Treatment of women by the Taliban

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A member of the Taliban's religious police beating an Afghan woman in Kabul on August 26, 2001. The footage, filmed by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, can be seen at

Treatment of women by the Taliban has been highly controversial. During its 1996–2001 rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban was considered notorious internationally for its misogyny and violence against women. Its stated motive was to create a "secure environment where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct",[1] reportedly based on Pashtunwali beliefs about living in purdah.[2] Since the Taliban seized most of Afghanistan in 2021, there are many concerns.[3]

Women in Afghanistan were forced to wear the burqa at all times in public, because, according to one Taliban spokesman, "the face of a woman is a source of corruption" for men not related to them.[4] In a systematic segregation sometimes referred to as gender apartheid, women were not allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur'an.[5]: 165 

Women seeking an education were forced to attend underground schools, where they and their teachers risked execution if caught.[6][7] They were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which led to illnesses remaining untreated. They faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws.[8]: 12, 31–32 [9] The Taliban allowed and in some cases encouraged marriage for girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80% of Afghan marriages were forced.[10]

Gender policies[edit]

Afghan women wearing the burqa

From the age of eight onward, girls in Afghanistan were not allowed to be in direct contact with males other than a close "blood relative", husband, or in-law (see mahram).[11] Other restrictions for women were:

  • Women should not appear in the streets without a blood relative or without wearing a burqa.
  • Women should not wear high-heeled shoes as no man should hear a woman's footsteps lest it excite him.
  • Women must not speak loudly in public as no stranger should hear a woman's voice.[12]
  • All ground and first-floor residential windows should be painted over or screened to prevent women from being visible from the street.
  • Photographing, filming and displaying pictures of females in newspapers, books, shops or the home was banned.
  • The modification of any place names that included the word "women". For example, "women's garden" was renamed "spring garden".[13]
  • Women were forbidden to appear on the balconies of their apartments or houses.
  • Ban on women's presence on radio, television or at public gatherings of any kind.[14]


The Taliban rulings regarding public conduct placed severe restrictions on a woman's freedom of movement and created difficulties for those who could not afford a burqa (which was not commonly worn in Afghanistan prior to the rise of the Taliban and considered a fairly expensive garment at upwards of USD$9.00 in 1998[8]: 8 ) or did not have any mahram. These women faced virtual house arrest.[2] A woman who was badly beaten by the Taliban for walking the streets alone stated "my father was killed in battle ... I have no husband, no brother, no son. How am I to live if I can't go out alone?"[15]

A field worker for the NGO Terre des hommes witnessed the impact on female mobility at Kabul's largest state-run orphanage, Taskia Maskan. After the female staff was relieved of their duties, the approximately 400 girls living at the institution were locked inside for a year without being allowed outside for recreation.[11]

Decrees that affected women's mobility were:

  • Ban on women riding bicycles or motorcycles, even with their mahrams.
  • Women were forbidden to ride in a taxi without a mahram.
  • Segregated bus services introduced to prevent males and females travelling on the same bus.[12]

The lives of rural women were less dramatically affected as they generally lived and worked within secure kin environments. A relative level of freedom was necessary for them to continue with their chores or labor. If these women travelled to a nearby town, the same urban restrictions would have applied to them.[1]


The Taliban disagreed with past Afghan statutes that allowed the employment of Afghan women in a mixed sex workplace. The claim was that this was a breach of purdah and sharia law.[4] On September 30, 1996, the Taliban decreed that all women should be banned from employment.[16] It is estimated that 25 percent of government employees were female, and when compounded by losses in other sectors, many thousands of women were affected.[11]

Another loss was for those whom the employed women served. Elementary education of all children, not just girls, was shut down in Kabul, where virtually all of the elementary school teachers were women. Thousands of educated families fled Kabul for Pakistan after the Taliban took the city in 1996.[2][17]: 106 

Taliban Supreme Leader Mohammed Omar assured female civil servants and teachers they would still receive wages of around US$5 per month, although this was a short-term offering.[18] A Taliban representative stated: "The Taliban’s act of giving monthly salaries to 30,000 job-free women, now sitting comfortably at home, is a whiplash in the face of those who are defaming Taliban with reference to the rights of women. These people through baseless propaganda are trying to incite the women of Kabul against the Taliban".[4]

