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,” CognoscentiWBUR, 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! NewsIndependent Asia Edition, June 9, 2022, 0v&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABijbutz7IznQNuMbBASrOMToePptsly4RIZJpQzeXMb EPtHb

tl7XJyNqxR4k5Pi1QcgMcXiM7loVQyh_vRsneQ5O7cxE6Supj8lS8Mhsaau_ODEP0jbV dkcPQA9NlmFoqQt5UvjbRF82L7WtmXrtu8pFpju0hWHWJkd2Ocz3iE.

[15] Ibid.

Student Blog

By Claire Pamerleau, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter

By Claire Pamerleau, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter

Human agency is slipping out of Afghan women’s hands and into the Taliban’s as the group tightens their grip on women’s social, political, and financial freedoms. This devastating reversal of progress has affected even the youngest generation of Afghan women, as girls’ education is yet another casualty in the war on women’s rights under the Taliban.

Afghan girls in grades seven and above have been unable to go to class for more than nine months—most girls’ schools have been closed since the Taliban’s takeover in August of 2021.[1] The considerable advancements in women and girls’ education made in the 20 years since the Taliban’s first rule have thus been undone in one fell swoop. For perspective, in

2001, less than one million Afghan children were in school, and none of them were girls. By 2020, the number of children in school grew to approximately 10 million, with girls representing 40% of these students.[2] Now, after such progress and effort, millions of children will be robbed of an education by the Taliban.[3]

What makes this affront to women’s rights even more devastating for Afghan girls, though, is the disappointing trajectory of inconsistent messages that raised female students’ expectations. The Taliban had promised to allow women to study at schools and universities even before their takeover in 2021.[4] Senior Taliban leader Zabihullah Mujahid stated on January 15, 2022 that classes for all girls would commence by March 21, the beginning of the new school year in the North.[5] Expectations crumbled when the Taliban broke its promise and sent tens of thousands of adolescent girls home from school the same day classes were meant to reopen. The education ministry had planned on reopening schools for girls (contingent on the requirements that secondary school girls must be taught by women and in separate buildings than men), but higher levels of Taliban leadership canceled the plan and declared girls’ schools to remain closed until future notice.[6]

This sudden reversal of policy demonstrates the internal divisions within the Taliban leadership. The Taliban’s extremist and reformist factions have been unable to come to an agreement on whether women “should” study, as reported by US special envoy for Afghan women Rina Amiri.[7] While the extremist faction supports “original Taliban ideology” and rejects the education and employment of women, the reformist faction consists of many members who are themselves educated and have daughters who are attending school. These reformists therefore recognize the benefits of education and support “a different future” for Afghanistan.[8]

Divisions persist even months after the decision to close girls’ schools. In early June, the reformist line of Taliban thinking was emphasized by Deputy Minister of Education Sheikh Ahmad Shahidkhail, who argued that allowing access to education for “men, women, children and the elderly” is key to building a developing society.[9] Less than a month later, though, Kabul’s grand national assembly of over 4,000 clerics, religious scholars, and tribal leaders failed to address girls’ education, only suggesting that attention be given to religious and modern education.[10] The all-male assembly closed on July 2 after discussing multiple pressing issues and supporting the supreme leader while dancing around the question of whether to reopen schools for girls.[11]

While Taliban-backed news has claimed that girls’ school closures are congruent with “Sharia and Afghan tradition and culture,” many Afghans reject that idea.[12] As stated by one female student, the Taliban’s education policy is “unjust” because “Almighty God said in the Koran that education is mandatory for men and women.”[13] The female students of a Baghlan province religious school echo this sentiment: they have called on the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban’s governing body) and July’s grand assembly to reopen schools, saying both male and female Muslims “[have] the right to education.”[14] In fact, even official Taliban documents “endorse the principle of education for all.”[15]

The devastation that the closing of women and girls’ educational institutions has caused is evident in testimonies from female Afghan students. “Why shouldn’t we go to school? What crime have we committed” one female student cried.[16] Another woman, a university student two months away from graduating, described herself as “cheerful” when attending university but is now “weeping at home every morning” as she and fellow Afghan women “[mourn] their identities”[17] One 24-year-old woman, an agricultural engineer, pushed against her family for her education yet was “the happiest when [she] was going to school.” She later taught agricultural processing and distribution skills to women of different villages, but she must now abandon her teaching opportunity and marry a Talib relative. She laments that her “achievements, aspirations, and dreams are multiplied by zero.”[18]

