Women were forced to wear the burqa in public, because, according to a Taliban spokesman, "the face of a woman is a source of corruption" for men not related to them. They were not allowed to work. They were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur'an. Women seeking an education were forced to attend underground schools such as the Golden Needle Sewing School, where they and their teachers risked execution if caught. They were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which led to illnesses remaining untreated. They faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws.
The Taliban allowed and in some cases encouraged marriage for girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80 percent of Afghan marriages were considered to be by force.
From the age of eight, women were not allowed to be in direct contact with men, other than a close blood relative, husband, or in-law (see mahram). Other restrictions were:
Reports state that enforcement varied between districts, as rural, nomadic and even some women in Herat suffered no negative reprisals for simply covering their heads with large scarves and leaving their faces visible. In Kabul enforcement was more stringent and physical punishment was a very real consequence for those who failed to adhere.
Brightly colored clothes were also banned as they were viewed as sexually attracting; a characteristic most unsuitable for women to display.
The Taliban rulings regarding public conduct placed severe restrictions upon a woman's freedom of movement and created difficulties for those who could not afford a burqa or didn't have any mahram. These unfortunate women faced virtual house arrest. A woman who was badly beaten by the Taliban for walking the streets alone stated "my father was killed in battle...I have no husband, no brother, no son. How am I to live if I can't go out alone?"
A field worker for the NGO Terre des hommes witnessed the impact on female mobility at Kabul’s largest state-run orphanage, Taskia Maskan. It is recorded that after the female staff were relieved of their duties the approximately 400 girls living at the institution were locked inside for a year without being allowed outside for recreation.
Decrees that affected women’s mobility:
The lives of rural women were less dramatically impacted as they generally lived and worked within secure kin environments. A relative level of freedom was necessary for them to continue with their chores or labour. If women wished to travel to a nearby town the same urban restrictions would have applied.
On September 30th 1996 the Taliban decreed that all women should be banned from employment. It is estimated that 25 percent of government employees were female, and when compounded by losses in other sectors, many thousands of women were affected. This had a devastating impact on household incomes, especially on vulnerable or widow headed-households which were common in Afghanistan.
Another loss was for those whom the employed women served. Elementary education of children, not just girls, was shut down in Kabul, where virtually all of the elementary school teachers were women. Thousands of educated families fled Kabul for Pakistan after the Taliban took the city in 1996.
A substantial number of the Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan did so due to the impact of losing female earnings. Although many refugees supported the Taliban, the ban on female employment compounded by the harsh economic climate proved a disincentive for families to return. Among those who remained in Afghanistan there was an increase in mother and child begging as the loss of vital income reduced many families to the margin of survival.
Taliban Supreme Leader Mohammed Omar assured female civil servants and teachers they would still receive wages of around US$5 per month, although this was a short term offering. A Taliban representative stated:
"The Taliban’s act of giving monthly salaries to 30,000 job-free women, now sitting comfortably at home, is a whiplash in the face of those who are defaming Taliban with reference to the rights of women. These people through baseless propaganda are trying to incite the women of Kabul against the Taliban".
The Taliban promoted the use of the extended family, or zakat system of charity to ensure women should not need to work. However years of conflict meant that nuclear families often struggled to support themselves let alone aid additional relatives. Qualification for legislation often rested on men, such as food aid which must be collected by a male relative. The possibility that a woman may not possess any male relatives was dismissed by Mullah Ghaus the acting foreign minister who was surprised at the degree of international attention and concern for such a small percentage of the Afghan population.
For rural women there was generally little change in their circumstance as their lives were dominated by the unpaid domestic, agricultural and reproductive labour necessary for subsistence.
Female health professionals were exempted from the employment ban yet they operated in much depleted conditions. The ordeal of physically getting to work due to the segregated bus system and widespread harassment influenced some women to leave their jobs by choice. Of those who remained, many lived in fear of the regime and chose to reside at the hospital during the working week to minimise exposure to Taliban forces. These women were vital to ensure the continuance of gynaecological, ante-natal and midwifery services, be it on a much compromised level. Under the Rabbani regime there had been around 200 female staff working in Kabul’s Mullalai Hospital yet barely 50 remained under the Taliban. NGOs operating in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002 found the shortage of female health professionals to be a significant obstacle to their work.
