Afghan Women: Running Out of Options

By Claire Pamerleau, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter

The women of Afghanistan are living through oppression that most feared would only return in nightmares.

Since the withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban’s takeover in August of 2021, Afghan women have been left with few options: flee your own country, or stay and have your rights, livelihood, identity—and in some cases, your safety—taken from you.

Many of us around the world remember reading about and seeing pictures of the chaos in Kabul’s airport last fall when thousands of Afghans desperately tried to board the last flights out of the country.[1] For many Afghans, though, fleeing was not an option. The women of Afghanistan who stayed behind are now living through mounting social and economic restrictions.

In August of 2021, Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, promised the Taliban would respect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic, or Sharia, law.[2] While this claim was vague, the Taliban did originally state that girls could return to school and that women could leave the house without any chaperones, “encourag[ing]” them to return to work.[3] Furthermore, the Taliban initially assured Afghans that revenge would not be taken, stating “all those who have served the state will be forgiven.”[4]

This tone quickly proved to be disingenuous. By late August, Talibs were seen going through female journalists’ neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and “making lists of women who worked in the media and government.”[5] The Taliban has shut down women-led human rights organizations, and they have replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry of Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, a ministry “notorious” for its violent enforcement of social restrictions.[6]

The social restrictions put in place include revoking freedom of speech for women and girls and limiting women’s means for independent travel.[7] As a result, it has been nearly impossible for most women to keep their jobs (if they have not already been fired). In March 2022, secondary education was banned for girls. Only female “teachers, government employees, and aid workers” have been able to keep their jobs, as these positions cannot be filled by men due to the necessary contact with women and girls. Even female government employees who have kept their jobs are not allowed in the office except to receive paychecks. What’s more, these paychecks are essential in a time of high unemployment; many women are widows and/or are the only providers for their families.[8]

The restrictions have implications for Afghan women’s health as well. Since November of 2021, in the Ghazni province, women cannot be examined by a medical professional without a male chaperone, or “mahram,” present. One story told of a woman who gave birth without a mahram present: she fled the hospital without her baby to escape punishment. Consequently, the 18 hospital employees who treated her were prosecuted by the Taliban for providing healthcare to a woman without a male chaperone.[9]

On May 7, 2022, restrictions tightened further. The Taliban ruled that women must have their faces covered and be accompanied by a mahram in public.[10] This practice is part of Sharia, and supporters see this rule as protection for the “dignity and chastity of women.”[11] The Taliban’s decree further stated that the best way to observe hijab is “not to leave the house” in the first place, and that male relatives of a woman are tasked with enforcing her compliance with this dress code.[12] Indeed, the woman’s guardian (a close male relative or her husband) will be warned if the woman is not obeying the hijab dress code. After the first warning, subsequent incidents of the woman without a hijab in public will result in the male guardian being summoned, imprisoned for three days, then sent to court.[13]

Many Afghan women predicted the implementation of these restrictions and, accordingly, went into hiding. Female judges (who lost their jobs after the Taliban’s takeover) fear they will be killed in a “revenge attack” by either the Taliban or by one of the ex-prisoners who were sentenced by these judges but have since been released by the Taliban.[14] It is believed that 80 female judges remain in hiding in Afghanistan. One former judge had sentenced ISIS and Taliban members to prison during her career and consequently could not safely leave hiding to take her daughter to the hospital for leukemia treatment. “I can’t put all my family at risk if the Taliban recognize me.” Unable to obtain healthcare, her daughter subsequently passed away from leukemia.[15]

Clearly, the state of women’s affairs in Afghanistan is suffering under the Taliban’s rule. While the economic and social restrictions tighten, the international community must search for solutions that consider all Afghan women: those who have fled, those in hiding, and those who have been barred from education, occupations, free movement, and healthcare. We are obligated to try to help awaken these women from their living nightmare.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates. 


[1] “Kabul Breached: Taliban Seize Presidential Palace, Declare ‘War is Over’: The Taliban Said There Will be no Transitional Government and Demanded Immediate Control After Afghan President Asraf Ghani Fled the Country,” The Jerusalem Post, last modified August 16, 2021, English ed.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ferris-Rotman, Amie and Zahra Nader,“ What Afghanistan’s Women Stand to Lose,” The Fuller Project, August 20, 2021.

[6] Nader, Zahra, “’We Have to Fight Back.’ Afghan Women Are Losing Their Hard-Won Right to Work Under the Taliban,” The Fuller Project. TIME, May 17, 2022; Rasuli, Humaira, “I Will Never Stop Fighting for Afghan Women,” Cognoscenti, WBUR, June 13, 2022. taliban-human-rights-humaira-rasuli.

[7] Mehmood, Arshad, “Faces Erased,” Jerusalem Post, May 13, 2022, erased/docview/2671697115/se-2; Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[8] Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[9] Nader, Zahra and Nargis Amini, “The Taliban Are Harming Afghan Women’s Health,” The Fuller Project, March 2, 2022,

[10] Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[11] Mehmood, “Faces Erased.”

[12] Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[13] Mehmood, “Faces Erased.”

[14] Oppenheim, Maya, “Afghan Woman Dies of Leukemia While in Hiding from the Taliban,” Yahoo! News, Independent Asia Edition, June 9, 2022, 0v&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABijbutz7IznQNuMbBASrOMToePptsly4RIZJpQzeXMb EPtHb

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[15] Ibid.