Indeed, Afghan women and girls are not only losing the opportunity to learn, but also to teach. One woman who formerly taught karate to girls and religious subjects to boys remembers the anxiety that she and her colleagues felt when the Taliban allowed male students and teachers to return to school but remained silent about women. These teachers worried about their livelihoods and providing for their families. This woman decided to protest with her colleagues and draft a resolution for the “rights to study and work,” but she later fled the country for her safety.[19] In another instance, three teachers were fired based on an alleged 10 months of absenteeism, yet their students claim it had only been three months—the time since the new school year started in March after the Taliban took over.[20] Removing women from their teaching positions is stripping them of their livelihoods, and it is only making it harder for female students to obtain an education, as women can no longer be taught by men.

What’s more, as the Taliban restricts access to women and girls’ education, it is increasing access to religious education. The Taliban has turned dozens of secular public schools, universities, and training centers into Islamic seminaries called madrasahs. This plan will leave a devastating trail of students and teachers without education, jobs, and resources. For example, converting the prestigious Abdul Hai Habibi High School into a seminary left its 6,000 students and 130 teachers empty-handed and resulted in the loss of access to its modern library, computers, and science labs.[21] But this is only one high school. The Taliban are hoping to create a “vast network” of madrasahs as part of their overall education plan for Afghanistan. They aim to erase “modern secular education” and generate more Taliban members, as the word “Taliban” itself signifies “students of madrasahs.” This is eerily close to the Taliban’s plan from the 1990’s whereby radical madrasahs “promoted militant ideologies.”[22]

On top of everything, many of the secular schools that are still open are in very poor condition. The department of education for the Nuristan province reported that 70% of its schools are without buildings and must rely on tents.[23] Many classes lack materials like pens and paper in addition to any protection from the heat or rain. Furthermore, some students are risking their safety just to get to school due to poor road maintenance and great distances between villages and schools. One girl asked for help from the government because she and her classmates must climb a mountain with a damaged road to reach their school, and they are “afraid of falling.”[24] Thus, not only are Afghan girls unable to attend class after sixth grade, but for many, their education up until that point is significantly compromised by insufficient resources.

There is some cause for hope, though. Due to a combination of “pressure from parents” and agreements made with UNICEF, some girls’ schools remain open in certain parts of Afghanistan. Despite the lack of publicity, evidence suggests Kabul’s schools and universities are functioning and allowing girls and women to attend.[25] One educational center near Kabul was established for female students and teachers for grades one through twelve and teaches girls in subjects from computers to tailoring. The center provides schooling for around 300 girls, and the enrollment has “surged” since the Islamic Emirate’s establishment, according to one of the center’s teachers.[26] Additionally, the Nimroz province’s education department announced in May that it would “reinstate” the nearly 200 female teachers that lost their jobs during the Taliban’s takeover in August, sending these teachers to “schools in need.”[27]

Afghan women and girl’s education could also eventually improve as the international community applies “pressure tactics.”[28] The US canceled the talks on “key economic issues” with the Taliban after the group abandoned its promise to reopen girls’ schools in March. As Hamad Bin Khalifa University Professor Steven Wright remarked, the Taliban is at a “turning point” whereby they can enact “gradual change” and choose the “path of engagement [with the international community],” or they can instead choose the “path of isolation.”[29] But the Afghan people cannot afford to be subjected to the latter path. Afghanistan is experiencing a humanitarian crisis; the UN reports that “95% of the population is not eating enough food,” with about 58% facing “acute hunger.”[30] Consequently, there is reason to hope that the Taliban could eventually loosen restrictions if put under pressure.