The other exception to the employment ban allowed a reduced number of humanitarian workers to remain in service. The Taliban segregation codes meant women were invaluable for gaining access to vulnerable women or conducting outreach research. This exception was not sanctioned by the entire Taliban movement so instances of female participation or lack there of, varied with each circumstance.
The Taliban claimed to recognize their Islamic duty to offer education to both boys and girls, yet a decree was passed that banned girls above the age of 8 from receiving instruction. Maulvi Kalamadin insisted it was only a temporary suspension and that females would return to school and work once facilities and street security were adapted to prevent cross-gender contact. The Taliban wished to have total control of Afghanistan before calling upon an Ulema body to determine the content of a new curriculum to replace the Islamic yet unacceptable Mujahadin version.
The Taliban requested time to achieve these ends and criticized the international aid community for its insistence on binding support to the immediate return of women’s rights. The Taliban believed in the merit of their actions, and a representative stated in an Iranian interview “no other country has given women the rights we have given them. We have given women the rights that God and his Messenger have instructed, that is to stay in their homes and to gain religious instruction in hijab [seclusion]”.
The female employment ban was felt greatly in the education system. Within Kabul alone the ruling affected 106,256 girls, 148,223 boys and 8,000 female university undergraduates. 7,793 female teachers were dismissed, a move that crippled the provision of education and caused 63 schools to close due to a sudden lack of educators.
Some women ran clandestine schools within their homes for local children. Both the learners, parents and educators were aware of the consequences should the Taliban discover their activities, but for those who felt trapped under the strict Taliban rule, such actions allowed them a sense of self-determination and hope.
Prior to the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan male doctors had been allowed to treat women in hospitals, however the decree that no male doctor should be allowed to touch the body of a woman under the pretext of consultation was soon introduced. With fewer female health professionals in employment the distances many women had to travel for attention increased while provision of ante-natal clinics declined.
In Kabul some women established informal clinics in their homes to service family and neighbours, yet as medical supplies were hard to obtain their effectiveness was limited. Many women endured prolonged suffering or a premature death due to the lack of treatment. For those families that had the means, inclination, and mahram support, medical attention could be sought in Pakistan.
In October 1996 women were barred from accessing the traditional hammam, public baths, as the opportunities for socialising were prescribed as un-Islamic. This affordable hot water rite had been enjoyed by women and was an important facility in a nation where few possessed running water. It gave cause for the UN to predict a rise in scabies and vaginal infections among women denied methods of hygiene as well as access to healthcare. Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American author, stated in 2001 that it has been four years many Afghan women hadn't been able to pray to their God as “Islam prohibits women from praying without a bath after their periods”.
In June 1998 the Taliban banned women from attending general hospitals in the capital -- whereas before they could attend a women-only ward of general hospitals -- leaving only one hospital in Kabul at which they could seek treatment.
Family harmony was badly affected by mental stress, isolation and depression that often accompanied the forced confinement of women. A survey of 160 women concluded that 97% showed signs of serious depression and 71% reported a decline in their physical well being. Latifa, a Kabul resident and author, wrote:
"The apartment resembles a prison or a hospital. Silence weighs heavily on all of us. As none of us do much, we haven’t got much to tell each other. Incapable of sharing our emotions, we each enclose ourselves in our own fear and distress. Since everyone is in the same black pit, there isn’t much point in repeating time and again that we can’t see clearly."
The nutrition of many urban Afghans was negatively affected by poverty, inflated food prices and the restricted mobility to purchase fresh food.
Punishments were often carried out publicly, either as formal spectacles held in sports stadiums or town squares or spontaneous street beatings. Civilians lived in fear of harsh penalties as there was little mercy; women caught breaking decrees were often treated with force.
Examples of punishments:
Many punishments were carried out by individual militias without the sanction of Taliban authorities as it was against official Taliban policy to punish women in the street. A more official line was the punishment of men for instances of female misconduct; a reflection of a patriarchal society and the belief that men are duty bound to control women. Maulvi Kalamadin stated in 1997, “since we cannot directly punish women, we try to use taxi drivers and shopkeepers as a means to pressurize them" to conform.
Examples of male punishments:
The protests of international agencies carried little weight with Taliban authorities, who gave precedence to Islamic law and did not feel bound by UN codes or human rights laws, legislation it viewed as instruments for Western imperialism.
The plight of Afghan women received international exposure, particularly from American media and political figures that publicly condemned Taliban policies as brutal and inhumane.