featured image

Zan Times investigation: Banned from working, Afghan women grapple with abuse and despair at home

By Archit Mehta and Kreshma Fakhri 

When Saeeda* was dismissed from her role as a local government employee in Herat province, she lost more than her job. She lost her financial independence, the hard-won respect of her husband, and her sense of professional fulfilment.   

“There was a time when I mattered. Those days are gone and so has my happiness. There are days when I do not even recognise my husband … with each passing day he behaves increasingly like a Talib,” she said. 

The 31-year-old who graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in public administration, is one of millions of Afghan women reeling from the Taliban’s sustained assault on their rights to work, study and take part in public life.  

Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban have barred women from universities, government jobs and working for national and international NGOs. In April 2023, they also banned Afghan women from working for the United Nations in Afghanistan, putting critical humanitarian operations in the country in further jeopardy. 

To understand the impact of the Taliban’s tightening restrictions on women’s employment, Zan Times interviewed 50 women across 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Some were single parents or the sole breadwinner in their families. All had been employed either by the government, NGOs or private companies before the Taliban regained power.  

Sixty percent of the women surveyed were in their 20s and had lived most of their lives when the Taliban were out of power.  

According to Zan Times’ investigation, half the women were forced to quit their jobs in August 2021. By December 2022, when the Taliban banned women from working for NGOs, all of them were out of a job and confined to their homes. 

UN experts, including Richard Bennett, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, said since their takeover the Taliban have been “ruling through the most extreme forms of misogyny”, erasing 20 years of progress for women and girls’ rights

Part of this progress was the rising proportion of Afghan women in the workplace. In 2017, government data showed that women represented 31 percent of the staff employed by regional NGOs and 26 percent of the staff employed by international NGOs. 

Before the Taliban regained power, one third of the civil service employees in the country were women, according to Nader Naderi, the former head of the Administrative Reforms and Civil Services Commission who spoke to Zan Times in August 2022.  

Devastating loss of income amid humanitarian crisis 

In the years before the Taliban returned to power, many Afghan families benefitted from a dual income. However, more than 60 percent of the women we interviewed say they no longer have any source of family income, increasing their risk of falling into debt or deeper poverty. According to the UN, more than 28 million people or two thirds of Afghanistan’s population will need urgent humanitarian aid in 2023. 

“I had a good life and was financially independent. I had an income and could fulfil the needs of not just myself but my family as well,” Saeeda told Zan Times.  

Before she was dismissed, she earned 10,000 afghani a month (US$115), which helped to feed and clothe her three children but now the family survives on the less predictable earnings of her husband, a driver. 

Many women are forced to rely on savings, support from their families, or humanitarian aid, if they are lucky enough to receive it, to make ends meet.  

Alia Rasouli was employed in the health sector for eight years. She worked on vaccination programmes and as a nursing manager in a hospital in Panjshir province before the Taliban takeover. “Since my husband and I are jobless, we have had to sell our household goods, like our carpets and ornaments, just to make sure we can do the bare minimum for the children,” she told Zan Times. 

Banned from going to work, women face growing violence at home 

Many women interviewed by Zan Times spoke of their despair at losing their jobs and income, a situation which often ignited their husband’s anger. Most women interviewed said they were subjected to increasing physical and verbal abuse by their husbands since the Taliban takeover. 

Twenty-three-year-old Razia had worked for a regional NGO in Samangan province for three years before she was dismissed from her job. 

“I feel like I am a burden to the family and it seems like my family has forgotten what I am capable of,” she told Zan Times. She described feeling humiliated asking her husband for money, a request that sometimes provoked a violent response. “His behaviour has become violent and in some cases, he raises his hand and beats me.” 

Saha, a 31-year-old former employee of Herat’s Department of Commerce, who lives with her husband and three children, told Zan Times: “When I ask my husband for money to meet my personal needs, he reacts harshly and does not give me money.” 

Samira Azad, a 27-year-old social development professional from Badghis province, who is married with one son, said: “Ever since the Taliban’s takeover, my husband has become more abusive. He has slapped me several times and often pulls my hair during his rage.” 

Despair at the “cruelty” towards women  

At least 45 out of the 50 women interviewed said they felt trapped and worthless since their rights and freedoms started getting stripped away.  

Zarghuna, a 26-year-old journalist from Balkh province, told Zan Times: “Before the Taliban took over, I used to report on issues concerning women. Today, I cannot even defend my rights, there is no institution that defends the rights of Afghan women.” 

For many women surveyed, the Taliban’s intolerance and discrimination towards them has had a toxic ripple effect in the communities where they live. One former journalist from Kabul said she is regularly subjected to “moral policing” by her neighbours, which has left her distraught.  

“Each time my neighbors see me, they taunt me. Just because I worked as a journalist for 10 years, they shame me. They repeatedly say if “women like me” were not morally loose, we would not have felt this miserable,” she told Zan Times. 

With a degree in computer science and still only 26 years old, Mina Rahmani once had a bright future ahead of her, working in the IT department of the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Kabul. But her skills, knowledge and expertise account for next to nothing under Taliban rule. Unable to fulfil her potential, home feels like a prison, her life much smaller. 

“I have thought of suicide many times … I feel powerless against the cruelty of the situation. I feel that my status in society has been reduced to that of a sex slave and servant,” she told Zan Times. 

Note: *Names of the interviewees have been changed for their safety.