Afghan Women, Universities, Hunger and Climate Change

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

On Dec 19th the Taliban government announced that women would no longer be allowed to attend universities. On Dec 24th they announced that women would no longer be allowed to work for foreign funded NGOs. These are ugly developments.

As so often before, both the Taliban and the Western powers are playing with women’s lives for their own political ends. This note explains how and why.

First, there is an increasingly bitter debate going on inside the Taliban. Once the Americans were driven out, the Taliban divided over the question of women’s education.

The traditionalists were led by Haibatullah Akhundzada. The two previous leaders of the Taliban, both assassinated by the Americans, had been village mullahs who were grassroots leaders in the armed resistance to the Russian invasion. Akhundzada was a more highly educated cleric, a senior judge in the Taliban court system.

The government is in Kabul. Akhundzada remains in Kandahar, largely in hiding to foil assassination. He acts as the spiritual leader of the movement. In other words, his task it to look after religion. From the beginning, he was hostile women’s education.

The Taliban people who head the government in Kabul have different priorities. From Day One they were acutely aware that they faced a difficult economic situation. The withdrawal of foreign soldiers and foreign aid meant a collapse in employment and incomes. On top of that, the country was suffering from a bitter drought caused by climate change.

In this dire situation, the Taliban in government knew that they absolutely had to have large amounts of foreign aid, and foreign grain, from the United Nations, the United States and the western powers. They told Akhundzada in Kandahar that if he banned all education for women, the Western powers would cancel the aid.

Akhundzada and his supporters took heed. They waited for the Taliban in government to get the West to deliver.

Divisions among the Western Powers

There was at the same time a division among the Western powers. The US government tried to strangle Afghanistan economically as revenge for losing the war. This involved economic sanctions that made it very difficult for anyone to move money into Afghanistan.

It also involved stealing the reserves of the Afghan government that had been left in Washington. This $9 billion was a paltry sum by US standards, but a huge loss for the penniless country.

The American government did not argue for revenge publicly. Instead, all their actions were justified by concern for Afghan women, just as the long American occupation had been justified publicly from the autumn of 2001 onwards in the same way.

Some other governments, and most of the UN and NGO people on the ground, wanted to prevent mass famine in Afghanistan. This was basic humanity. But it was also because governments could imagine the bitterness and terrorism, particularly in neighbouring countries, that would follow if enormous numbers of Afghans died of hunger.

The result was that the UN, other governments and the NGOs found enough food to feed people during the winter of 2021-2022. But now another winter is upon us and the amount of aid on offer is much less than last year.

The Taliban government in Kabul cannot feed their people. They had promised Akhundzada the West would deliver if he kept the universities open to women and reopened the secondary schools to women.

On December 2 the International Red Crescent/Red Cross summarised the situation:

“Afghanistan is in the grip of one of the worst droughts and food shortage crises in decades, threatening an unrivalled a humanitarian catastrophe as a bitter winter looms large for millions of Afghans.

“Emergency food relief and winter survival kits are being urgently delivered by Afghan Red Crescent … Around 22.8 million people – 55 per cent of Afghanistan’s population – are experiencing high levels of acute food shortages.

“Severe drought has hit more than 80 percent of the country, crippling food production and forcing people from their land.

“Nearly 700,000 people have been internally displaced this year, joining some 3.5 million people already forced from their homes throughout the country, who all face a harsh winter, when temperatures can drop as low as -20C in some areas of Afghanistan.”

Right now this is the worst climate change disaster in the world.

The Bans

Meanwhile, Akhundzada seems to have decided that enough was enough. The Taliban in government in Kabul had not delivered. The West, and particularly the Americans, were not serious about women’s education. Both considerations tipped the balance in the internal arguments among the Taliban toward sexism.

But also, the Taliban were losing control of the situation. They were presiding over an economic and climate disaster. What made this more humiliating was their dependence on food aid from the same Western powers who had occupied and tortured them.

And then there the NGOs. These were non-profit organisations, funded and run from abroad, mainly from North America and Europe. They had the people and infrastructure to deliver much of the food aid and health care that was needed. The Taliban were also dependent on them to do this work because their government did not have the necessary infrastructure, or the tax revenue to pay the people who would deliver these services.

In this situation, the balance in the internal argument among the Taliban again tipped toward Akhundzada and the traditionalists, so the government excluded women from universities on December 19th. On the 24th they decreed that women could not work for NGOs.

Two more things fed into the mix here. Akhundzada was not in charge of the government, he was in charge of spiritual affairs. Precisely because the Taliban were dependent on Western powers, he was playing the Islamist card. A government and a movement that was not able to cope with the economy was choosing the one field on which they could seem independent.

And there was also Islamic State – Khorosan. (Khorosan was the ancient name for Eastern Iran and Afghanistan.) ISK began as a radical breakaway from the Taliban in 2015. ISK disagreed with the Taliban majority in two main ways. They were against negotiations with the Americans. And, following the lead of Islamic State in Iraq, they regarded all Shiahs as the enemy. These politics were very different from those of the Taliban majority, who were trying to build an ecumenical movement of all Muslims.

