group ignores the order, its license “will be cancelled.”

It was unclear whether the directive affected foreign NGO staff.

Two international NGOs confirmed that they had received the notification.

“We are suspending all our activities from Sunday,” a senior official at an international NGO involved in humanitarian work told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“Soon we will have a meeting of top officials from all NGOs to decide how to handle this issue.”

‘Devastating’ decision

Dozens of organizations work in remote areas of Afghanistan and many of their employees are women, with several warning that banning female staff would hamper their work.

The International Rescue Committee said in a statement that its more than 3,000 women staff in Afghanistan were “critical to the delivery of humanitarian aid” in the country.

An official from an international NGO involved in food distribution said the ban was a “big blow”.

“We have mainly female staff to address the humanitarian aid issues of Afghan women,” the official said. “How do we address their concerns now?”

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said women were “at the heart of humanitarian operations around the world” and that the ban would be “devastating” for Afghans as it would “disrupt life-saving assistance and that saves the lives of millions of people.”

The order also threatens the key livelihoods of female NGO staff, a woman working for an Afghan organization told AFP.

“What will those women do who do not have men to support their families and work in these NGOs?” she said, asking not to reveal her name.

“It was only that salary that had prevented us from falling into poverty.”

The order was a “clear violation of humanitarian principles,” said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN chief’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

The European Union, a major funder of aid organizations working in Afghanistan, condemned the decision and said it was assessing “the impact it will have on our aid on the ground”, he told the AFP Nabila Massrali, the main spokeswoman for EU foreign policy.

Human rights group Amnesty International tweeted that the ban was a “deplorable attempt to erase women from political, social and economic spaces” in Afghanistan.

Mounting restrictions

The order is the latest attack on women’s rights in the country, an issue the international community has made a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the Taliban regime.

On Tuesday, the authorities banned all women from attending universities, sparking widespread censorship.

A small group of Afghan women staged a defiant protest in Kabul on December 22 against a Taliban order barring them from universities, an activist said, adding that some were arrested.  Photo: AFP
Afghan women protest against a ban on university education for women, in Kabul on December 22, 2022. Photo: AFP

The Group of Seven industrialized democracies said the ban may constitute “a crime against humanity.”

In response to the order, about 400 male students boycotted an exam in the southern city of Kandahar – the Taliban’s de facto center of power – on Saturday, a rare all-male protest that was broken up by members of the Islamist group hard line

The Taliban had already banned teenage girls from high school, and women have been kicked out of many government jobs, barred from traveling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside home, ideally with a burka.

They are also not allowed to enter parks or gardens.

The Taliban have also resumed public floggings of men and women in recent weeks, expanding their implementation of an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

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