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By Shelly Kittleson
fghan women’s rights activist Lalma Gul has been at home for over five months. “The Afghan people are being held hostage,” she types despondently in Whatsapp messages from Kabul, the Afghanistan capital which has been under Taliban control since August last year.
Through the justice sector organisation Gul co-founded, she writes that she had been “supporting/working with recent law graduates and Sharia faculty students (all girls) in 34 provinces of the country, legal aid providers, and hundreds of lawyers, prosecutors, judges,” and “none of whom have work now”.
“They call me,” she writes in excellent English despite never having lived outside of the region, lamenting “their situation from both security and economic points of view. I cannot help them in any other way but to give them moral support” as Gul herself is also unemployed today.
There were dozens of “women professionals working with me who are jobless now. The only women professionals who are allowed to work are doctors, nurses and teachers,” she notes.
More than a quarter of Afghanistan’s 400,000 civil servants were reportedly women when the Taliban took over. Many of these women have now been stopped from working. The Taliban say this is a short term measure until procedures are put in place to ensure compliance with the Taliban interpretation of Islamic law.
In addition, many women were employed with NGOs that had been operating in Kabul until August but have since left the country.
"In early January, the UN and its partners launched a funding appeal for over $5bn to “stave off widespread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death.”
The last time I saw Gul, as the sun streamed through the window on one sunny Kabul day last July, she was enthused about having run justice sector courses for rehabilitating the Taliban in jails as well as other sorts of training for government employees. She said then that her family would tease her, saying that she would sleep in the office, and never leave, if she could. The cruel irony is that she is now being forced to stay at home.
Being bereft of any source of income or likelihood of having one in the near future weighs heavily on both Afghan women and men. For female breadwinners in a country that has lost so many young men and fathers in the fighting and seen many others disabled, however, being deprived of whatever income they had previously depended on feels like a death sentence for both them and their families.
Now many cannot work due to restrictions and availability of jobs, and thus may soon not be able to afford food.
According to the World Bank, 43 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP came from foreign aid prior to the Taliban takeover. In 2020, then-president Ashraf Ghani said that 90 per cent of the country’s population lived on less than $2 (£1.46) a day.
The US has blocked access to billions of dollars in Afghan central bank reserves in the US, while the EU suspended development funding in late August.
A decline in media organisations working in Afghanistan and a rise in self-censorship – often felt necessary to ensure that they can continue to work and do not get arrested or ‘disappeared’ – for many still means that it is increasingly hard to get reliable information from the country.
In early January, the UN and its partners launched a funding appeal for over $5bn to “stave off widespread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death” of Afghans in the country as well as “prevent a larger refugee crisis, a larger crisis of external displacement”.
"The physical and psychological effects of what is currently happening in Afghanistan will be felt by both men and women, but women will bear the brunt of it."
UN Emergency Relief coordinator Martin Griffiths noted that $4.4bn (£3.2) was needed for the Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan alone, a plan to prevent basic services from collapsing through providing payments directly to health workers and others, bypassing the Taliban authorities.
“Today we are launching an appeal for $4.4bn for Afghanistan itself for 2022,” Griffiths said at a press conference in Geneva on 11 January. “This is the largest ever appeal for a single country for humanitarian assistance and it is three times the amount needed, and actually fundraised in 2021.”
“Without this being funded, there won’t be a future,” Griffiths claimed.
The UN said that 22 million people were in need of assistance inside the country and 5.7 million Afghan refugees outside of it.
The Taliban initially ruled Afghanistan, which they refer to as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001. Their latest control of the country officially began with the handover of the capital, Kabul, on 15 August, 2021.
Twenty years had passed since the Taliban had last been in power. And yet some of the same people were back.
Up until just before the takeover, there had been fighting and attacks and assassinations throughout the country. And even now, months later and notwithstanding much fanfare about a peace that many in the country say is more of a dismal and potentially fatal lack of opportunities than anything else, there are daily reports of assassinations and disappearances.
"On 16 January, the Taliban used pepper spray on a relatively small women’s protest in Kabul."
