Taliban bans female NGO staff in Afghanistan, water cannon disperses women protesters

Afghan university students chant slogans and hold placards during a protest against the ban on university education for women, in Quetta, Pakistan, Dec. 24, 2022. [Courtesy of AP]

The Taliban rulers Saturday ordered domestic and international nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan to immediately ban female staff from coming to work "until further notice."

The ministry of finance warned in a formal letter that work permits of organizations that failed to implement the order would be canceled.

Meanwhile, Taliban authorities in the western city of Herat, used a water cannon Saturday to disperse dozens of female students and women's rights activists protesting the suspension of university-level education for girls in the country.

The protesters gathered in a central part of the city, which borders Iran, chanting slogans, and urging people to join them in pressing the Taliban to lift the ban. They chanted "education is our basic right under Islam" and "education for all or for none."

The rally was marching toward to the provincial governor's office but Taliban security forces used water-spraying vehicles to disrupt it. Social media video showed the women screaming and escaping the water cannon on a harsh winter morning.

The Islamist rulers announced Tuesday that they had suspended women from attending public and private universities across Afghanistan "until further notice."

The Taliban have closed secondary schools for girls beyond grade six since reclaiming control of the war-torn country in August 2021 and ignore relentless calls for letting the girls return to classrooms.

This week's suspension of female university education has triggered widespread international condemnation, with Muslim-majority countries also unanimously denouncing it and calling for its immediate reversal.

Friday, pro-Taliban prayer leaders in mosques in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of northern Balkh province, reportedly used loudspeakers to warn residents not to join protests of the suspension of girls' education.

Dozens of women's rights activists and female students have staged protests in the capital, Kabul and several provinces, demanding the removal of restrictions on women's access to education and public life.

Male students in several Afghan higher education institutions have walked out of classrooms and examination halls in solidarity with women, while many male teachers have resigned in protest since the ban on female university education became effective Wednesday.

Graeme Smith, an expert at the International Crisis Group, said Saturday the higher education ban may bring new sanctions on the Taliban and further compound problems facing the crisis-ridden South Asian nation.

"Damaging as this misogynistic policy will be to Afghan women, it will also hinder the country's economic recovery from decades of war," Smith warned.

"Afghanistan already suffers from shortages of female health care workers, teachers and other professionals, many of whom fled after the Taliban's 2021 takeover for fear of precisely this sort of draconian measure," the ICG expert added.

The United States has said it is looking into additional measures to be imposed on the Taliban to further isolate the radical rulers for their "appallingly bad" decision to suspend Afghan women from participating in university-level education. Washington has also ruled out any relief in existing sanctions, including foreign travel bans, on Taliban diplomats.

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said in a statement Friday that the Taliban's denial of education to half of the Afghan population "is a misguided decision with potentially disastrous consequences for the future" of the impoverished country.

"Such restrictions not only constitute a gross violation of internationally guaranteed rights and freedoms, they have profoundly negative implications for Afghan women and girls and Afghanistan itself," the statement said.

The Taliban minister for higher education has pushed back against international criticism of the decision, saying foreigners should not interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs.

Neda Mohammad Nadeem told Taliban-run state television Thursday that female university education would be restored when issues prompting the ban are resolved. He explained that mandatory gender segregation was not being observed on university campuses and certain subjects breached the principles of Islam. "Girls were studying agriculture and engineering in defiance of Afghan honor and Islam."

The Taliban have increasingly excluded women from public life despite repeated promises they would respect the fundamental rights of all Afghans. They have ordered women to cover their faces in public and to not visit health facilities or go on long road trips unless accompanied by male relatives.

Women have been barred from public places like parks, gyms and baths. Most female government staffers have been told to stay home or have been rendered jobless.

The radical group defends its governance, insisting it is strictly in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law, or Shariah.

No county has yet granted legitimacy to the men-only Taliban administration in Kabul over human rights concerns, especially the treatment of women.

The Taliban's return to power has plunged the economy into turmoil and worsened an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where U.N. agencies say millions face acute food shortages and urgently need aid.