While the theocracy in neighbouring Iran faces its most sustained challenge in four decades, in Afghanistan the Taliban are quietly completing the work they started with their August 2021 takeover. Seeking international recognition, the Taliban insisted they would be more moderate this time – but all they changed was their tactics, with restrictions introduced gradually. In December 2022 the Taliban further pursued the total exclusion of women by banning them from universities and civil society jobs. The civil society ban, which directly impacts on humanitarian aid, should give the international community renewed impetus to hold the Taliban to account for systematic human rights violations.

Sixteen months after the second Taliban takeover, the latest in a long string of restrictions are shutting down the small pockets of freedom Afghan women managed to hold onto.

When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, women started to vanish from the streets, with those venturing out seeking to go unnoticed for fear of unknowingly breaking a rule that could bring harsh punishment. Since November 2021, the public presence of women has increasingly been curtailed through restrictions on media appearances, leaving hardly any women on TV. Erasure was more or less complete by May 2022, when women were required to fully cover their faces in public.

The last spaces to go as 2022 drew to an end were universities and civil society jobs. The month before, women had been banned from gyms, swimming pools, public parks and funfairs in the capital, Kabul. In three strokes, education, work and leisure were put out of reach. All women are now expected to do is stay home and play the roles of dutiful daughters, wives and mothers.

The daily life of women in Afghanistan is characterised by uncertainty and insecurity.


Away from public view and in the absence of any institution to protect them from abuse, gender-based violence has likely mushroomed – although impossible to estimate adequately, since the authorities aren’t keeping track. Women have ceased to be subjects of rights to once again become the property of others.

Creeping repression

When they regained control two decades after the end of their previous five-year theocratic reign, the Taliban sought to attract foreign recognition and aid by trying to convince the world they had changed.

And their tactics had indeed changed. They now embraced a more gradualist approach – but by no means a more moderate one. That their final goal hadn’t changed was made clear when they reinstated the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, appointed an all-male cabinet and replaced the Women’s Affairs Ministry with a ‘ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice’, all while continuing to claim they would obey international laws provided they didn’t clash with sharia laws.

Rather than an all-out ban on girls and women in education and the workplace, the Taliban took an incremental approach, introducing successive, sometimes unclear or mutually contradictory restrictions with cumulative effect, all the while making vague promises that remained unfulfilled.

Lack of coordination and factionalism within the Taliban also meant different regulations were implemented in different parts of Afghanistan. Some local leadership took more repressive approaches than national leaders, while others were relatively more liberal. This increased uncertainty and led many to self-censor out of self-preservation.

Voices from the frontline

Humaira Rahbin and Anouk Theunissen are researchers and Meetra Qutb is a communications specialist with Afghan Witness, a project run by the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, aimed at independently collecting, verifying and preserving information on human rights in Afghanistan.


Our open-source monitoring indicates that the situation is steadily worsening. The daily life of women in Afghanistan is characterised by uncertainty and insecurity. Initially, following the Taliban takeover, women didn’t know what was going to happen or what the Taliban policies were going to be. Since then, the narrowing of their freedoms and rights has been insidious. New rules and measures haven’t been implemented from one day to another but gradually imposed over the course of a year or more. Changes haven’t happened all at once, yet the space is continuously shrinking.

There are also disparities across the country. National leadership might promise one thing, whereas provincial governors or local authorities might decide differently.

On top of that, policies and rules are not always adhered to or are implemented ambiguously. There is still a lot of uncertainty about when and where a rule will be strictly enforced, whether minor infractions will be tolerated and whether security officers will exceed their orders.

To be on the safe side, many women are resorting to self-censorship or are being kept in check by their own families. Not knowing what to expect and fear created by hate speech, which has consistently increased online and offline, are limiting women’s freedom of movement, even where rules might not be strictly enforced.

The future for Afghanistan looks difficult given the worsening trend in human rights over the past months, especially since public punishments returned as the Taliban’s supreme leader ordered judges to fully impose a hard-line interpretation of Sharia Law. This has included public executions, amputations and flogging.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Anouk, Humaira and Meetra. Read the full interview here.

Women’s shrinking spaces

In its present reincarnation, the Taliban never banned girls from school outright. Younger girls have been allowed to continue in primary school, although already limited access has become even more restricted in much of the country as gender segregation aggravated the limited availability of buildings and teachers.

All schools closed temporarily when the Taliban took over, but while secondary schools for boys reopened a month later, those for girls stayed closed for the rest of the school year. Girls were promised they’d be allowed back when the school year began in March 2022, but when they showed up, many found their schools still closed. Secondary schools for girls only reopened in some areas, but girls still face major obstacles, including strict gender segregation and dress and conduct codes. Those whose families could afford it have turned towards private instruction, and others are going to ‘secret schools’ instead.

Women initially weren’t excluded from university education: for a year following the Taliban takeover, women were allowed to continue their studies, although classes were segregated, subjects and careers suitable to women were put under review and students had to deal with increasingly strict rules and severe punishment for minor violations. But this window closed in December 2022, when women were finally banned from universities.

Standing up for rights

In the face of immense restriction, Afghan women have continued to stand at the forefront of civil resistance.

Protests started soon after the Taliban seized Kabul, and repression closely followed. Those criticising the Taliban on traditional media, social media or the streets have faced arrest, incommunicado detention, beatings and torture. Over time, the confines of acceptable public discourse have shrunk, and media outlets have been banned, dissolved or blocked.

