Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have set up a ministry for the “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice” in the building that once housed the Women’s Affairs Ministry, escorting out World Bank staffers on Saturday as part of the forced move.
It was the latest troubling sign that the Taliban is restricting women’s rights as they settle into government, just a month since they overran the capital Kabul. In their first period of rule in the 1990s, the Taliban denied girls and women the right to education and barred them from public life.
Separately, three explosions targeted Taliban vehicles in the eastern provincial capital of Jalalabad on Saturday, killing three people and wounding 20, witnesses said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but ISIL (ISIS) fighters, based in the area, are enemies of the Taliban.
The Taliban is facing major economic and security problems as it attempts to govern, and a growing challenge by ISIL would further stretch its resources.
In Kabul, a new sign was up outside the Women’s Affairs Ministry, announcing it was now the “Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”.
The staff of the World Bank’s $100m Women’s Economic Empowerment and Rural Development Project, which was run out of the Women’s Affairs Ministry, were escorted off the grounds on Saturday, said project member Sharif Akhtar, who was among those being removed.
Videos posted to social media showed women workers from the ministry protesting outside after losing their jobs. No official from the Taliban responded to requests for comment.
Mabouba Suraj, who heads the Afghan Women’s Network, said she was astounded by the flurry of orders released by the Taliban-run government restricting women and girls.
Meanwhile, the Taliban-run Ministry of Education asked boys from grades 7 to 12 back to school on Saturday along with their male teachers, but there was no mention of girls in those grades returning to school. Previously, the Taliban’s minister of higher education said girls would be given equal access to education, albeit in gender-segregated settings.
“It is becoming really, really troublesome … Is this the stage where the girls are going to be forgotten?” Suraj said. “I know they don’t believe in giving explanations, but explanations are very important.”
Suraj speculated the contradictory statements perhaps reflect divisions within the Taliban as they seek to consolidate their power, with the more pragmatic within the movement losing out to hard-liners among them, at least for now.
Statements from the Taliban leadership often reflect a willingness to engage with the world, open public spaces to women and girls and protect Afghanistan’s minorities. But orders to its rank and file on the ground are contradictory. Instead, restrictions, particularly on women, have been implemented.
The United Nations said it was “deeply worried” for the future of girls’ schooling in Afghanistan.
“It is critical that all girls, including older girls, are able to resume their education without any further delays. For that, we need female teachers to resume teaching,” the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF said.
‘Find middle ground’
Suraj, an Afghan American who returned to Afghanistan in 2003 to promote women’s rights and education, said many of her fellow activists have left the country.
She said she stayed in an effort to engage with the Taliban and find a middle ground, but until now has not been able to get the Taliban leadership to meet activists who have remained in the country to talk with women about the way forward.
“We have to talk. We have to find a middle ground,” she said.
Although still marginalised, Afghan women have fought for and gained basic rights in the past 20 years, becoming lawmakers, judges, pilots and police officers.
The Taliban has shown little inclination to honour those rights – no women have been included in the government and many have been stopped from returning to work.
Also on Saturday, an international flight by Pakistan’s national carrier left Kabul’s airport with 322 passengers on board and a flight by Iran’s Mahan Air departed with 187 passengers on board, an airport official said.
A Qatar Airways flight on Friday took more Americans out of Afghanistan, according to Washington’s peace envoy, the third such airlift by the Middle East carrier since the Taliban takeover and the frantic US troop pullout from the country.