The Taliban leadership in Afghanistan remained unmoved Friday by relentless global calls to remove a ban on women humanitarian workers, insisting their Islamic law or Shariah-based governance mandates it.
The hard-line rulers ordered international and national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) last Saturday to immediately suspend Afghan female staff for allegedly not observing Islamic hijab and breaching mandatory gender segregation at work.
The ban has prompted the United Nations to temporarily halt some “time-critical” programs, and several of the largest foreign NGOs in Afghanistan have suspended their operations, saying they cannot reach the millions of children, women and men in need of assistance without female staff.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, defended the ban Friday, arguing that it is strictly in accordance with Islamic law. He told VOA by phone that female government employees working in “unnecessary fields” were ordered to stay at home soon after the Taliban seized power in August 2021.
“The Islamic Emirate has now reached a conclusion that women do not need to work in NGOs in areas where there is no need for them,” Mujahid said, using the official title for his men-only Taliban administration in Kabul.
“In line with a general Islamic Emirate edict seeking implementation of Shariah in the country, it is mandatory for women not to go to NGO offices, just like government institutions, which have been functioning without women for the past year-and-a-half.”
Mujahid argued that Taliban authorities are responsible for the safety and security of all Afghans but that they are unable to do so for women working in NGOs because they are independent of government control.
Barring health and a couple of other departments, female government staff have largely been confined to their homes since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Mujahid asserted the women are still being paid salaries.
Early last week, the Taliban abruptly barred female students from attending universities until further notice. The move effectively imposed a complete ban on girls’ education in Afghanistan after the Islamist rulers in March banned teenage girls from attending secondary schools across the country.
A group of independent U.N. experts in a statement Friday denounced the Taliban’s order barring women from working in NGOs as an “outrageous violation” of women’s rights.
“The ban on women working in NGOs not only deprives women workers of their fundamental rights and livelihood, but also prevents them from supporting their communities. It will further push women out of jobs and completely erase them from the public sphere,” the group lamented in a statement.
Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. resident coordinator in Afghanistan, told reporters in New York on Thursday that it would not stop providing humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans despite the ban on women NGO workers, citing “absolutely enormous” humanitarian needs in the South Asian nation.
“Let me make it very clear that the United Nations and humanitarian partners are very committed to the delivery of life-saving services to the people of Afghanistan,” Alakbarov said.
He acknowledged that it is not possible to deliver humanitarian aid, particularly delivery of health services to women and girls, without the participation of female workers, but he stressed “it’s important that we continue to stay and deliver.”
U.N. and other aid agencies estimate about 28 million people – more than half the population – including 14 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. About 97% of Afghans are at risk of falling below the poverty line this year, with more than 1 million children younger than 5 acutely malnourished.
Alakbarov said that the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator and other U.N. officials will visit Afghanistan in the coming weeks to discuss the issues with the Taliban rulers and find solutions.
“We are working under one thing only, and that is resolution of the bottleneck and getting negotiations going so the women can go back to work and girls can go back to school, based on an understanding that this is an absolutely essential right of other people,” Alakbarov said.
“I believe from my interaction with the Taliban, the best way of coming to the solution is not a pressure. It is a dialogue. This movement has not responded well to the pressure in the past,” he cautioned.
The international community has not yet formally recognized the Taliban administration, mainly over human rights concerns and the treatment of women.