How do women-led households survive under the Taliban?

By Mahsa Elham, Sana Atif, and Mahtab Safi 

Every day, Anis Gul, 46, begins her day by pushing a wooden wheelbarrow for more than two kilometres to reach the local market in one of Afghanistan’s southern provinces. For the next 10 hours, Anis Gul* sells savian, a dry noodle-like snack made from gram flour, salt, and seasoning. On a good day, she’ll make 100 afghani or US$1.15. (Zan Times isn’t identifying her province to protect her identity.)   

Savian snacks in a store in Afghanistan.

She has no choice: The mother of five children is the only breadwinner of her family since her husband, a driver, died two years ago in a traffic accident.  

It has never been this difficult. Since the Taliban takeover, Anis Gul’s female customers have disappeared. These days, she finds herself the only woman in the public, which can be dangerous as the Taliban have arrested and flogged women for not being accompanied by a close male relative in some provinces. On November 11, the Taliban flogged women in Taloqan capital of Takhar province for “walking in the market without a mahram,” an eyewitness told Zan Times. 

Anis Gul makes sure she always wears a burqa and moves her wheelbarrow to a new location each day in an attempt to not draw the attention of the Taliban. It doesn’t always work. “Last month, a male customer insisted that I sell two packs of savian for 60 afghani. I explained that two packs cost 100 afghani. As we were negotiating the price, a Taliban gunman came up to us and said ‘you are a woman, why are you making such a fuss? Why are you talking to a man? Who gave you permission to talk and sell goods to men?’” The gunman forced her to move her wheelbarrow, threatening to beat her with his rifle butt.  

A few days later, she was again verbally harassed by another Taliban gunman who warned her to never leave her house without a mahram. “The Taliban constantly humiliate and insult me because I am a lone woman outside, but I remain silent so that they don’t stop me completely,” she explains, adding that she has to conceal that she is a widow. She fears the Taliban might force her or her teenage daughters to marry one of their members, a practice that is now surging, according to Amnesty International.  

Anis Gul uses the money she earns to pay the rent, which is 1,500 afghani a month, and other household expenses. Still, she rarely earns enough and most days her children go hungry. “There is not a single day that I can give enough food to my children. I boil savian dough in water which my children hate, because it does not have yogurt or beans,” she explains. 

She tried to add her name to the list of aid recipients from the World Food Programme (WFP), but, since she does not have a mahram there was no way for her to even meet with Taliban mullahs who are in charge of preparing the list in her city. “I worry that the Taliban will completely ban unaccompanied women from leaving their houses. If I can’t continue this work, my children might starve,” she says. 

In just 17 months, the Taliban reversed all the rights and freedom women and girls used to enjoy in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. The Taliban have banned women from getting an education, working in the public sector, and even travelling or riding in a taxi by themselves. The orders issued at the end of 2022 have been particularly disturbing: On December 20, they banned girls and women from getting university educations, and four days later, they forbade women from working for local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at a time when more than 28 million children and adults are suffering from food shortages and need humanitarian support to survive. In response to the Taliban ban on female aid workers, many NGOs and some UN agencies suspended their operations in Afghanistan.  

“Discrimination always has negative consequences and banning women from working in NGOs is disastrous for the people of Afghanistan,” Richard Bennett, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, told Zan Times. “Thousands of working women are unable to support their families and communities who depend on them. Thousands more in need of vital support are no longer able to receive it. Where women are the main providers for their families, they now face winter and the future without income or aid. The ban should be lifted immediately to save lives.” 

UN officials warn of a catastrophe in the making. “In barring women from contributing to the efforts of aid organizations, the Taliban has in effect suspended aid for half the population of Afghanistan, aid that they depended on and without which they will not survive,” Sima Bahous, UN Women executive director said in a statement on December 27. She explained that the ban deprives 11.6 million women and girls of vital assistance.  

Arezu*, 48, heads her family of six in a village in the outskirts of Sheberghan city, in northern Jawzjan province. Her husband, a soldier, was killed in a battle with the Taliban in 2014. He was among 66,000 Afghan military personnel killed since 2001, according to an AP report. Until August 2021, her family was surviving on her husband’s 60,000-afghani annual pension. That payment stopped after the Taliban regained power. Initially, Arezu turned to cleaning houses as well as begging in order to pay for food for her children. But lately, she hasn’t found any work, meaning her children would often go hungry.  

