Determined Afghan women, frustrated after Taliban NGO ban

Even before the Taliban banned Afghan women from working in non-governmental groups, their forces visited a local organization’s office in the capital Kabul several times to check that female staff were obeying dress code rules and gender segregation.

The women in the office had already been very cautious, hoping to avoid trouble with the Taliban. They wore longer clothes and face masks along with the Islamic headscarf and were kept separate from male co-workers in the work space and at meals, an NGO employee told The Associated Press.

“We even changed the arrival and departure times of our offices because we didn’t want to be followed” by the Taliban, he said, speaking on the condition that his name, position and the name of his organization not be used for fear of reprisals.

This was not enough. On Saturday, the Taliban authorities announced the exclusion of women from NGOs, allegedly because they did not wear the headscarf or hijab properly.

The move prompted international aid agencies to halt operations in Afghanistan, raising the prospect that millions will go without food, education, health care and other critical services during the harsh winter months.

The agency that coordinates development and relief work in Afghanistan, ACBAR, estimates that many of its 183 national and international members have suspended, stopped or reduced their humanitarian activities and services since the order came into effect.

These members employ more than 55,000 Afghan nationals between them, around a third of whom are women. The agency says female staff play an essential role in NGO activities, providing humanitarian services while respecting traditional and religious customs.

Still, women in some local organizations are trying to keep providing services as much as they can under the radar and paying their staff as long as donor funds continue.

The NGO worker, who has two master’s degrees and three decades of professional experience in Afghanistan’s education sector, wanted to go to the office one last time to collect her laptop, but was warned by her manager that he didn’t because there were armed Taliban outside the building. . .

She is determined to continue helping others, even though she now works from home.

“It’s my responsibility to hold the hands of women and girls and provide them with services,” she said. “I will work until the end of my life. That’s why I’m not leaving Afghanistan. I could have gone, but other women are looking to me for help. If we fail, all women fail.”

Her NGO advises women in entrepreneurship, health care, social counseling and education. His activities are done in person in the capital, Kabul, and another province. It has helped 25,000 women in the past six months and hopes to help another 50,000 in the coming months, although it is not clear how it will do this, given that most of its permanent and temporary staff are women.

Although they initially promised more moderate rule, the Taliban are now implementing their interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia.

They have banned girls from middle school, high school, and college, restricted women from most jobs, and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. Access to parks, gymnasiums and other public spaces is also prohibited for women.

The NGO worker said many educated women left after the Taliban took power in August 2021, which cost Afghan civil society much of its capacity and expertise.

“They have targeted women from the beginning. Why do they make enemies of women? Don’t they have wives, sisters and mothers?” she said “The women we help don’t have computers, they don’t have Zoom. It’s hard to do this work without being face to face. But I am hopeful that we will be able to start our work again in the coming weeks.”

Another Afghan NGO worker predicts that donor funding will stop due to the drop in female participation. She also spoke on condition of anonymity to protect herself, her colleagues and partner organizations.

She is frustrated but not shocked by the Taliban’s latest order. Her pragmatism leads her to believe in the importance of dealing with the Taliban as the de facto rulers of the country. “We pay our electricity bills to the Taliban, we get our identity cards from them. More Afghans need to find ways to sit with them. We need to tell them that these problems are not foreign-led.”

But others know there are limits to dialogue with former insurgents.

“They don’t care about the rights that Islam gives to women, it doesn’t work for them,” said a Kabul woman who heads a national NGO. “I know the importance of women’s work and its impact on our female beneficiaries.”

She did not want to give her personal information for fear of being identified, and her father has become more protective of her following Taliban restrictions.

He heads an organization that has been working in Afghanistan for decades. It employs 242 people, 119 of whom are women.

Its immediate challenges are prosaic, with only a few hours of electricity a day it is difficult to work from home. She’s lucky enough to live close to the office and can get there quickly and discreetly if she needs to, even if her female employees further away can’t. He misses the comfort of working in an office and the collegiality that comes with it.

Enforcement of the ban so far is not universal, she and others said. It is stricter on women in city offices, but some women in rural areas, especially those providing critical health care and humanitarian aid, have been able to operate. He said that provinces outside of Kabul and Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, are more positive about the work of NGOs and that gives him hope.

Its donors are understanding, maintaining the salaries and running costs of the NGO. It is now a waiting game, he said, to see how the United Nations and the rest of the international community respond to the Taliban’s latest order.

“I just have to survive in this current situation,” he sighs.

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