Afghanistan’s Taliban-run administration has ordered all local and foreign nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to stop female employees from coming to work, according to an economy ministry letter, in the latest crackdown on women’s freedoms.
The letter, confirmed by economy ministry spokesperson Abdulrahman Habib on Saturday, said the female employees were not allowed to work until further notice because some had not adhered to the administration’s interpretation of the Islamic dress code for women.
The letter said any NGO found not complying with the order would have their operating licence revoked in Afghanistan.
The order came days after the Taliban-run administration ordered universities to close to women, prompting strong global condemnation and sparking some protests and heavy criticism inside Afghanistan.
It was not immediately clear how the order would affect United Nations agencies, which have a large presence in Afghanistan delivering services amid the country’s humanitarian crisis.
When asked whether the rules included UN agencies, Habib said the letter applied to organisations under Afghanistan’s coordinating body for humanitarian organisations, known as ACBAR. That body does not include the UN but does include more than 180 local and international NGOs.
However, the UN often contracts with NGOs registered in Afghanistan to carry out its humanitarian work.
Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan and humanitarian coordinator, expressed deep concern after receiving the letter.
“Participation of women in humanitarian action is a fundamental principle which cannot be breached,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is a principle of operational independence of humanitarian action. So, obviously, comprehensive humanitarian aid and assistance to population cannot be delivered in situation that operating principles are violated.”
Speaking to Reuters news agency, Alakbarov said contracted NGOs carried out most of the UN’s activities and that their work would be heavily impacted.
“Many of our programmes will be affected,” he said, because they need female staff to assess humanitarian needs and identify beneficiaries, otherwise they will not be able to implement aid programmes.
The potential endangerment of aid programmes that millions of Afghans access comes when more than half the population relies on humanitarian aid, according to aid agencies, and during the mountainous nation’s coldest season.
“There’s never a right time for anything like this … but this particular time is very unfortunate because during winter time people are most in need and Afghan winters are very harsh,” said Alakbarov.
He said his office would consult with NGOs and UN agencies on Sunday and seek to meet with Taliban authorities for an explanation.
“We will be asking them for removal of all impediments for the participation of women in humanitarian action,” Alakbarov told Al Jazeera.
“Our programmes are not desegregated from men and women. These are integrated programnes. Unless women have full have access and are able to participate in assessment, delivery and discharge of services and assistance to effected population, it will be very difficult for us to deliver as we need to do.”
International aid agency AfghanAid said it was immediately suspending operations while it consulted with other organisations, and that other NGOs were taking similar actions.
On Sunday, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE also said they were suspending their programmes and demanded
“that men and women can equally continue our lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan”.
The ban drew condemnation from the United States and donor groups.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter he was “deeply concerned” the move “will disrupt vital and life-saving assistance to millions”.
“Women are central to humanitarian operations around the world. This decision could be devastating for the Afghan people,” he added.
The chargé d’affaires for Norway, which funds aid in Afghanistan and hosted talks between Taliban and civil society members in January, called for the ban to be “reversed immediately”.
“In addition to being a blow to women’s rights, this move will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and hurt the most vulnerable Afghans,” Paul Klouman Bekken tweeted.
The European Union meanwhile said it was assessing the effect on its aid in the country.
“The European Union strongly condemns the Taliban’s recent decision to ban women from working in national and international NGOs,” a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the AFP news agency in a statement.
‘Education is our right’
The economic ministry’s move came as Taliban security forces used a water cannon to disperse a crowd protesting a ban on university education for women on Saturday, said witnesses in the western city of Herat.
Following the announcement on Tuesday, Afghan women have demonstrated in major cities against the ban, a rare sign of domestic protest since the Taliban seized power last year.
In Herat, witnesses said about two dozen women on Saturday were heading to the provincial governor’s house to protest the ban, chanting, “Education is our right,” when they were pushed back by security forces firing the water cannon.
One of the protest organisers, Maryam, said between 100 and 150 women took part in the protest, moving in small groups from different parts of the city towards a central meeting point. She did not give her last name for fear of reprisals.
“There was security on every street, every square, armoured vehicles and armed men,” she said.
“When we started our protest, in Tariqi Park, the Taliban took branches from the trees and beat us. But we continued our protest. They increased their security presence. Around 11am [06:30 GMT], they brought out the water cannon.”
A spokesperson for the provincial governor, Hamidullah Mutawakil, claimed there were only four or five protesters. “They had no agenda, they just came here to make a film,” he said.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the university ban, including from Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as warnings from the US and the G7 group of major industrial nations that the policy will have consequences for the Taliban.
An official in the Taliban government, Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim, spoke about the ban for the first time on Thursday in an interview with Afghan state television. He said the ban was necessary to prevent the mixing of genders in universities and because he believes some subjects being taught violated the principles of Islam.
He said the ban would be in place until further notice.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule respecting rights for women and minorities, the Taliban has widely implemented its interpretation of Islamic law since it seized power in August 2021.
Also Saturday, in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, dozens of Afghan refugee students protested against the ban on female higher education in their homeland and demanded the immediate reopening of campuses for women.