The strategy of applying this pressure, however, is delicate. If all humanitarian aid is revoked, the people of Afghanistan—and the women and girls trapped at home, unable to learn and teach—will suffer.[31] To make sure the Afghan people receive aid while still maintaining economic pressure on the Taliban, the US can funnel its aid through the UN humanitarian organizations that can better relieve the Afghan people.[32]

As the Taliban’s rule advances, the women and girls of Afghanistan are facing more years without proper access to education. Education is not only a human right, but also the starting point for the formation of identities, passions, and careers. Afghan children are deprived of access to safe schools and educational materials, and their opportunities for secular education are being forcefully replaced by Taliban-controlled religious ones. Then, once girls reach the age of adolescence, they are deprived of any access to education unless they are fortunate enough to live in an area where certain centers are still operating. Now, Afghanistan is the world’s only country where secondary school girls are denied an education by their government.[33]

The Taliban has kept female teachers and students in a tortuous cycle of waiting and disappointment through its false promises and silence for too long. Justifications based on Afghan or Muslim tradition are patently untrue, and they act solely as lazy excuses for the Taliban. There are factions within the group that will allow for girls’ schooling, and both sides are desperate for economic relief. If the international community can continue to apply pressure tactics and donate through humanitarian organizations, then the divisions of the Taliban can be taken advantage of, and the women of Afghanistan can be given a chance to learn.

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] Walizada, Toba, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns over Closed Girls’ Schools,” TOLOnews, June 15, 2022,; “Taliban Says All Afghan Girls Will Be Back in School by March,” Al Jazeera, January 17, 2022, schools-for-girls-across-country.

[2] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open. There Is No Alternative,” Nature News, March 28, 2022,

[3] Eqbal, Saqalain, “UN: Millions of Children Under the Taliban Rule Have Been Deprived of Education,” The Khaama Press News Agency, June 14, 2022, been-deprived-of-education-57483/.

[4] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[5] Ibid; “Taliban Says All Afghan Girls Will Be Back in School by March, Al Jazeera, January 17, 2022, schools-for-girls-across-country.

[6] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[7] Eqbal, Saqalain, “UN: As the Weather Warms, ISIS and the Resistance Front Increase Their Attacks on the Taliban,” The Khaama Press News Agency, June 4, 2022, resistance-front-increase-their-attacks-on-the-taliban458409/.

[8] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[9] “Dep. Minister Calls Education ‘Vital’ for Everyone,” TOLOnews, June 7, 2022,

[10] “Tightly Controlled Afghan Assembly Closes with Call for Nations to Recognize Taliban Government,” Gandhara, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 2, 2022,

[11] Ahmadi, Arif. “Taliban Grand Meeting Did Not Lead to Breakthrough: HRW.” The Khaama Press News Agency, July 4, 2022,

[12] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[13] Walizada, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns.”

[14] “Religious School Students in Baghlan Call to Reopen Girls’ Schools,” TOLOnews, July 3, 2022,

[15] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] “‘I Went Out and Shouted for Freedom,’” The Fuller Project, September 30, 2021, and-girls/.

[18] Omar, Nargis, “’Being Imprisoned at Home Is What Awaits Me’.” The Fuller Project, September 30, 2021, home-is-what-awaits-me/.

[19] Etemadi, Fatima, “‘Since the Taliban took over, I have lost almost everything,’” The Fuller Project, November 2, 2021, hazaras-women-protest-migrant/.

[20] “Questions Raised About Firing of 3 Female Professors,” TOLOnews, June 5, 2022,

[21] Siddique, Abubakar, “’War on Education’: Taliban Converting Secular Schools into Religious Seminaries,” Gandhara, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 25, 2022, education/31914672.html.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ghorzang, Sadaqat, “70% Of Nuristan Schools Lack Buildings,” TOLOnews, June 27, 2022,

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[26] Walizada, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns.”

[27] “Female Teachers Called Back to Nimroz Schools,” TOLOnews, May 6, 2022,

[28] Mohnblatt, Debbie, “US Drops Economic Talks After Taliban Bans Girls’ Schooling. Millions Face Hunger as Islamists Seek International Aid, Recognition,” Jerusalem Post, Mar 29, 2022, economic-talks-after-taliban-bans-girls/docview/2645499321/se-2.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[32] Mohnblatt, “US Drops Economic Talks.”

