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Can Online Education, Work Bypass Taliban Barriers for Afghan Women?

A woman weaves a traditional Afghan carpet at a factory in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 6, 2023. In December 2022, the Taliban banned women from working for nongovernmental organizations.
A woman weaves a traditional Afghan carpet at a factory in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 6, 2023. In December 2022, the Taliban banned women from working for nongovernmental organizations.

As the pandemic-related remote work model fades in most parts of the world, women in Afghanistan have found the practice a potential remedy to the Taliban's ban on women being employed outside the home.

Women employed by the United Nations and other international aid agencies are often provided laptops and links to networks that enable them to keep earning paychecks without explicitly violating the Taliban's rules.

The Taliban ban, imposed on Afghan women working for nongovernmental organization in December 2022 and extended in April 2023 on women who work for U.N. agencies, has impacted thousands of Afghan women who work for international aid agencies in Afghanistan.

The Islamist leadership has fired all female government employees, except in the health and education ministries, and has set up a men-only interim government.

While remote work has ensured women do not lose income, a lifeline for many female-headed households, there are questions about the long-term viability of the practice.

Amid extremely limited access to electricity, internet and other technological resources in the country, there is also no policy clarity from a hardline Islamist government that has systemically deprived women of their fundamental social and political rights.

"By the time the U.N. perfects the work from home model the Taliban might ban internet or the sites that are used to work," said Pashtana Durrani, executive director of Learn Afghan, a non-governmental organization promoting education for girls.

Two Taliban spokesmen were contacted to explain the regime's policy on virtual work and education for women, but none responded.

Pros and cons

While work from home is widely considered better than no work at all, experts say the practice has both immediate and long-term consequences for professional women.

"In societies where women cannot work outside of the house, remote work is one step toward financial freedom and growth in one's professional development," said Jeanne Meister, a workplace strategist.

Avoiding daily commutes to worksites, staying away from "microaggressions" in the office, and being close to children are some of the additional benefits of working from home.

"Having work from home is a lot better than no work, but it will damage women's long-run promotions in comparison to those in the office," said Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University and researcher on work from home.

"We found employees that work from home four days a week had a 50% lower promotion rate controlling for performance," Bloom said.

There are also personal development and social networking downsides associated with permanent work from home.

"Women benefit from additional social networks when they meet other women working from their community if they work in offices," said Suhani Jalota, a social entrepreneur and a women's health and employment researcher at Stanford University.

Online education

In addition to work, the Taliban has banned education for girls above 12 years old. The policy deprives 1.1 million secondary school and more than 100,000 university students from both public and private education.

More than 2.5 million Afghan girls are estimated to be missing education for various social, economic and policy reasons, according to the U.N.

To remedy the crisis, some activists have launched online educational programs for teenage girls in Afghanistan.

"Online classes have been really effective for high school and college-level students," said Lamar Zala Gran, director of an organization that provides online classes in mathematics, language and technology for young girls and women.

Students also receive mental awareness advice to overcome daily anxiety and stress associated with their inability to go outside of their homes, Gran wrote to VOA.

Despite their perceived effectiveness, online education is not widely accessible. Some Afghan educational videos shared on YouTube have viewership in single digits, while live classes on platforms such as Zoom do not reach many students.

The nearly universal poverty in Afghanistan is considered a major barrier for girls' education, online and in-person.

"We have students who do not have laptops and it's difficult for us to teach them writing skills," Gran said. In some cases, up to eight students will join a class using a single laptop or mobile phone — but the class is canceled because of poor internet connection.

"There is a global sympathy and also solidarity with Afghan girls and women," said an Afghan education activist who did not want to be named. "But what is missing is a coherent, integrated and organized approach which could effectively undermine the Taliban's misogynistic bans."