Joining the Taliban’s security forces is one of the few ways it seems possible to get a salary. Photos and videos of new recruits, military training graduates, and large demonstrations with military vehicles and vast amounts of weaponry are often circulated online, causing some to remark that there seems no lack of money for the defense budget even as gaunt children continue to die of malnutrition.
Any role that would involve carrying a weapon, however, remains off-limits to women.
Another source of income for many men is in what is once again a booming drug trade in the region: again, this is unlikely to be an option for most women.
Most estimates put the current population of Afghanistan at 40 million people but there are no exact numbers.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states on its website that of Afghans displaced last year, some 80 per cent were women and children.
The World Health Organization (WHO) noted on 17 January that “Afghanistan is currently facing numerous outbreaks including acute watery diarrhoea, measles, dengue fever, Covid-19 and malaria, which have increased the burden on the already fragile health system”.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) states on its website that, if not immediately addressed, the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover “could lead to up to 58,000 additional maternal deaths, 5.1 million unintended pregnancies”.
It added that, despite significant progress since 2001, “Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world at 638 deaths for every 100,000 live births”.
One of the youngest politicians in the Afghan parliament at the time of the Taliban takeover was originally from a poor, rural area of southern Afghanistan.
"The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states on its website that of Afghans displaced last year, some 80 per cent were women and children."
After an interview in early August with this politician, she showed me a self-help book that she was reading and added wistfully that, one day, she hoped to become a reporter as well.
Her strict religious father had encouraged her to study but had wanted her to go into a more traditional ‘caring’ field.
“I studied first to be a midwife for his sake,” she said, noting that she had worked night shifts at university after that while studying instead what she really wanted: political science and law.
When contacted in mid-January, she said that she was still in Afghanistan but that she couldn’t give interviews anymore due to safety concerns.
Gul, meanwhile, says that when she goes outside she tries to disguise herself.
There is, for now, no obligation to wear a burqa and many women in the capital still wear jeans under long tops and headscarves that fall back on their heads, sometimes slipping off entirely.
Most secondary schools remain closed to women.
According to an Associated Press report, Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers say they hope to be able to open all schools for girls across the country after late March.
On 16 January, the Taliban used pepper spray on a relatively small women’s protest in Kabul in which the women held up signs written in English and yelled and chanted angrily as they made their way through the streets. 
Some claim that Afghan women speaking to Western media are a privileged, elite group and that most women simply want something to eat and to be safe. The Taliban claim to have brought safety, despite continued attacks, arrests, and disappearances.
"There are daily reports of assassinations and disappearances."
Women from Afghan cities and hinterlands alike nonetheless showed in that 20-year window that they, too, yearned for opportunities to be something other than trapped in homes of questionable ‘safety’. They also proved that they were willing to work for this for both themselves and others.
The physical and psychological effects of what is currently happening in Afghanistan will be felt by both men and women, but women will bear the brunt of it. And they will do so behind closed doors, with dwindling prospects for work or education despite pledges made by the Taliban who had claimed that this time it would be different.
A decade ago in Kabul, the politician and women’s rights activist Fawzia Koofi had asked me whether it would be possible to do an interview scheduled with her outside of her home on the lawn despite the evening chill.
Prior to the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Koofi had held many high-profile roles within the country including as the first woman deputy speaker in the Afghan parliament and, more recently, as one of only a few women on a team sent to negotiate with the Taliban in Doha as part of peace talks that ultimately proved ineffective.
She couldn’t breathe well inside, Koofi had said: that, having spent years under the suffocating rule of the Taliban, she felt trapped too easily even a decade after the 2001 fall of their previous regime.
" Now many cannot work due to restrictions and availability of jobs, and thus may soon not be able to afford food."
Gul had said this past summer that she would not leave Afghanistan, as she could not bear to think of what would happen if all the educated women in the country were to abandon it.
Recently she has said that she is still struggling and is determined to continue doing so. However, she added, if the current treatment of herself and other women were to continue for a longer period, she would find a way to go abroad.
There is really no other choice, she says.
“No one wants to leave” she writes in a message, but how can “one live a life under immense stress and being excluded and banned”. Her biggest concern, she stresses, is the future of the country and that of the millions who do not have the means to leave, or anywhere to go.
Lalma Gul is a pseudonym used for security reasons
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