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Afghan women hold a protest in New Delhi on September 16, 2021. Photo: AP

Afghan women officials and diplomats seek asylum as the Taliban targets their jobs

  • Many workers of the previous government have sought asylum since the Taliban seized power, with women saying they face the risk of double persecution
  • Taliban has issued a decree asking women in senior government posts to resign, and installed a Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice
Sonia Sarkar
Last week, when the newly appointed Taliban foreign minister called the ministry staffers for a briefing, a female desk officer hoped she would be able to retain her job and return to work.
The desk officer, who did not want to be named, had served in the previous Afghanistan government for three years and was expecting to be posted overseas this year. But the Taliban takeover left her and other women colleagues worrying about the future of their careers.

On Thursday, all hopes were dashed after the Taliban decree circulated on social media stating all women occupying senior posts in government offices to resign.

“My next promotion – which was supposed to be a posting at an Afghanistan embassy abroad – was due this month,” the Kabul-based desk officer told This Week In Asia.

“But I don’t see that coming my way any more, because the Taliban don’t want women to pursue their careers. My education and professional experience will be wasted, if I remain alive under Taliban rule at all.”


Taliban commander says women and men ‘cannot work together’, prompting UN rights fears

Taliban commander says women and men ‘cannot work together’, prompting UN rights fears

While the Taliban claimed it would offer amnesty to everyone who had worked with the previous Afghan regime, many female politicians, government officials and diplomats have sought asylum in places including the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy and Austria. 

Those who have escaped to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and India have continued to seek asylum in Western countries because they feel they will be safer there.

A female member of the previous Afghan parliament, who was last month evacuated to an undisclosed location from Kabul, anonymously told This Week In Asia that Western nations should prioritise the safety of women government workers.

“The West must consider their cases with priority as they cannot return to Afghanistan due to the double threat from Taliban – first, because they were government officials, and secondly, because they are women,” she said.

Female students persist in 11th-hour escape from Taliban rule

Since the takeover on August 15, the Taliban has killed a woman for not covering her head, beaten up women in public for carrying out protests against them, and segregated female students from their male classmates in Kabul university.

The education ministry of Taliban allowed boys studying in secondary classes to go back to school on Saturday along with their male teachers but there was no mention of the girls studying in those grades. Later, Taliban told CNN that they are working for a secure transport system for girls.

It has also replaced the Women’s Affairs Ministry with the Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice forcing former women employees of the erstwhile Women’s Affairs Ministry to protest outside the building.

Afghan women seen sitting on the streets of Khair Khana, a neighbourhood in north west Kabul, in August 2021. Photo: Sonia Sarkar

The staff of the World Bank’s US$100 million Women’s Economic Empowerment and Rural Development Programme, which used to run out of the same ministry, were escorted off the grounds.

Sayed Zekrullah Hashimi, a Taliban spokesperson, last week said that it was “not necessary” for a woman to be in cabinet, and that the role of women in Afghanistan was to “give birth” and “educate children with Islamic ethics”.

But the former female parliamentarian said since the Taliban was looking for “international legitimacy”, there was a chance it could gradually include women in the cabinet if it felt enough “pressure from the international community”.

This Week In Asia contacted Suhail Shaheen, another Taliban spokesperson, to elaborate on the decree asking senior women officials to resign from government posts, but he did not respond.

A 2021 study by the World Bank stated that women above 15 years in Afghanistan accounted for 22 per cent of the labour force in 2019, as opposed to 15 per cent in 2009.


Curtains divide female, male students as Afghan universities reopen under Taliban rule

Curtains divide female, male students as Afghan universities reopen under Taliban rule

‘I’ll never work for these terrorists’

A WhatsApp group run by about 250 officials and diplomats from the previous Afghan foreign ministry has been flooded with messages concerning their future career prospects, the uncertainty over achieving political asylum, and the safe evacuation of family members who have been left behind in Afghanistan.

A female Afghan envoy working at the UN headquarters in Geneva, who declined to give her name, said she would urge the international community not to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate government.

“Even if the Taliban was recognised by the international community, I will never work for these terrorists,” the diplomat said.

She added that the Taliban would kill her if she returned to Afghanistan, because they had no tolerance for educated and independent women, especially those who had worked with the former government. 

“But I will continue to document the humanitarian crisis back home for the UN to ensure that the world keeps its focus on Afghanistan,” she said.

Taliban replaces ministry for women with one for ‘propagation of virtue’

Meanwhile, the female foreign ministry official whose dream of an overseas posting was dashed, said she and other women colleagues sought help from senior Afghan diplomats based in Western countries to push their cases for asylum, but had not received much help. 

“They are helping their own family members and fellow senior diplomats to get asylum. Unfortunately, most women are junior diplomats,” she said.

The worst part, she added, was that the previous Ashraf Ghani government took away many diplomatic passports days before the Taliban seized power, and only a few figures who had a closer relationship to the regime got them back.

Embassies run low on cash

A month after the Taliban has taken power, most Afghan embassies are either already cash-starved or will no longer have the funds to pay the wages and rent of workers by next month, as the Taliban has not released any money to them.

Although Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, last week said in a press conference that messages had been sent to all Afghan embassies telling them to continue work, many diplomats abroad said they had received no communication as yet.

A source at the Afghanistan embassy in Rome said the Taliban administration this week sought information about the details of all employees – including diplomats, technical and local staff – which Ambassador Khaled Ahmad Zekriya, who refused to recognise the Taliban cabinet, did not divulge.

The source said the embassy had three weeks ago told staffers their salaries would be paid until September 21 – which is the end of the month of Sunbulla in the Afghan calendar year 1400 – and their rents would be covered until October 15.

Afghan diplomats stranded overseas by Taliban takeover left in limbo

The uncertainty over cash has caused a row between two diplomats in the embassy.

Mohammad Fahim Kashaf, who was serving as the First Secretary and Consul at the embassy, said Khaled “sacked” him earlier this month and prohibited his entry into the embassy because he had alleged the ambassador was “trying to withdraw money” from bank accounts belonging to the previous Afghanistan government, in a bid to flee to the US.

Zekriya told This Week in Asia that he did not have the “sole authority” to withdraw money from the bank accounts that are under the name of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

He said the withdrawal process required the signatures of the two other officials at the embassy.

According to Zekriya, Kashaf’s termination letter was signed on September 2 by the previous Afghan deputy foreign minister, Mirwais Naab, upon the instruction of the foreign minister at the time, Mohammad Haneef Atmar. At that time, the Taliban had not formed its cabinet.

“Kashaf was terminated because he insulted and nullified the authority of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Ambassador, the State and its symbol – the flag. This is considered a diplomatic mutiny,” Zekriya said. “Without my permission, he also entered my residence and created anarchy in the workplace.”

Stressing that he “loves his country and flag”, Kashaf insisted his dismissal was “invalid” because Afghanistan did not have a legitimate government when his employment was terminated.