Afghanistan’s ban on women from NGOs exposes divisions within the Taliban ranks

A recent Taliban decree banning women from working for NGOs has sparked international condemnation and domestic opposition in a country facing economic collapse. It also exposed divisions within the Taliban, with potentially high stakes for Afghanistan’s rulers and people.

The last week of 2022 began with a terrible shock for Sahar H, a 24-year-old Afghan aid worker, and she started her new year with a bang.

On December 24 — the day after her weekly Friday holiday in Afghanistan — Sahar is at her computer in Kabul, preparing for an upcoming women’s support session. Sahar, the program director of an NGO, did not want her real name or the name of her organization to be revealed for security reasons.

Immersed in her work, Sahar could barely look at her mobile phone when it sent a message via WhatsApp. But when she saw the sender, a fellow NGO worker dealing with security issues in a partner organisation, this caught her eye.

The message contained the latest Taliban Decree of the Ministry of Economy was shocking. Citing “serious complaints about the lack of observance of the Islamic headscarf,” the Taliban It ordered “all national and international organizations to stop female labor” immediately until further notice. The decree warned that failure to comply would lead to licenses being revoked.

“I immediately stopped working, turned off my computer and couldn’t stop my tears,” Sahar said in a phone interview from Kabul. “I never thought this would happen. On that day, I lost my most important right: the right to work.”

The decree spells economic disaster for Sahar’s family of nine. “All the male members of my family lost their jobs after the Taliban took over. I was the only one who had a job. I was the only one who received a salary and I used to cover all the costs – rent, food, medicine and the education of my younger brothers. Now we are all affected, the whole country is affected.”

As the world ushered in the year 2023 with festive lights and fireworks, Afghanistan sank further into a dark night of obscurantism. Over the past few months, the country’s conservative Islamist rulers have blown up the myth ofTaliban 2.0A narrative promoted during negotiations to enable a US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. They now seem intent on destroying the lives of their fellow Afghans, uprooting women from public life, and plunging the country into abject poverty.

Public anger is mounting within the country, with protests and strikes breaking out despite harsh repression of dissent.

More importantly, there are growing indications of divisions within the Taliban over hardline policies. The turning point, if reached, could have great risks in a country with a history of settling disputes at gunpoint, and pushing Afghanistan into civil war. This could have consequences for the international community – as history has shown.

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Kandahar and the Kabul Taliban

Reports of divisions within the Taliban have increased since the issuance of the decree banning women from working in non-governmental organizations, and these reports come from well-informed sources.

Within the Taliban, this is a minority view. The majority, even in the leadership, oppose this decision,” said the former US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzadin a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

As head of the US negotiating team in February 2020 Peace agreement With the Taliban in Doha, Khalilzad spent months dealing with senior Taliban officials in the Qatari capital.

File photo of Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban sign a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020. © Hussein Sayed, Associated Press

Khalilzad, who was born and raised in Afghanistan, resigned as special envoy in 2021. But he says he remains in contact with some Taliban officials though he declines to name them. “I spoke to them in the past and I am talking to them now, and they are strongly against this decision,” he stressed.

However, the problem appears to lie in the division between the more moderate Taliban officials and the inner circle of conservatives centered around the reclusive Taliban emir, Hebatullah AkhunzadehIt is based in the southern city of Kandahar.

An undated photo of Hebatullah Akhunzadeh was published in a message just before Eid al-Fitr.
An undated photo of Hebatullah Akhunzadeh was published in a message just before Eid al-Fitr. © Afghan Islamic Press via Associated Press

The rural old guard, called the “Kandahar” or sometimes the Shura Council, is widely believed to be responsible for the Taliban’s most controversial policies, including restrictions on female education and the reintroduction of corporal punishment, including flogging. public.

Unlike Taliban officials in Kabul, the Kandaharis rarely interact with outsiders. I don’t know, frankly, the leaders who decided on this ban on women working in NGOs. I don’t deal with them. One can only speculate where they come from and what brought their opinions, but speculation may not be helpful,” Khalilzad said.

Schoolgirls cry and evade Taliban officials

The first public sign of discord within the Taliban’s ranks came in March 2022 over the movement’s controversial position on female education.

Over the months leading up to the March 23 reopening of Afghan schools after the winter break, Taliban officials promised to lift the ban on girls attending secondary schools.

