Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers ordered all national and international NGOs to stop their women employees from working after “serious complaints” about their dress code, the economy ministry said on Saturday.
The order threatened to suspend the operating licences of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that failed to implement the directive.
The move drew swift international condemnation, with governments and organisations warning of the impact on humanitarian services in a country where millions rely on aid.
The latest restriction comes less than a week after the Taliban authorities banned women from attending universities, prompting global outrage and protests in some Afghan cities.
While the Taliban had promised a softer form of rule when they returned to power in August last year, they have instead imposed harsh restrictions on women — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
The notification sent to NGOs, a copy of which was obtained by AFP and confirmed by an economy ministry spokesman, cited “serious complaints regarding the non-observance of the Islamic hijab and other rules and regulations pertaining to the work of females in national and international organisations”.
The ministry “instructs all organisations to stop females working until further notice,” the notification said, warning that if a group ignores the order, its license “will be cancelled”.
It remained unclear whether the directive impacted foreign women staff at NGOs.
Two international NGOs confirmed they had received the notification.
“We are suspending all our activities from Sunday,” a top official at an international NGO involved in humanitarian work told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“We will soon have a meeting of top officials of all NGOs to decide how to handle this issue.”
– ‘Devastating’ decision –
Dozens of organisations work across remote areas of Afghanistan and many of their employees are women, with several warning a ban on women staff would stymie their work.
The International Rescue Committee said in a statement its more than 3,000 women staff in Afghanistan were “critical for the delivery of humanitarian assistance” in the country.
An official at an international NGO involved in food distribution said the ban was a “big blow”.
“We have women staff largely to address humanitarian aid concerns of Afghan women,” the official said. “How do we address their concerns now?”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said women were “central to humanitarian operations around the world” and that the ban would be “devastating” to Afghans as it would “disrupt vital and life-saving assistance to millions”.
The order also threatens key livelihoods of women NGO staff, a woman working for an Afghan organisation told AFP.
“What will those women who have no men to support their families and are working in such NGOs do?” she said, asking not to reveal her name.
“It’s only that salary that had prevented us from falling into poverty.”
The order was a “clear breach of humanitarian principles”, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN chief’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan.
The European Union — a major funder of aid organisations working in Afghanistan — condemned the decision and said it was assessing “the impact it will have on our aid on the ground”, Nabila Massrali, the EU foreign policy chief’s spokeswoman, told AFP.
Rights group Amnesty International tweeted the ban was a “deplorable attempt to erase women from the political, social and economic spaces” in Afghanistan.
– Mounting restrictions –
The order is the latest assault 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, triggering widespread censure.
The Group of Seven industrialised democracies said the prohibition may amount to “a crime against humanity”.
In response to the order, around 400 male students on Saturday boycotted an exam in the southern city of Kandahar — the de facto power centre of the Taliban — a rare protest staged by men, which was dispersed by members of the hardline Islamist group.
The Taliban had already barred teenage girls from secondary school, and women have been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from travelling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa.
They are also not allowed to enter parks or gardens.
The Taliban have also resumed public floggings of men and women in recent weeks, widening their implementation of an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.