[33] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

Student Blog

By Tristen Thakar, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter

Since mid-June, high levels of rain have unleashed catastrophic flash floods along the Kabul and Indus rivers, leaving over a third of Pakistan submerged in water. This has displaced over 7.6 million people throughout the country, including around 598,000 Afghans living in refugee camps.[1] Along with countless people losing their homes, over 1,500 people have lost their lives, including around 600 children.[2] Everyone in Pakistan is being affected by these floods, but pregnant women are being hit the hardest.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that around 650,000 pregnant women and young girls have been affected by this disaster; in September 2022 alone, around 73,000 women were expected to give birth.[3] Many of these women need things like prenatal care and the presence of skilled medical staff, not to mention the special medical support for the child or mother that might be needed post-birth. All this is extremely difficult to find. In addition, it is still common for many women in Pakistan to deliver at home, and with many women currently living in plastic tents after losing their homes, the need for safe spaces to give birth in the coming weeks or months will be very important.

Meeting the other needs of these women will not be easy, either. Many pregnant women around the country struggle to find even basic food and clean water. Without homes to give birth in, many of them are scrambling to find other options. Traveling to healthcare facilities is difficult. The World Health Organization reports that of the 1,460 health facilities that were damaged by the summer floods, 432 were completely demolished.[4] Healthcare workers, essential medicines, and other medical supplies are in short supply, which means that many pregnant women will not receive the full treatment they might need even if they can reach a working healthcare location. This puts pregnant women in a very difficult situation.

The key point to remember, however, is that the summer floods have exacerbated this situation, not created it. For years, Pakistani women have faced the same medical issues due to weak healthcare infrastructure, a continuing rise in birth rates, and lack of services throughout the country. As a result, Pakistan has the highest maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in South Asia and has made less progress on this front than other developing countries outside of the region. Studies have shown that between 2010 and 2018, 91,076 children were born in Pakistan, with an MMR during that time of 319 per 100,000 as compared to the average of 124 per 100,000 in comparable countries.[5]

These statistics show that Pakistan was already behind many other countries when it came to the care of pregnant women, even before the floods worsened their situation. The Pakistani government must make the improvement of its healthcare infrastructure a top priority during the rebuilding of the country. This is not just because it is right from a humanitarian perspective; it is a key element for economic development. Studies have shown that deficient birth outcomes such as preterm delivery and low birth weights lead to high healthcare costs, which negatively affects a state’s economic development.[6] Because of this, the Pakistani government should act with some urgency to better support these women. The rebuilding and improving of the Pakistani healthcare system should focus on four things: overseeing the construction of modern healthcare facilities;  improving roads so women–and all citizens–have reliable ways of getting treatment; working with industry-leading companies to create reliable medical supply chains so pregnant women and their babies can receive the medications they need; and creating new government programs to support pregnant women throughout their pregnancy and post birth.[7] The introduction of all of these elements will make a major impact on the lives of pregnant women.

In conclusion, the floods throughout Pakistan in the summer of 2022 have been tragic and life-changing for many people, but they should also be seen as a time for the Pakistani government to improve conditions for all Pakistani citizens and to make a serious effort to help women, especially pregnant ones. They need a lot of support and will continue to need this support long after the flooding subsides.

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] “Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022. 000254-pak.

[2] “Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022. 000254-pak.

[3] Human Rights Watch. “Flood-Affected Women in Pakistan Need Urgent Help,” September 2, 2022.

[4] Baloch, Shah Meer. “‘The Hospital Has Nothing’: Pakistan’s Floods Put Pregnant Women in Danger.” The  Guardian, September 14, 2022, sec. World news. has-nothing-pakistans-floods-put-pregnant-women-in-danger.

[5] Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure, Saleem Jessani, Ana L.  Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and  Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.

[6] Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure, Saleem Jessani, Ana L.  Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and  Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.

[7] Gajate Garrido, Gissele. “The Impact of Adequate Prenatal Care in a Developing Country: Testing the WHO  Recommendations.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2011.


Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure,  Saleem Jessani, Ana L. Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn  Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive  Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.

Baloch, Shah Meer. “‘The Hospital Has Nothing’: Pakistan’s Floods Put Pregnant Women in  Danger.” The Guardian, September 14, 2022, sec. World news. put-pregnant-women-in-danger.

Human Rights Watch. “Flood-Affected Women in Pakistan Need Urgent Help,” September 2,  2022. help.

Gajate Garrido, Gissele. “The Impact of Adequate Prenatal Care in a Developing Country:  Testing the WHO Recommendations.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2011.

“Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022.

“Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022.

Student Blog