Taliban seize Women’s Ministry building for use by religious police

KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban have turned the Women’s Ministry building into offices for the Religious Morality Police, which once instilled terror in Afghanistan for their crackdown on women and the brutal application of the interpretation of the Sharia law by the militant government when it ruled two decades ago.

The building’s conversion in Kabul, the nation’s capital, suggested at least one symbolic slap in the face of a ministry that had come to embody the rise of women in Afghanistan after the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001.

A video released by Reuters showed women employed by the ministry protesting outside the building because the Taliban had not allowed them to enter and told them to go home.

It remains unclear whether the Women’s Ministry was abolished by the Taliban, who took power last month as the US-backed government collapsed. But when the Taliban announced their acting members for the new government earlier this month, there had been no appointment to oversee women’s affairs.

And in another ominous omen of further gender discrimination under the Taliban, its education ministry has ordered teachers back to work and said boys’ high school classes will resume on Saturday. There was no mention of the girls.

The new occupant of the Women’s Ministry building, called the Ministry of Invitation, Guidance and Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, appears to be just a slightly renamed name for the famous enforcer of the standards of behavior of the Taliban that made the group a global outcast in the 1990s.

Police officers in the ministry became known to beat or whip women who ventured out of their homes without being fully covered and without a male escort. They banned girls from going to school after primary grades and banned women from looking for jobs. Unmarried couples risked death by stoning for adultery.

While the Taliban leadership has acknowledged that Afghanistan has changed after two decades of US-led occupation, they have also left women terrified of what the future holds. No women have been appointed to positions of authority under the new Taliban government, and it has taken steps to separate men and women in public spaces.

Earlier this week, Higher Education Minister Abdul Bqi Haqqani said women could continue studying in universities and postgraduate programs, but only in gender-separated classrooms dressed in appropriate Islamic attire.

The building once housed the Women’s Ministry is located in what was considered the liberal quarter of Kabul, dotted with cafes and a popular Turkish-run mall that houses clothing stores, an Apple Store, and restaurants ranging from from fast food chains to a top-end steak house.

Now, a white Taliban flag flies above the armored door of the building’s compound, adorned with a sign for the ministry who is its new occupant, while Taliban security guards keep watch.

The blast walls surrounding the complex are still adorned with murals and panels depicting the work of the Women’s Ministry, but in some, the faces of the women have been desecrated, a type of vandalism seen elsewhere in Afghanistan since the re-conquest of power. by the Taliban.

A sign reads “Supporting abused women is our human duty” and shows a woman with a black eye. Another is from the United States Agency for International Development, which had been a major source of aid to Afghanistan, saying, “Keep your city green and clean. “

Even critics of the US military’s extended stay in Afghanistan have recognized the gains made by Afghan women over the past two decades. Under the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, women’s health, literacy rates and employment have all climbed. The abused women received help and shelter. Women have risen to the legislature and other positions of power.

A revealing barometer of gains has been observed in the changing composition of the workforce. A World Bank study found that women made up 22 percent of the workforce in 2019, up from 15 percent in 2009. A survey conducted two years ago by the Asia Foundation also showed growing public support for women. women in the workplace, with 76 percent of them. Afghans support the right of women to work outside the home.

News of the Taliban’s reassignment of the Women’s Ministry building came as the United Nations Security Council reauthorized the organization’s mission in Afghanistan, which was due to expire, for six months. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, established in 2002 after the US invasion, is now the primary means of monitoring Taliban behavior, following the chaotic US-led military withdrawal last month.

Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson in New York, said he was not aware of the development of the women’s ministry and could not comment on it. Yet, he said, there have been “recent developments that are worrying, but we continue our dialogue and our advocacy for women’s rights, for girls’ rights, in the area of ​​labor and education in particular ”.

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