The Taliban promoted the use of the extended family, or zakat system of charity to ensure women should not need to work. However, years of conflict meant that nuclear families often struggled to support themselves let alone aid additional relatives.[2] Qualification for legislation often rested on men, such as food aid, which had to be collected by a male relative. The possibility that a woman may not possess any living male relatives was dismissed by Mullah Ghaus, the acting foreign minister, who said he was surprised at the degree of international attention and concern for such a small percentage of the Afghan population.[11] A Physicians for Human Rights researcher that traveled to Kabul in 1998 described "a city of beggars" filled with "women who had once been teachers and nurses now moving in the streets like ghosts under their enveloping burqas, selling every possession and begging so as to feed their children."[8]: 3 

Female health professionals were exempted from the employment ban, yet they operated in much-reduced circumstances. The ordeal of physically getting to work due to the segregated bus system and widespread harassment meant some women left their jobs by choice. Of those who remained, many lived in fear of the regime and chose to reside at hospitals during the working week to minimize exposure to Taliban forces.[2] These women were vital to ensuring the continuance of gynecological, ante-natal, and midwifery services, but it was on a much-compromised level. Under the Rabbani regime, there had been around 200 female staff working in Kabul's Mullalai Hospital, yet barely 50 remained under the Taliban. NGOs operating in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 found the shortage of female health professionals to be a significant obstacle to their work.[19]

The other exception to the employment ban allowed a reduced number of humanitarian workers to remain in service. The Taliban segregation codes meant that women were invaluable for gaining access to vulnerable women or conducting outreach research. This exception was not sanctioned by the entire Taliban movement, so instances of female participation, or lack thereof, varied with each circumstance.[2] The city of Herat was particularly affected by Taliban adjustments to the treatment of women, as it had been one of the more cosmopolitan and outward-looking areas of Afghanistan prior to 1995. Women had previously been allowed to work in a limited range of jobs, but this was stopped by Taliban authorities. The new governor of Herat, Mullah Razzaq, issued orders for women to be forbidden to pass his office for fear of their distracting nature.[20]: 243 


The Taliban claimed to recognize their Islamic duty to offer education to both boys and girls, yet a decree was passed that banned girls above the age of 8 from receiving education. Maulvi Kalamadin insisted it was only a temporary suspension and that women would return to school and work once facilities and street security were adapted to prevent cross-gender contact. The Taliban wished to have total control of Afghanistan before calling upon an Ulema body to determine the content of a new curriculum to replace the Islamic yet unacceptable Mujahadin version.[2]

The female employment ban was felt greatly in the education system. Within Kabul alone, the ruling affected 106,256 girls, 148,223 male students, and 8,000 female university undergraduates. 7,793 female teachers were dismissed, a move that crippled the provision of education and caused 63 schools to close due to a sudden lack of educators.[11] Some women ran clandestine schools within their homes for local children, or for other women under the guise of sewing classes, such as the Golden Needle Sewing School. The learners, parents, and educators were aware of the consequences should the Taliban discover their activities, but for those who felt trapped under the strict Taliban rule, such actions allowed them an oppotunity and a sense of self-determination and hope.[15]


On 17 August 2021, shortly after the Fall of Kabul, a senior member of the Taliban cultural commission, Enamullah Samangani, called on women to join the government.[21] In contrast, in early September, the Taliban said that women would not be allowed to "work in high-ranking posts" in the government[22] and "ruled out" women in the Cabinet.[23] The acting Cabinet announced by the Taliban on 7 September consisted only of men.[24][25]

Health care[edit]

Prior to the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan male doctors had been allowed to treat women in hospitals, but the decree that no male doctor should be allowed to touch the body of a woman under the pretext of consultation was soon introduced. [15] With fewer female health professionals in employment, the distances many women had to travel for attention increased while the provision of ante-natal clinics declined.[2]

In Kabul, some women established informal clinics in their homes to service family and neighbours, yet as medical supplies were hard to obtain their effectiveness was limited. Many women endured prolonged suffering or a premature death due to the lack of treatment. For those families that had the means, inclination, and mahram support, medical attention could be sought in Pakistan.[15]