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But just hours before the scheduled reopening, as the Afghan girls waited at the school gates, the Taliban suddenly reversed course. When the last-minute ban order reached schools, news teams, invited by the Education Department, recorded devastating testimonies of girls in school uniforms wailing in despair.

In their immediate responses to the press, the Taliban officials seemed caught off guard by the profligacy in justifying Islamic principles while absorbing blows of heated questioning by the journalists.

In an unusual display of public disagreement, the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, later called for the reopening of girls’ high schools in a televised address to a gathering of senior Taliban officials and commanders in Kabul.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai speaks to reporters after talks in Moscow, Russia, on May 28, 2019.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai speaks to reporters after talks in Moscow, Russia, on May 28, 2019. © Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP

Stanikzai has so far evaded his public expression of disagreement. Other Taliban ministers are not so lucky.

Ministers promise – and then they are fired

The December 24 ban on women working for NGOs came just days after the Taliban extended restrictions on women’s education from secondary schools to universities.

Shortly after seizing power in August 2021, the then acting Minister of Higher Education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, announced that universities across the country would have separate classes for females.

It was a decision to separate the females, but it did not deprive them of a university education.

The minister’s announcement gave the green light to universities, enabling them to continue studying for women, often as a curtain separating them from male students.

But in October 2022, he sacked the Minister of Higher Education and replaced him with arch-conservative Nida Muhammad Nadeem, who was known for his opposition to female education, calling it un-Islamic and contrary to Afghan values.

Barely two months after Nadim’s appointment, women were banned from attending universities.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s senior education minister, Nurullah Munir, told reporters in September 2021 that women would be allowed to study in schools in accordance with Islamic Law Law, suffered a similar fate.

By order of the Emir of the Taliban, Munir was replacing By Kandahar Provincial Council Chairman Habibullah Agha last year.

The Taliban movement over the past twenty years has undergone such a great change in its composition that those who now advocate bans, or have a hatred for modern women’s education, are now in the minority.

Ahmed Walid Kakar, founder of the Afghan Eye, explained that they are a powerful and influential minority grouped around the Emir at the top.

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Kakar continued: “But there are other leaders within the Taliban are said to be all opposed to this ban.” “So the real question is, how long can the current state of decision-making and the nature of those decisions last in the face of overwhelming opposition across the country, but also growing opposition within the Taliban themselves.”

Entrusted with obedience to the prince – except …

While internal divisions are growing, Kakkar believes it is unlikely that they will be able to divide the Taliban.

From its inception to the present day, the Taliban are ideologically and religiously obligated to obey the leader even when they disagree with the leader. Kakar explained that this is a religious obligation. “The only time this doesn’t apply is when the leader does something anti-Islam.”

Khalilzad thinks the time has come. They have to reverse course sticking to that decision [on the NGO ban] “When a leader does something that violates Islamic principles, people oppose him,” said the Afghan-American diplomat, who also served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan.

I think the Taliban leaders who are against this decision need to come together and stand up to their leader. This is a challenge: Will they rise to the occasion and work with other Afghans? If they don’t, they will alienate the Afghan people.”

The stakes, according to Khalilzad, are high. “The general mood is changing towards anger and opposition, and it offers a gift to those who want war. This is not what the Afghans want and this is not what the Taliban want,” said the former US diplomat.

When asked if he shared these views with Taliban officials, Khalilzad answered in the affirmative. “I bring it with them. They say they understand, but they say this will take time, one has to be patient. I say time is not on their side, anger will increase, pressure will increase, and they will be blamed for increasing people’s suffering. They are not responding,” he recounted. .

Doubt and hope

While the men of the Taliban tremble and beg for patience, their women sink into misery as their faces sink at every opportunity.

From her home in Kabul, Sahar worries about funding for the programs she runs. We were preparing for long-term projects. We have already presented our proposal for 2023 to the donors, and we were optimistic about getting the funds.” But with this Taliban decision, the donors are not sure of their continued funding.

With the start of the new year, Sahar says she refuses to give up with despair. “My request is that donors from all over the world do not abandon Afghan women. It is a very difficult situation, but I will not give up,” she said. “I am optimistic for 2023, there will be better days. The women of Afghanistan will not be forgotten.”

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