After the American withdrawal, the Taliban managed to imprison or kill most of the ISK militants on the ground. But the ISK still managed to preserve a public face with a small number of massacre bombings that killed girls in schools and Hazara Shiahs. Most of these bombings were reported in western media as if they were committed by Taliban who were in government, and as if they had popular support. In fact they were the opposite – bombings designed to weaken the Taliban government.

But in a deteriorating economic situation Akhundzada and his supporters must also be looking over their shoulders at ISK.

Other Working Women

The Afghan government’s ban on women working for NGOs came on top of earlier prohibitions against women working in the public sector. It was not a ban on all employment. According to figures from the ILO (the International Labour Organisation) in 2020 there were 205,000 Afghan women in the public sector and NGOs, and 279,000 women workers in the textile industry.

There were also probably at least as many women working from home in the rug industry as outsourced labour. There were many more nomad women, who have always worked outside their tents. And as has always been the case, poor farming families needed the labour of women in the fields, and the majority of Afghan farmers were poor.

The Taliban were not banning women from this kind of work. But the whole controversy was not about poor women. For the Taliban leaders, and for the American leaders and journalists, they were irrelevant to this controversy.


The bans were wrong and sexist. But there was one welcome consequence – there were marches of women in several cities. These protests were small, and they represented brave and committed minorities.

There is also video of the men students at the medical school of the university in Jalalabad walking out of their exams in solidarity with the women students who had been excluded and were standing outside. This is more striking, because these are people in a workplace – the university – moving together.

The video can be viewed here. Notice the moment where the women students, in black, understand what the men, in white, are doing.

It meanwhile needs repeating that most Afghan men do not support the ban on women’s education. On Twitter you can see a great many videos and photos from the last year of Afghan village elders, men, in their white beards and traditional clothing, meeting to discuss their support for their girls having access to local schools. [See, for example, the Twitter feeds of @matiullahwesa and @penpath1.]

This is another reason why there are also clearly still deep divisions among the Taliban. Various ministries, briefing Afghan media on and off the record, took different lines. They were saying that they hoped to reverse the bans – and they may be able to do so.

Most of the foreign funded NGOs reacted by refusing to work until the ban on their women workers was lifted. This must be having a tragic effect on food distribution and on health care.

So far the UN Security Council has unanimously censored Afghanistan, but they have not yet cut off food aid.

Still, this is a triumph for Biden’s ugly policy of revenge, making it easier to isolate and starve Afghanistan. It is a victory for Akhundzada’s policy, increasing the control of the hard line patriarchs in the Taliban.

It is a defeat for the large number of women who want to go to university or to work in NGOs, and for much larger number of girls who want to go to secondary school. And it is a defeat for the very much larger number of poor women and children who will face the reality of hunger and cold and the fear of famine. And it is a defeat for the poor men who will face all that hardship and famine alongside them.

Two Parting Thoughts

We leave you with two thoughts. The first is about how these events have been covered in the Western media. An article by Zahra Joya in the Guardian on December 23rd provides a good example.

Joya is an Afghan Hazara journalist and feminist now in exile. She supports the protests, as do we. Joya chooses telling and moving excerpts from interviews with Afghan women. And she quotes one man in support of the protests.

That man is Ramatullah Nabil. He served as both the director of state security and then the minister of intelligence during the years before the Taliban, and is now in exile. To put it bluntly, he was in charge of detention and torture over the whole country in collaboration with the American occupation.

This article is part of a trend in much Western, and not just Western, media coverage. Support for women, for feminists and for their protests in Afghanistan is allied to a political project that calls for the isolation of Afghans and the withdrawal of aid that poor Afghan women need desperately. This is a new form of the old argument that the West should bomb Afghan women, children and men to save Afghan women. This time the threat is not bombs but hunger.

Some of the people spreading this argument are those in the diaspora with close ties to the corrupt warlords and collaborators who ran Afghanistan under the Americans.

[For the details of that experience, read the excellent book by Timor Sharan, Inside Afghanistan: Political Networks, Informal Order, and State Disruption.]

Some people in that diaspora are calling for Western boycotts of the Afghan government that will create starvation. Others even call for another invasion.

Our other parting thought, though, is that history moves on. The feminism of the torturers and the patriarchy of the Taliban are not the only choices. Many people, especially younger people, inside Afghanistan feel revulsion towards both the old corrupt collaborators with the occupation and the sexual politics of the Taliban.

In them lies the hope of the future. But right now, this winter, the danger of hunger is acute.  

Related Posts

Afghanistan: The End of the Occupation, August 2021

Afghanistan: The Climate Crisis, September 2021

A Poem: On Meeting a Liberal Feminist, January 2023

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