This article is part of the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Initiative, MEI’s look at the evolving threats to freedom, political rights, and civil liberties, as well as the struggles to achieve fair, transparent, and representative governance across the MENA region.

One of the first things the Taliban did after capturing power in August 2021 was to abolish the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) and re-establish the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a morality-imposing task force that seeks to preclude violations of Islamic law. Although the change wasn’t completely unanticipated, the Taliban’s accompanying nonchalance about actively revoking women’s rights certainly was. Indeed, prior to the group’s recapture of the country, Taliban negotiators sought to demonstrate a reformed worldview to the international community by vowing to protect women’s rights; they even showed they were not averse to engaging with women as the US-Taliban deal in Doha was being hashed out. But it was all a charade.

For many in Afghanistan, the clock has turned all the way back to 1996, the first time the Taliban took control. That regime lasted for only five years, and the damage it wrought was partially undone with the US intervention in 2001, followed by two decades of international presence in Afghanistan. This time around, with the unrelenting Taliban firmly in the seat of power, the losses look permanent. That said, many others inside Afghanistan are continuing to live through circumstances that had never changed to begin with. Women’s rights issues in Afghanistan need to be understood within this context.

Fragile and reversible gains

Before the rise of the Taliban, the Soviet intervention in 1979 triggered an intense war that ravaged the country for nearly 17 years, affecting the living conditions of all Afghans — men and women. However, even despite those challenges, women still accounted for 60% of Afghanistan’s civil servants and more than half of its university students during this time. All that came to a halt over the next five years: Swiftly, the Taliban encased Afghan women in the all-concealing burqa, restricted them to their homes, and denied them an education or the right to work.

Operation Enduring Freedom and the arrival of US and international forces in late 2001 opened a window of opportunity for change. That December, the newly established interim Afghan administration set up MOWA to promote the advancement and rights of women. Sima Samar, a Hazara woman and human rights advocate, activist, and medical doctor, was appointed to head the new ministry. Samar started from scratch, out of self-funded, rented accommodations, with no budget or staff. However, after securing international donor funding, the situation slowly started to change.

In 2003, Samar was appointed head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), but MOWA continued to be led by women ministers. Dr. Habiba Surabi served as the next minister of women’s affairs; Massuda Jalal was appointed to the post in October 2004, before being replaced by Dr. Husn Banu Ghazanfar in July 2006. Ghazanfar was in charge of the ministry until the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) in 2015. She was replaced by Delbar Nazari, one of four women ministers in the NUG.

Structure-agency debate

MOWA’s activities, however, could never be free from power politics, patronage networks and infighting among female members of parliament, limiting the body’s effectiveness. Successive MOWA ministers were repeatedly accused of ethnic or political monopolization of the ministry’s positions and exclusion of relevant women’s networks. As a result, a unified “women’s bloc” pursuing a joint women’s rights agenda was largely absent from the Afghan legislature.

For instance, in July 2016, three female MPs brought an estezah (no-confidence) motion against then-Women’s Affairs Minister Delbar Nazari. Nazari, an Uzbek from Balkh province, was accused of fesad (administrative and moral corruption), nepotism, weak management, and inefficiency — similar to charges leveled against some of her male counterparts. She, nevertheless, survived the motion.

Conservativism and patriarchy also played a role in limiting the agency of women in politics even after 2001. Sima Joyenda, who had been appointed governor of Ghor province in June 2015, had to resign after the Ulema (Muslim religious) council refused to work under a woman governor. She was replaced by Ghulam Nasir Khaze, a man with close connections to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Joyenda was subsequently offered the deputy governor’s position in Kabul, which she refused. Similarly, another female, Masuma Muradi, who had been appointed the governor of Daikundi province, was also replaced by a man, following resistance from religious leaders and political opponents. President Ashraf Ghani’s attempt to appoint a woman to the Afghan Supreme Court was rejected by the parliament, and a man was installed instead. During my work with the quasi-ministerial Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) in Afghanistan, women provincial councilors in Kandahar narrated to me their ordeal of not being allowed to meet the governor as the security guards wouldn’t let them inside the compound. These structural constraints greatly limited women’s agency in several ways. Women’s leadership and participation in the political sphere, therefore, mostly ended up as symbols of tokenism, without cascading effects on women’s political mobilization or increased participation in the political processes.

Incremental changes and islands of success

Despite these functional limitations and structural challenges, since the first parliamentary elections in 2004, Afghan women served as ministers, deputy provincial governors, deputy ministers, and diplomats — all the way up to the positions of consul-generals and ambassadors. A few of them also headed important government commissions. Before the Taliban’s return to power, women — under a quota system written into the 2004 constitution that necessitated 68 seats in the House of Representatives be reserved for women — held 69 out of 249 seats in the legislative body. Their share, 27.7%, was, in fact, the largest among all South Asian countries’ legislatures at that time.

Under the post-2001 system, several additional important strides were made toward empowering women and expanding their involvement in the Afghan economy. In 2017, the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI), a platform to serve women-owned businesses, was launched with support from the Afghan government. In November-December 2018, MOWA, with financial support from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), observed the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence in Kabul. The Ministry of Education introduced the Girls Education Policy in 2019 and announced plans to hire 30,000 female teachers to encourage more girls to go to school.

