KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban government on Saturday ordered all foreign and domestic non-governmental groups in Afghanistan to suspend employing women, allegedly because some female employees didn’t wear the Islamic headscarf correctly. The ban was the latest restrictive move by Afghanistan’s new rulers against women’s rights and freedoms.
The order came in a letter from Economy Minister Qari Din Mohammed Hanif, which said that any NGO found not complying with the order will have their operating license revoked in Afghanistan. The letter’s content was confirmed to The Associated Press by the ministry’s spokesman, Abdul Rahman Habib.
The ministry said it had received “serious complaints” about female staff working for NGOs not wearing the “correct” headscarf, or hijab. It was not immediately clear if the order applies to all women or only Afghan women working at the NGOs.
More details were not immediately available on the latest Taliban ban amid concerns that it could be a stepping-stone to more restrictive measures against women in Afghanistan.
Also Saturday, Taliban security forces used a water cannon to disperse women protesting the ban on university education for women in the western city of Herat, eyewitnesses said. The Taliban rulers on Tuesday banned female students from attending universities effective immediately.
Afghan women have since demonstrated in major cities against the ban, a rare sign of domestic protest since the Taliban seized power last year. The decision has also caused outrage and opposition in Afghanistan and beyond.
According to eyewitnesses in Herat, about two dozen women were heading to the provincial governor’s house Saturday to protest the ban, chanting: “Education is our right,” when they were pushed back by security forces firing the water cannon.
Video shared with the AP shows the women screaming and hiding in a side street to escape the water cannon. They then resume their protest, with chants of “Disgraceful!”
One of the protest organizers, Maryam, said between 100 and 150 women took part in the protest, moving in small groups from different parts of the city toward a central meeting point. She did not give her last name for fear of reprisals.
“There was security on every street, every square, armored vehicles and armed men,” she said. “When we started our protest, in Tariqi Park, the Taliban took branches from the trees and beat us. But we continued our protest. They increased their security presence. Around 11 a.m. they brought out the water cannon.”
A spokesman for the provincial governor, Hamidullah Mutawakil, claimed there were only four-five protesters.
“They had no agenda, they just came here to make a film,” he said, without mentioning the violence against the women or the use of the water cannon.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the university ban, including from Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as warnings from the United States and the G-7 group of major industrial nations that the policy will have consequences for the Taliban.
An official in the Taliban government, Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim, spoke about the ban for the first time on Thursday in an interview with the Afghan state television.
He said the ban was necessary to prevent the mixing of genders in universities and because he believes some subjects being taught violated the principles of Islam. He also added the ban would be in place until further notice.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule respecting rights for women and minorities, the Taliban have widely implemented their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, since they seized power in August 2021.
They have banned girls from middle school and high school — and now universities — and also barred women from most fields of employment. Women have also been ordered to wear head-to-toe clothing in public and have been banned from parks and gyms.
The Afghan society, while largely traditional, had increasingly embraced the education of girls and women over the past two decades of a U.S.-backed government.
In the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, dozens of Afghan refugee students protested on Saturday against the ban on female higher education in their homeland and demanded the immediate reopening of campuses for women.
One of them, Bibi Haseena, read a poem depicting the grim situation for Afghan girls seeking an education. She said was unhappy about graduating outside her country when hundreds of thousands of her Afghan sisters were being deprived of an education.