While in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban became notorious internationally for their treatment of women. Their stated aim was to create "secure environments where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct," reportedly based on Pashtunwali beliefs about living in purdah.
Women were forced to wear the burqa in public, because, according to a Taliban spokesman, "the face of a woman is a source of corruption" for men not related to them. They were not allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur'an. Women seeking an education were forced to attend underground schools such as the Golden Needle Sewing School, where they and their teachers risked execution if caught. They were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which led to illnesses remaining untreated. They faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws. The Taliban allowed and in some cases encouraged marriage for girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80 percent of Afghan marriages were considered to be by force.
Brightly colored clothes were banned as they were viewed as sexually attracting. A Taliban decree from 1996 states, "If women are going outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming clothes to show themselves, they will be cursed by the Islamic Sharia, and should never expect to go to heaven." They were also not allowed to wear nailpolish.
The Taliban rulings regarding public conduct placed severe restrictions on a woman's freedom of movement and created difficulties for those who could not afford a burqa or didn't have any mahram. These women faced virtual house arrest. A woman who was badly beaten by the Taliban for walking the streets alone stated "my father was killed in battle...I have no husband, no brother, no son. How am I to live if I can't go out alone?"
A field worker for the NGO Terre des hommes witnessed the impact on female mobility at Kabul's largest state-run orphanage, Taskia Maskan. After the female staff was relieved of their duties, the approximately 400 girls living at the institution were locked inside for a year without being allowed outside for recreation. Decrees that affected women’s mobility were:
The lives of rural women were less dramatically affected as they generally lived and worked within secure kin environments. A relative level of freedom was necessary for them to continue with their chores or labor. If these women traveled to a nearby town, the same urban restrictions would have applied to them.
The Taliban disagreed with past Afghan statutes that allowed the employment of women in a mixed sex workplace. They claimed this was a breach of purdah and sharia law. On September 30, 1996, the Taliban decreed that all women should be banned from employment. It is estimated that 25 percent of government employees were female, and when compounded by losses in other sectors, many thousands of women were affected. This had a devastating impact on household incomes, especially on vulnerable or widow-headed households, which were common in Afghanistan.
Another loss was for those whom the employed women served. Elementary education of children, not just girls, was shut down in Kabul, where virtually all of the elementary school teachers were women. Thousands of educated families fled Kabul for Pakistan after the Taliban took the city in 1996. Among those who remained in Afghanistan, there was an increase in mother and child begging as the loss of vital income reduced many families to the margin of survival.
Taliban Supreme Leader Mohammed Omar assured female civil servants and teachers they would still receive wages of around US$5 per month, although this was a short term offering. A Taliban representative stated: "The Taliban’s act of giving monthly salaries to 30,000 job-free women, now sitting comfortably at home, is a whiplash in the face of those who are defaming Taliban with reference to the rights of women. These people through baseless propaganda are trying to incite the women of Kabul against the Taliban".
The Taliban promoted the use of the extended family, or zakat system of charity to ensure women should not need to work. However, years of conflict meant that nuclear families often struggled to support themselves let alone aid additional relatives. Qualification for legislation often rested on men, such as food aid which must be collected by a male relative. The possibility that a woman may not possess any male relatives was dismissed by Mullah Ghaus, the acting foreign minister, who was surprised at the degree of international attention and concern for such a small percentage of the Afghan population. For rural women there was generally little change in their circumstance, as their lives were dominated by the unpaid domestic, agricultural and reproductive labour necessary for subsistence.
Female health professionals were exempted from the employment ban, yet they operated in much-reduced circumstances. The ordeal of physically getting to work due to the segregated bus system and widespread harassment meant some women left their jobs by choice. Of those who remained, many lived in fear of the regime and chose to reside at the hospital during the working week to minimise exposure to Taliban forces. These women were vital to ensuring the continuance of gynaecological, ante-natal and midwifery services, be it on a much compromised level. Under the Rabbani regime, there had been around 200 female staff working in Kabul's Mullalai Hospital, yet barely 50 remained under the Taliban. NGOs operating in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002 found the shortage of female health professionals to be a significant obstacle to their work.
The other exception to the employment ban allowed a reduced number of humanitarian workers to remain in service. The Taliban segregation codes meant women were invaluable for gaining access to vulnerable women or conducting outreach research. This exception was not sanctioned by the entire Taliban movement, so instances of female participation, or lack thereof, varied with each circumstance. The town of Herat was particularly affected by Taliban adjustments to the treatment of women, as it had been one of the more cosmopolitan and outward-looking areas of Afghanistan prior to 1995. Women were allowed to work in a limited range of jobs, but this was stopped by Taliban authorities. The new governor of Herat, Mullah Razzaq, issued orders for women to be forbidden to pass his office for fear of their distracting nature.
