Kabul Diary: Women under Taliban – Exclusion at What Cost? Future of Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations

By Imtiaz Gul
(Photo via video stream)

Amidst Afghanistan’s shifting landscape post-Taliban takeover, the exclusion of women from key sectors casts a shadow on the nation’s path forward.

Women’s rights, especially education, constitute an essential and inescapable element of almost every conversation between hosts and visitors in Kabul and Kandahar. As the Taliban regime completed two years of its control over entire Afghanistan, Tolo News TV published some critical reports, cautioning that the exclusion of women from the workforce and education would only exacerbate the situation on the ground.

Afghan women should have their role in Jihade Akbar, which includes acquiring science and knowledge, as well as Afghanistan’s economic and political issues,” Suraya Paikan, a women’s rights activist, told TOLOnews on August 15.

It also quoted Ghafor Merzayee, a Kabul teacher, as saying: “When Islam and the prophet have said that one should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave, why are the schools closed to girls?” he asked, referring to an Islamic Emirate announcement that said the bar on female higher education was not a permanent issue and attempts are “underway to reopen schools for girls as soon as possible”.

These statements via ToloNews and a couple of other outlets testify to the fact that this private media still publishes critical content. Though measured and carefully worded, statements by female activists and journalists also find their way into these platforms.

Everyone is anxiously waiting for the next order by the Supreme Leader, officials say. That endless wait, it seems, has become embarrassing for many within the Taliban ranks too. Females are visible on roads and markets of Kabul – also without face masks or hijab; some are seen even with makeup. Some women are at work in the police, immigration, and airline counters at the airport. But largely women and men alike seem to be depressed and feel disenfranchised as a result of several decrees and administrative actions. The majority of women – those who worked with NGOs, ran beauty salons or worked in government ministries – appear to be at the receiving end. Females are still excluded from higher education until further orders by Supreme Leader Mulla Hibbatullah Akhunzada. Closure of at least 12,000 beauty salons through a decree means an abrupt end to the livelihoods of the owners and the girls they employ, perhaps at least 60,000 if the average number of employees at the salons stood at five.

In a major step to alleviate the shortage of para-medics, some state institutions have recently begun enrolling girls in such courses, probably resulting from a realization that shortages of skilled medical personnel may aggravate the longer they are kept out of learning.

As a pleasant surprise, over twenty female artists were allowed to exhibit their paintings in Kabul on August 19, the Afghan National Day. More than 250 books were also on display beside paintings by female artists. Rahila, one of the organizers of this three-day exhibition, which also included a book display, said it was an attempt to demonstrate the ability and talent of women.

One of the artists also appealed to the Islamic Emirate authorities for support of artistic works.

“In Afghanistan, we have many female artists who can’t show their ability, but our message to them is to not give up under any circumstance and participate in such exhibitions and display your art to the world,” said Frozan, one of the artists.

“We call on the Islamic Emirate to reopen schools and universities for girls,” said Hussna Aslami, another artist who told journalists covering the event.

A visitor to the exhibition, Zahra Ahmadi, launched a similarly passionate appeal to the regime. “Please recognize women. It is not right that men work, and women stay at home. When they said that men and women have equal rights, they should also pay attention to it,” she said.

Many high-ranking police and army officials who worked under the previous governments, nevertheless, remain out of work. Foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqqi told us at his office that out of the nearly 550,000 state employees, nearly half a million are on the job, and all-female staff currently sitting at home are also receiving their salaries.

Although the government had announced a general amnesty for all, not everyone is supposed to be back to work. “Many of those notorious for persecuting and killing Taliban or their supporters and sympathizers obviously can’t expect to be back without accountability. We know who they were and can’t escape scrutiny,” said a senior official in the capital. We did come across a few female border/screening officials at the Kabul and Mazar Sharif airports. Some old female staff – reception, restaurant – have been assigned to back-end services but are visible at places like banks and hotels. The health ministry still allows females to work across Afghanistan. Some female journalists are still active. Some even publicly complained (via Tolo news) on August 15 about conscious discrimination and demanded equal opportunity for pursuing their job.

“Sadly, we were kicked out of the press conferences in which we participated. I ask the government to join hands and give women a share so that they can work alongside their brothers,” ToloNews quoted Nilab Noori, a journalist, as saying.

“There shouldn’t be discrimination in the work of providing information,” said Abdul Qadim Viyar, the head of the Committee for the Safety of Afghan Journalists, resonating with the feelings of female journalists, over 90 percent of whom are meanwhile jobless due to lack of opportunities – as much as in several other sectors of the economy that reels from high unemployment, low productivity, little investment, and sanctions on Afghanistan’s international trade and banking.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for the Islamic Emirate, claims no barriers are preventing female journalists from working in the media. A new media draft law on the issue awaits approval by the Supreme leader – Mulla Hibbatullah Akhund, he said at his Kandahar office.

“The proposed media law does not contain such a thing (bar on female journalists) as long as they conform to Islamic laws and values such as the hijab and protect “the high interests of the country which we are all obliged to comply with,” Mujahid added.

All this is a sign of a step back from the aggressive posturing vis-a-vis women two years ago. International and media pressure notwithstanding, the Taliban regime quickly realized that they were dealing with a country different from the mid-1990s – overflowing with much more conscious and informed youth. The push and pull on women’s rights continue, and so does the Taliban’s dialogue with the international community. Japan has offered hundreds of millions of dollars for raising exclusive female educational institutions, which the Taliban have yet to accept.

The associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, Heather Barr, is as concerned as many Afghans about the bans on women and girls. “Now, at this two-year point, we really don’t know how much worse things could get and what other plans they have for the future for further restricting the lives of women and girls.”

Meanwhile, some students urged the interim government to reopen their schools. “A school is a place where you learn science subjects and religious subjects, and a seminary is a place where you cannot study anything else but religious studies,” said Muqadas, a student. Another student, Mariam, also called on the Islamic Emirate to reopen the doors of the schools for girls.

Lutfullah Khairkhwa, the deputy minister of Higher Education, told an annual meeting of the ministry in August that a committee of the Ministry of Higher Education is working on a plan to reopen universities for girls. The plan for girls’ education is not final yet, though, he said.

“The situation in Afghanistan is grave, and the lack of resources and funding to support health workers and facilities is putting countless lives at risk,” warned WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in the context of a recent U.N. report that its $3.26 billion humanitarian funding appeal for Afghanistan fetched only about $800 million (as of August 8).

The Deputy Minister of Education, Karimullah Akhundzada, recently spoke of more than 14,000 registered seminaries across the country, where 330,000 students, including boys and girls, are studying. He also said up to 250 university professors had left the country in the last two years.

Meanwhile, women’s rights activists criticized the Islamic Emirate’s dual policy towards men and women in Afghanistan.

“The Islamic Emirate should allow women and girls to study modern education besides religious education. The doors of the schools and universities will be reopened,” said Suraya Paikan, a women’s rights activist.

Officials say over ten million students, including more than 4 million girls, are enrolled at over 18 schools across Afghanistan, while more than 400,000 students are studying in various universities.

But worrisome developments also accompany such news. The Ministry of Education (MoE), for instance, in mid-July shut down Teachers’ Training Centers, throwing at least 4,000 instructors and civil employees out of jobs. It promised to soon recruit these instructors to fill vacancies at schools, Darul-Uloom, and seminaries.

“It is not wise that thousands of instructors lose their jobs and also we will face a shortage of teachers in the future,” said Farhad Ibrar, a university instructor.

The situation in Afghanistan unveils a complex scenario where progress clashes with tradition. While the Taliban appear to be adopting a more moderate stance on the surface, the on-ground reality paints a different picture. The gestures of inclusivity and public statements seem to be in contrast with the broader policies that still sideline women from crucial roles. Despite the resilience and outspokenness of Afghan women, the regime’s inconsistent policies raise a critical question: Can progress truly happen if half of the population remains excluded? The international response remains lackluster, with promises of funding falling short and diplomatic pressure yielding limited results. The core issue remains: How long can Afghanistan’s advancement stay at a standstill, caught between its evolving ideology and the pressing need for change?

Imtiaz Gul has over 35 years of journalistic experience. Gul regularly appears as an analyst/expert on Pakistani and foreign TV channels as well as the Doha-based Al-Jazeera English/Arabic satellite TV channel for his expertise in areas such as Afghanistan/Tribal Areas/and the Kashmir militancy. He has authored several books.

This article first appeared in Matrix Mag. Click here to go to the original.


Afghan FM Emphasizes Peace and Cooperation in Meeting with Pakistani Delegation

Matrix Media Report

The Interim Minister of Foreign Affairs, Afghanistan, Mr. Amir Khan Muttaqi, received a delegation of Pakistani religious scholars in Kabul on August 16, 2023. This meeting was organized as part of the CRSS’s Beyond Boundaries project, which aimed to foster positive discourse between Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the visit, the delegation met several Afghan stakeholders, including the current Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan (IEA) regime representatives, former Afghan leaders, leading businesspersons, civil society representatives, and academicians.

  • The Foreign Minister welcomed the guests and commenced by emphasizing the historical, cultural, and religious ties that unite Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • The Interim Minister highlighted the IEA’s commitment to bringing peace to Afghanistan. He expressed the belief that peace is essential for development and fostering people-to-people interactions. The primary objective of the IEA is to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful nation engaged in trade and development with all neighboring countries.
  • Mr. Muttaqi shared encouraging news regarding Afghanistan’s security situation. He reported that on Independence Day (August 15, 2023), as well as during Eid and Muharram, no security incidents occurred in the country, indicating substantial progress in terms of security and stability.
  • Presenting the economic figures, he stated that the IEA has been focused on revitalizing Afghanistan’s economy since assuming power. Measures have been taken to strengthen the national currency (Afghani), which has appreciated from 101 to 83 in comparison to 1 USD. Additionally, trade with regional and neighboring countries has also seen significant growth.
  • The Minister reported the successful elimination of drug trafficking within Afghanistan. The government is actively focused on advancing the nation’s development.
  • Minister Muttaqi affirmed the IEA’s commitment to addressing Pakistan’s concerns and extending cooperation. He expressed optimism about fostering a friendly relationship with Pakistan.
  • In light of recent security incidents in Pakistan, Minister Muttaqi mentioned an official decree restricting Afghan nationals from participating in any conflict outside Afghanistan, highlighting the IEA’s role in ensuring regional peace and prosperity. Such actions have been declared un-Islamic and in disobedience to IEA orders, he further added.
  • In closing, Minister Muttaqi urged the religious scholars to carry a message of peace and prosperity. He emphasized that the IEA’s objective is to promote not only peace and stability within Afghanistan but also throughout the broader region, recognizing that regional peace is integral to regional prosperity.
This meeting served as a platform for constructive dialogue and collaboration between Afghanistan and Pakistan, fostering hopes of improved relations and regional stability.

This article first appeared in Matrix Mag. Click here to go to the original.

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