The 20 years of international intervention in the country provided an environment where girls and women were gradually able to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Despite the structural constraints of a patriarchal system, thousands of girls enrolled in schools, colleges, and universities. Thousands of women could find employment in private and government sectors, including ministries, media, hospitals, and educational institutions. Many worked in the booming fashion industry and beauty parlors. The boundaries that separated girls and women from boys and men were systematically challenged and to some extent dismantled, even though these phenomena were mostly limited to urban city centers. An increasing number of women-led households were gaining access to employment and improved livelihoods.

At the same time, however, it is difficult to correlate women’s political representation with the socio-economic development of the country. The presence of female politicians was mostly seen as symbolic in the national body politic. Given the nature of the patriarchal patronage-based political system and their self-limiting political ambitions, women across the political spectrum could not amplify their role as agents of change in Afghan society. Most largely owed their presence to the requirements imposed by international donors of fulfilling a quota system; they could not truly act as enablers for greater female participation in the political or socio-economic spheres. In all fairness, 20 years was a short period of time to break down the immense barriers that society had imposed on women.

Return of the Taliban

The Taliban’s recapture of Kabul and its quick imposition of policies restricting women’s access to education and employment were a catastrophic reversal of that slow, yet unidirectional movement toward women’s empowerment and economic self-sufficiency. Before the establishment of the Islamic Emirate in September 2021, Afghanistan witnessed months of steady flight out of the country by many individuals associated with the civilian regime, including most of its female leaders. And as the second Taliban regime unveiled a series of measures to limit the operating space for women, it also tried to crush the courageous resistance movements organized by women in the urban centers. It quickly became apparent that the environment within which Afghan girls and women had found avenues of employment, education, and empowerment had been lost. Many families now had to deal with acute poverty, mental health issues, and even suicides.

In 2023, the International Labor Organization estimated that 25% of women’s jobs had disappeared since the Taliban took over in 2021. Following the closure of girls’ schools above the 6th grade, the Taliban started reassigning surplus female teachers to remote areas, forcing many of them to quit their jobs due to transportation challenges and the logistically difficult requirement that they be accompanied by a mahram (male companion) during their travel. Many employed women, as a result, turned to home-based businesses such as tailoring, which brought down their incomes significantly. Women in many other sectors found they could no longer connect their businesses with opportunities abroad. Visa restrictions and government diktats meant that such businesses must remain completely localized, small-scale enterprises, catering to diminishing local needs.

The Taliban still allows women to work in certain sectors, such as airport security staff to frisk female passengers and hospital nurses to attend to women patients. During the devastating earthquakes in 2023, the regime allowed women’s teams to visit the affected areas to attend to female victims. The women-centric chamber of commerce, AWCCI, is also active again: In March 2023, it along with the United Nations Development Programme organized a three-day exhibition in Dubai. However, several Afghan businesswomen attempting to promote carpets, jewelry, dried fruit, and other handmade goods in international markets had to take part virtually, after being refused permission to travel abroad.

The Taliban restriction limiting girls’ education to the 6th grade, if unreversed, could pose a unique challenge to the future of women in the country. In the medium term, Afghanistan will have no educated women left even to take up the handful of jobs still open to them. In due course, the country can expect to entirely run out of educated female leaders, leading to a severe crisis in governance due to a lack of capacity exacerbated by broader human capital flight.

Stories of resilience and opportunities

I spoke with Rangina Hamidi, a former Afghan minister of education, to ask her if she sees the present situation as the end of the road for women’s empowerment in Afghanistan. Hamidi, the country’s first female minister of education, acknowledged the challenges and yet underlined the resilience of many women’s groups that, within the restrictive domestic environment, have nonetheless been pursuing economic and business initiatives, catering to clients at home and abroad. Hamidi is based mostly in Kandahar, the Taliban’s ideological power center, where she runs the social enterprise Kandahar Treasure, which employs women in hand-embroidery projects. Meanwhile, the Safe Path Prosperity, cofounded by entrepreneur Zala Ahmad and her sister based in Afghanistan, has employed women in Kabul and Kandahar to make reusable sanitary pads — an endeavor by women for women. By using a holistic approach, this socio-economic venture is an ingenious method of providing training, employment, and care for women by setting up salamati (well-being) circles.

These are but a few of the many such small organizations — rarely noticed by international media — cautiously navigating the Taliban’s restrictive landscape yet providing avenues for employment for women. The Taliban seems amenable to the idea that women can generate income through carpet-weaving, traditional arts and crafts, and other such businesses, in sync with local customs and traditions. Meanwhile, underground education centers continue to tutor girls, even at the risk of raids by the Taliban’s vice ministry.

Although highly inadequate, these enterprises and secretive educational operations are providing women in Afghanistan with some sources of income, training, and solace. And while voices in the Afghan diaspora raising the alarm on women’s rights find resonance with the international media, it is time to refocus on the efforts inside Afghanistan to strengthen the agency for women living under Taliban rule. Beyond symbolism, women’s rights need to be protected by engaging and aiding such grassroots initiatives and social enterprises to help Afghan women escape from the deep morass they now find themselves in.


Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is a Fulbright-Nehru Visiting Chair at the School of Public Policy, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the Founder and President of Mantraya, Visiting Faculty at the Naval War College in Goa, and a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI. She has worked in the governmental and non-governmental sector in various provinces of Afghanistan for more than a decade.


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