In early 2022, a female aid worker surveyed the village and added Arezu’s name to a list to receive aid. “For the past eight months, we survived on three packs of wheat flour, 7.5 kg of oil and a pack of lentils that we received each month from WFP. But last week, when I went to pick up the aid, they told me it might be the last package I would receive because the Taliban banned women from working in NGOs. I don’t know what to do now?” she tells Zan Times.   

A woman and her malnourished child in an aid distributing centre in Western Afghanistan in October 2022.

She has already sent two sons, ages 8 and 12, to work full-time at a mechanic’s shop. Arezu says she has no choice as the Taliban will not allow her or her university-educated daughter to work outside the home without a male chaperone. Their story is a common one: a recent assessment by UN found that children in women-headed household are at greater risk of being forced into child labour. Arezu’s two sons earn 250 afghani (around US$2.75) a week. “What my sons earn is not enough for food and I worry that we might not survive the winter,” she says.  

The fear is that more families will have no choice but to compel their children to work. “Children could be forced back into working on the streets, in factories, or in people’s homes because the services supporting them have been paused due to the ban [on female aid workers],” Save the Children, one of the NGOs that paused its operation in Afghanistan, warned on January 7, 2023. The NGO, which has worked in Afghanistan since 1976, said female aid workers who make up 50 percent of the organization’s workforce “are crucial for reaching women and girls who, due to cultural reasons, cannot interact with male aid workers.” 

Working women such as Anis Gul and Arezu who live in or close to cities run the risk of more frequent encounters with the Taliban who are particularly keen to punish unaccompanied women. The situation seems different for women headed-household in rural areas. 

Zohra*, 48, heads her family in a village in Ghor province, in western Afghanistan. Her husband died of heart disease 15 years ago, leaving her with six children. “After the death of my husband, all the responsibilities and problems of the house fell on my shoulders,” she told Zan Times.   

To feed her family, she started a business in 2020 with 1,500 afghani borrowed from a neighbour. She bought five chickens and started a small-scale poultry farm. Today, she has around 50 chickens. The business generates around 6,500 afghani a month in revenue, allowing her to pay rent and her children’s educational expenses. Before the Taliban took over, she could save 500 to 1,000 afghani a month, which she would use to buy more chickens. “When the Taliban came to power our problems increased. Food prices are up and NGOs that would provide help are no longer operating,” she tells Zan Times. Now, she can no longer afford to buy wheat for her chickens. “The NGOs used to help women-run businesses by providing chickens and the resources to maintain them. Now I have to pay for everything. Sometimes I go door-to-door to collect food leftovers to feed the chickens,” she says.  

Zohra’s chicken in her yard.

She fears the impact of more restrictions on women: “If I cannot go out, I may not be able to continue working and feeding my children. I hope that the Taliban stop what they are doing now and allow women to work and provide for their families.” 

Her children’s education has been the motivation for Zohra to continue. “I work so that my daughters and sons can study,” she says. Her children attend public schools, but she worries for her two young daughters who will soon be forced out of school since the Taliban banned girls’ education beyond grade six. For now, Zohra will do whatever in her power to make it possible for them to continue studying: “I hope that through education they can carve a different future than mine.” 

There are no indications from the Taliban that they will make life easier for the millions of women who have to work in order to keep their families both housed and fed. If anything, signs point to life getting even harder.  

On December 31, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, compared women’s work with theft in an interview with BBC Pashto, saying that livelihoods have to be within the framework of sharia and that illegitimate ones, such as stealing or women working, cannot be allowed.  

On January 3, Mullah Neda Mohammad Nadim, the Taliban minister of higher education, tweeted, “Islam has made it a men’s obligation to provide for women. It is logical for men to work and women not.”  

A few days later, Rukhshana Media reported that the Taliban gave female shopkeepers and street vendors in Mazar-e-Sharif just one week’s notice to close their businesses. The orders have been handed out to at least 30 businesswomen. What is happening in Mazar-e-Sharif will undoubtedly be replicated across Afghanistan as the Taliban do everything they can to systematically exclude women from public life, even if the lives of those women and their families depend on such work.  

Mahsa Elham, Sana Atif and Mahtab Safi are pen names for Zan Times journalists who are based in Afghanistan.  

*Names have been changed to protect identity.  

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