Taliban restricting unmarried women’s access to work and travel, UN report says

The Taliban are restricting Afghan women’s access to work, travel and healthcare if they are unmarried or don’t have a male guardian, according to a U.N report published Monday.

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 23, 2023. Photo: © Ebrahim Noroozi, AP

The Taliban are restricting Afghan women’s access to work, travel and healthcare if they are unmarried or don’t have a male guardian, according to a U.N report published Monday.

In one incident, officials from the Vice and Virtue Ministry advised a woman to get married if she wanted to keep her job at a health care facility, saying it was inappropriate for an unwed woman to work, it said.

The Taliban have barred women from most areas of public life and stopped girls from going to school beyond the sixth grade as part of harsh measures they imposed after taking power in 2021, despite initially promising more moderate rule. 

They have also shut down beauty parlors and started enforcing a dress code, arresting women who don't comply with their interpretation of hijab, or Islamic headscarf. In May 2022, the Taliban issued a decree calling for women to only show their eyes and recommending they wear the head-to-toe burqa, similar to restrictions during the Taliban’s previous rule between 1996 and 2001.

In its latest quarterly report, covering October to December last year, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the Taliban are cracking down on Afghan women who are single or don't have a male guardian, or mahram, accompanying them.

There are no official laws about male guardianship in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have said women cannot move around or travel a certain distance without a man who is related to her by blood or marriage.

Three female health care workers were detained last October because they were going to work without a mahram. They were released after their families signed a written guarantee that they would not repeat the act, the report said.

In Paktia province, the Vice and Virtue Ministry has stopped women without mahrams from accessing health facilities since December. It visits health facilities in the province to ensure compliance.

The ministry, which serves as the Taliban's morality police, is also enforcing hijab and mahram requirements when women visit public places, offices and education institutes through checkpoints and inspections.

In December, in Kandahar province, ministry officials visited a bus terminal to ensure women were not traveling long distances without mahrams and instructed bus drivers not to permit women to board without one, the U.N. said.

Women have also been arrested for buying contraceptives, which the Taliban have not officially banned.

The Taliban’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the U.N. report was based mostly on misunderstandings and accused the mission of ignoring or criticizing Islamic law, or Shariah.

With an Islamic government in power in Afghanistan, it must "fully implement all aspects of Shariah for both men and women,” Mujahid said in a statement.

This means enforcing rules for the hijab, male guardianship and gender segregation for women in education and employment, he said. 

"If UNAMA criticizes these cases or considers explicit Islamic rulings as an act against human rights, then it is an insult to the beliefs of a people,” he said.