The Taliban claimed to recognize their Islamic duty to offer education to both boys and girls, yet a decree was passed that banned girls above the age of 8 from receiving instruction. Maulvi Kalamadin insisted it was only a temporary suspension and that females would return to school and work once facilities and street security were adapted to prevent cross-gender contact. The Taliban wished to have total control of Afghanistan before calling upon an Ulema body to determine the content of a new curriculum to replace the Islamic yet unacceptable Mujahadin version.
The Taliban requested time to achieve these ends and criticized the international aid community for its insistence on binding support to the immediate return of women’s rights. The Taliban believed in the merit of their actions, and a representative stated in an Iranian interview “no other country has given women the rights we have given them. We have given women the rights that God and His Messenger have instructed, that is to stay in their homes and to gain religious instruction in hijab [seclusion]”.
The female employment ban was felt greatly in the education system. Within Kabul alone the ruling affected 106,256 girls, 148,223 boys and 8,000 female university undergraduates. 7,793 female teachers were dismissed, a move that crippled the provision of education and caused 63 schools to close due to a sudden lack of educators. Some women ran clandestine schools within their homes for local children, or for other women under the guise of sewing classes, such as the Golden Needle Sewing School. The learners, parents and educators were aware of the consequences should the Taliban discover their activities, but for those who felt trapped under the strict Taliban rule, such actions allowed them a sense of self-determination and hope.
Prior to the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan male doctors had been allowed to treat women in hospitals, but the decree that no male doctor should be allowed to touch the body of a woman under the pretext of consultation was soon introduced. With fewer female health professionals in employment, the distances many women had to travel for attention increased while provision of ante-natal clinics declined.
In Kabul some women established informal clinics in their homes to service family and neighbors, yet as medical supplies were hard to obtain their effectiveness was limited. Many women endured prolonged suffering or a premature death due to the lack of treatment. For those families that had the means, inclination, and mahram support, medical attention could be sought in Pakistan.
In October 1996, women were barred from accessing the traditional hammam, public baths, as the opportunities for socialising were ruled un-Islamic. This affordable hot-water rite had been enjoyed by women and was an important facility in a nation where few possessed running water. It gave cause for the UN to predict a rise in scabies and vaginal infections among women denied methods of hygiene as well as access to health care. Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American author, stated in 2001 that it has been four years many Afghan women hadn't been able to pray to their God as “Islam prohibits women from praying without a bath after their periods”. In June 1998, the Taliban banned women from attending general hospitals in the capital, whereas before they had been able to attend a women-only ward of general hospitals. This left only one hospital in Kabul at which they could seek treatment.
Family harmony was badly affected by mental stress, isolation and depression that often accompanied the forced confinement of women. A survey of 160 women concluded that 97 percent showed signs of serious depression and 71 percent reported a decline in their physical well being. Latifa, a Kabul resident and author, wrote:
The apartment resembles a prison or a hospital. Silence weighs heavily on all of us. As none of us do much, we haven’t got much to tell each other. Incapable of sharing our emotions, we each enclose ourselves in our own fear and distress. Since everyone is in the same black pit, there isn’t much point in repeating time and again that we can’t see clearly.
Taliban restrictions on the cultural presence of women covered several areas. Place names including the word "women" were modified so that the word was not used. Women were forbidden to laugh loudly as it was considered improper for a stranger to hear a woman's voice. Women were prohibited from participating in sports or entering a sports club. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) dealt specifically with these issues. It was founded by Meena Keshwar Kamal, a woman who amongst other things established a bi-lingual magazine called Women's Message in 1981. She was assassinated in 1987 at the age of 30, but is revered as a heroine among Afghan women.
Punishments were often carried out publicly, either as formal spectacles held in sports stadiums or town squares or spontaneous street beatings. Civilians lived in fear of harsh penalties as there was little mercy; women caught breaking decrees were often treated with force. Examples:
Many punishments were carried out by individual militias without the sanction of Taliban authorities, as it was against official Taliban policy to punish women in the street. A more official line was the punishment of men for instances of female misconduct: a reflection of a patriarchal society and the belief that men are duty bound to control women. Maulvi Kalamadin stated in 1997, “since we cannot directly punish women, we try to use taxi drivers and shopkeepers as a means to pressurize them" to conform. Examples of the punishment of men:
The protests of international agencies carried little weight with Taliban authorities, who gave precedence to their interpretation of Islamic law and did not feel bound by UN codes or human rights laws, legislation it viewed as instruments for Western imperialism. After the Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995, the UN had hoped the gender policies would become more 'moderate' “as it matured from a popular uprising into a responsible government with linkages to the donor community”. The Taliban refused to bow to international pressure and reacted calmly to aid suspensions.
In January 2006 a London conference on Afghanistan led to the creation of an International Compact, which included benchmarks for the treatment of women. The Compact includes the following point: "Gender:By end-1389 (20 March 2011): the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan will be fully implemented; and, in line with Afghanistan’s MDGs, female participation in all Afghan governance institutions, including elected and appointed bodies and the civil service, will be strengthened." However, an Amnesty International report on June 11, 2008 declared that there needed to be "no more empty promises" with regard to Afghanistan, citing the treatment of women as one such unfulfilled goal.