Afghanistan: Taliban attack NGOs helping women

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In Doha, where they are negotiating a peace deal with the Afghan government, the Taliban say they are ready to guarantee women’s rights. But in Afghanistan, on the contrary, NGOs have observed in recent months that they have hardened their position.

The insurgents have made access to the territories they control more difficult, ordered the closure of programs promoting women’s autonomy and in places banned NGOs from employing female staff, several of these organizations said.

The Taliban “give the impression of having changed and this is a really concrete example that this is not the case”, deplores an Afghan official of a large international organization.

AFP spoke to representatives of a dozen NGOs, all of whom requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

All describe a deterioration of the situation, since the signing in Doha in February 2020 of the agreement between Washington and the Taliban on the total withdrawal of American forces by May, and even more in recent months.

The Taliban hope to return to power and establish a regime based on Islamic law, framing the rights of women.

“Islam has offered women all basic rights such as education, work, possession, trade”, assured in December in front of a Qatari research center mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, their co-founder.

But the international community remembers that when they were in power, between 1996 and 2001, women could neither work nor study, and those accused of adultery were stoned.

She has therefore made respect for women’s rights a key element in the inter-Afghan negotiations, which began in September in Qatar but are now at a standstill.

A November letter from the Taliban commission dedicated to humanitarian organizations, of which AFP has obtained a copy, tends to show that the Taliban use double talk. “NGOs which take women out of their homes in the name of economic independence, education or sport (…) are by no means acceptable”, it is written there.

“Like a slap”

This tone destabilized the NGOs, which had gradually found a modus vivendi with the Taliban allowing them to help women in certain places, sometimes even with educational projects.

“It’s like a slap in the face to read that,” reacts an employee of a foreign organization helping isolated communities.

If the pressure against this type of activity is “nothing new”, observes a senior humanitarian official, the change is due to the fact that it is becoming “much more official and widespread”.

In this letter, the commission says it is ready to “take the necessary measures” against NGOs which contravene its instructions.

The message was well received and several aid workers said they had been forced to abandon programs in some areas.

“When you receive a letter from the Taliban, they are not funny at all, you have to apply it”, assures a senior official of another foreign organization.

At the same time, the Taliban blocked access to certain areas for female NGO staff. According to two organizations, the insurgents said they had received these orders from their political office in Qatar.

“We did everything to convince them, but they said no,” said a humanitarian official working in the north of the country.

Without female staff, NGOs can no longer work with women because the Taliban refuse to let them be seen by men who are not members of their family.

An employee of another international organization thus regrets having been able to “reach only the men” in the Taliban zones in the north.

“Sensitive words”

Her NGO had to resolve, for a new project, not to recruit women, because “there is no point in hiring someone to sit at the desk”.

If aid workers’ access to women has never been officially authorized by the Taliban, it has so far been discussed at the local level between the communities and the insurgent leaders of the area.

In areas where the Taliban are more flexible, Afghan NGO workers must wear the burqa and be accompanied by a “mahram”, a male chaperone of their family.

For them, the pressure is constant. “We don’t use the terms ‘human rights’ or ‘women’s rights’ because they are sensitive words,” said a young woman who said she was terrified every time she visited Taliban territory.

“I can see (the fear) on the faces of all my colleagues,” adds another Afghan employee of an international organization.

Other humanitarian projects have recently had to be canceled, the Taliban having multiplied the red tape.

Like many humanitarians, Andrew Watkins, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, establishes a link with the peace process. Their “legitimacy” having been reinforced, the Taliban are trying “to present themselves as a governing entity”.

This attitude does not however prejudge their future policy, thinks Rahmatullah Amiri, an independent Afghan expert, for whom they should be more permissive than in the past if they return to power.

They “will allow women to go to university and study (…) but under certain conditions”, such as the absence of mixed classes and the compulsory wearing of the hijab, he foresees.

They would also be ready to let them hold jobs as doctors, midwives, nurses, shopkeepers or civil servants, as long as they are single-sex. But all this, he said, will not be decided until after the war.