In the face of repression, resistance has had to adapt, with protest numbers typically under 100, protests sometimes moving indoors or online and protesters often wearing masks to protect their identities. Still, protests focusing on girls’ education, women’s rights to work and freedom of movement have surged every time a new restriction has been announced. And they’ve been routinely repressed, with dozens of women protesters detained, sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for several weeks, often alongside journalists covering their protests.

March 2022 saw several protests by schoolgirls outside locked schools. A wave of disappearances of female protesters then led to a relative lull during the first half of the year, but a significant increase in protests was seen from September onwards.

Protests unrolled in eastern Paktia province early that month, prompted by the Taliban’s reversal of a decision by local elders to reopen five girls’ schools. Protesting schoolgirls and teachers were dispersed by soldiers who fired warning shots in the air. The Taliban warned local journalists not to cover their protest.

On 29 September, Afghan women held a rally outside the Iranian embassy in Kabul in solidarity with nationwide protests in neighbouring Iran, sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who fell foul of strict hijab rules. The chants for ‘Women, Life, Liberty’ first heard in Tehran echoed in the streets of Kabul before the protest was dispersed by Taliban security forces. But unlike in Iran, protests in Afghanistan remained limited in scope, a key difference being that Afghan men were largely absent, while in Iran men joined protests in numbers.

The very next day, a suicide attack on an education centre in the Kaaj neighbourhood of Kabul that largely catered to students from the Hazara minority killed 53 people, most of them teenage girls practising for their university entrance exams. This unleashed protests of an unprecedented geographic spread to demand protection for the embattled Hazara community and the right of Afghan children to access education without risk or fear. The usual violent response was unleashed even on surviving students who gathered to mourn their dead friends.

Around 100 women marched in Herat on 2 October for their right to education. As usual, they were hit, insulted and dispersed with shots fired into the air. Another group of students were threatened and locked inside a university building to stop them joining.

On 29 October, groups of women rallied in the Macroriyan and Taimani districts of Kabul calling for girls’ schools to reopen. The following day, female protesters were beaten and whipped outside a university in Badakhshan after being refused entry for not wearing burqas, even though they all wore hijab. They refused to go home and eventually gained access to their classrooms.

On 31 October, a group of women professionals who’d been kicked out of their jobs held a rally in the Shar-e Naw district of Kabul in which they displayed their educational and professional certificates. Taliban soldiers destroyed many of their documents and forced them to disperse.

Small demonstrations also followed in Kabul after women were banned from universities in late December, but they were repressed and quickly stopped by the authorities.

Small but unrelenting, street protests are the tip of the iceberg. Female activists are continuing to organise behind the scenes, building support networks for marginalised women, documenting gender-based violence, working to open up safe spaces and helping women in need.

The final straw?

In the face of ongoing attacks on rights, local, regional and international human rights organisations have continued to call for the establishment of a dedicated accountability mechanism to work alongside the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan.

In September 2022 the UN Human Rights Council discussed Afghanistan but failed to agree on an expanded monitoring mechanism. A report from the Special Rapporteur highlighted a broad range of human rights concerns, including the use of violence against peaceful protesters, journalists and media workers.

On 10 November the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution accusing the Taliban of violating the human rights of women and girls, failing to establish a representative government and plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis and spiralling violence.

The situation has only worsened since. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan declared by the Taliban in September 2021 fully materialised on 14 November 2022 as its supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada ordered the complete implementation of sharia law. The effects of the edict were felt immediately, with 14 people – three women and 11 men – publicly flogged on 23 November for ‘moral crimes’ including adultery, robbery and same-sex sexual conduct. Further prohibitions on women soon followed.

Of all these measures, it’s the ban on female employment in civil society and humanitarian organisations that most threatens to backfire on the Taliban. In response to the new restriction, within weeks at least 150 CSOs and aid agencies had suspended all or part of their work in Afghanistan. This included several UN programmes, because although not subjected to the ban, the UN works with CSOs to deliver much of its assistance. According to the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), this suspension was more than a principled decision – it was a ‘practical matter’, the contribution of women to civil society being such that their absence would make it impossible to get things done.

In reaction to multiple pressures to take a tougher stance towards the Taliban government, still unrecognised internationally and largely led by men under international sanctions for terrorism, the UN Security Council summoned an extraordinary closed-door meeting to discuss the situation. In the meantime, the UN and the USA suspended cash deliveries to Afghanistan amid reports that the Taliban were controlling the distribution of humanitarian aid and diverting funds towards their supporters.

Suspending aid isn’t a viable strategy in the long run, since it will lead to unacceptable human suffering. According to UNOCHA estimates, a record 28.3 million Afghans – two-thirds of the population – will need humanitarian assistance in 2023, up from 24.4 million in 2022. The UN World Food Programme has estimated that 90 per cent of people in Afghanistan face insufficient food consumption.

The reaction to the latest outrages means there’s a window of opportunity for international pressure to demand the Taliban reverses their attacks on fundamental rights. The Taliban may feel they can keep getting away with it, trusting that global attention may wane. It’s up to the international community to prove them wrong.


  • The Afghan government must reopen girls’ schools, allow women to return to work and remove other restrictions on women’s rights.
  • States must make any further aid supplied to Afghanistan conditional on guarantees of upholding fundamental rights.
  • The international community must establish a monitoring mechanism to hold the Taliban accountable.

Cover photo by Stringer/Getty Images