In October 1996, women were barred from accessing the traditional hammam, public baths, as the opportunities for socializing were ruled un-Islamic. These baths were an important facility in a nation where few possessed running water and the bar gave cause for the UN to predict a rise in scabies and vaginal infections among women denied methods of hygiene as well as access to health care.[11] Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American author, stated in 2001 that it has been four years since many Afghan women had been able to pray to their God as "Islam prohibits women from praying without a bath after their periods".[26] In June 1998, the Taliban banned women from attending general hospitals in the capital, whereas before they had been able to attend a women-only ward of general hospitals. This left only one hospital in Kabul at which they could seek treatment.[17]: 71 

Forced confinement[edit]

Family harmony was badly affected by mental stress, isolation and depression that often accompanied the forced confinement of women. A 1998 survey of 160 women residents or former residents of Kabul found that 97 percent showed signs of serious depression and 71 percent reported a decline in their physical well-being.[8]: 6–13 [11] Latifa, a Kabul resident and author, wrote:[15]

The apartment resembles a prison or a hospital. Silence weighs heavily on all of us. As none of us do much, we haven’t got much to tell each other. Incapable of sharing our emotions, we each enclose ourselves in our own fear and distress. Since everyone is in the same black pit, there isn’t much point in repeating time and again that we can’t see clearly.

The Taliban closed the country's beauty salons.[27][28] Cosmetics such as nail varnish and make-up were prohibited.[29]

Taliban restrictions on the cultural presence of women covered several areas. Place names including the word "women" were modified so that the word was not used. Women were forbidden to laugh loudly as it was considered improper for a stranger to hear a woman's voice. Women were prohibited from participating in sports or entering a sports club.[30]


Punishments were often carried out publicly, either as formal spectacles held in sports stadiums or town squares or spontaneous street beatings. Civilians lived in fear of harsh penalties as there was little mercy; women caught breaking decrees were often treated with extreme violence.[11] Examples include:

  • In October 1996, a woman had the tip of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish.[11]
  • In December 1996, Radio Shari'a announced that 225 Kabul women had been seized and punished for violating the sharia code of dress. The sentence was handed down by a tribunal and the women were lashed on their legs and backs for their misdemeanor.[31]
  • In May 1997, five female CARE International employees with authorisation from the Ministry of the Interior to conduct research for an emergency feeding programme were forced from their vehicle by members of the religious police. The guards used a public address system to insult and harass the women before striking them with a metal and leather whip over 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) in length.[1]
Public execution of a woman, known as Zarmeena, by the Taliban at the Ghazi Sports Stadium, Kabul, November 16, 1999. The mother of five children had been found guilty of killing her husband while he slept, after allegedly being beaten by him.[32][33]
  • In 1999, a mother of seven children was executed in front of 30,000 spectators in Kabul's Ghazi Sport stadium for murdering her husband (see right). She was imprisoned for three years and extensively tortured prior to the execution, yet she refused to plead her innocence in a bid to protect her daughter (reportedly the actual culprit).[34]
  • When a Taliban raid discovered a woman running an informal school in her apartment, they beat the children and threw the woman down a flight of stairs (breaking her leg) and then imprisoned her. They threatened to stone her family publicly if she refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Taliban and their laws.[15]
  • An Afghan girl named Bibi Aisha was promised to a new family through a tribal method of solving disputes known as baad. When she fled the violence girls often suffer under baad, her new family found her, and a Taliban commander ordered her to be punished as an example, "lest other girls in the village try to do the same thing".[35] Her ears and nose were cut off and she was left for dead in the mountains, but survived.[35]
  • Working women are threatened into quitting their jobs. Failure to comply with the Taliban's threats has led to women being shot and killed, as in the case of 22-year-old Hossai in July 2010.[36][37]
  • In 2013, Indian author Sushmita Banerjee was shot dead by Taliban militants for allegedly defying Taliban dictates. She was married to an Afghan businessman and had recently relocated to Afghanistan. Earlier, she had escaped two instances of execution by Taliban in 1995 and later fled to India. Her book based on her escape from Taliban was also filmed in an Indian movie.[38]
  • On 12 July 2021, a woman in Faryab Province was beaten to death by Taliban militants and her house was set alight.[39]
  • In August 2021, Taliban militants killed an Afghan woman in Balkh Province for wearing tight clothing and not being accompanied by a male relative.[40]

Many punishments were carried out by individual militias without the sanction of Taliban authorities, as it was against official Taliban policy to punish women in the street. A more official line was the punishment of men for instances of female misconduct: a reflection of a patriarchal society and the belief that men are duty bound to control women. Maulvi Kalamadin stated in 1997, "Since we cannot directly punish women, we try to use taxi drivers and shopkeepers as a means to pressure them" to conform. Examples of punishment of men include:

  • If a taxi driver picked up a woman with her face uncovered or unaccompanied by a mahram, then he faced a jail sentence, and the husband would be punished.
  • If a woman was caught washing clothes in a river then she would be escorted home by Islamic authorities where her husband/mahram would be severely punished.
  • If a tailor was found taking female measurements, the tailor would face imprisonment.[1]: 156–157 

International response[edit]

The protests of international agencies carried little weight with Taliban authorities, who gave precedence to their interpretation of Islamic law and did not feel bound by UN codes or human rights laws, legislation it viewed as instruments for Western imperialism.[1] After the Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995, the UN had hoped the gender policies would become more 'moderate' "as it matured from a popular uprising into a responsible government with linkages to the donor community".[11] The Taliban refused to bow to international pressure and reacted calmly to aid suspensions.

  • In November 1995, UNICEF suspended all aid to education in regions under Taliban control, as they argued the ban on mixing males and females in education was a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the aftermath of the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, this action moved to solidify UNICEF's role as a leading agency in matters concerning women and children.[11]
  • In 1996, Save the Children (UK) also withdrew support as communication with women, the primary child carers, was most difficult.[11]
  • UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali expressed his concern regarding the status of Afghan women.[41]
  • In 1998, a detailed report by Physicians for Human Rights concluded in its executive summary: "To PHR's knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment from showing their faces, seeking medical care without a male escort, or attending school. ... It is difficult to find another government or would-be government in the world that has deliberately created such poverty by arbitrarily depriving half the population under its control of jobs, schooling, mobility, and health care."[8]: 2–3 
  • In 1999, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly stated "We are speaking up on behalf of the women and girls of Afghanistan, who have been is criminal and we each have a responsibility to stop it".[42]

In January 2006, a London conference on Afghanistan led to the creation of an International Compact, which included benchmarks for the treatment of women. The Compact includes the following point: "Gender:By end-1389 (20 March 2011): the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan will be fully implemented; and, in line with Afghanistan’s MDGs, female participation in all Afghan governance institutions, including elected and appointed bodies and the civil service, will be strengthened."[43] However, an Amnesty International report on June 11, 2008 declared that there needed to be "no more empty promises" with regard to Afghanistan, citing the treatment of women as one such unfulfilled goal.[44]

In September 2021, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said that a ban on women's education in Afghanistan would be un-Islamic, and he called for the leadership to be inclusive and respect human rights.[45]

Pakistani Taliban[edit]

Various Taliban groups have been in existence in Pakistan since around 2002. Most of these Taliban factions have joined an umbrella organization called Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Although the Pakistani Taliban is distinct from Afghan Taliban, they have a similar outlook towards women.[46] The Pakistani Taliban too has killed women accusing them of un-Islamic behavior and has forcibly married girls after publicly flogging them for illicit relations.[47]

Post-2021 takeover[edit]

Immediately after 2021 Taliban offensive all universities became sex-segregated all over the country.[48] The last time the Taliban was in power, girls and women were forbidden from pursuing an education.[49] During the August offensive women were advised by the Taliban to stay at home because their soldiers were not trained to respect women.[50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Dupree, Nancy Hatch (1998). "Afghan Women under the Taliban". In Maley, William (ed.). Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. New York: New York University Press. pp. 145–166. ISBN 0-8147-5585-2.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Marsden, Peter (1998). "The gender policies of the Taliban". The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan. London: Zed Books. pp. 88–101. ISBN 1-85649-522-1.
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  5. ^ Israr, Hasan (2011). The Conflict Within Islam: Expressing Religion Through Politics. Bloomington: iUniverse. ISBN 978-1-4620-8301-5.
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Further reading[edit]