When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August of 2021, after two decades of U.S. and foreign control, one of the first things they did was place restrictions on women. A woman being educated, earning a degree or certification, working outside of the home, earning her own money, seeing customers or clients or patients, having the esteem and respect afforded to different professions culturally and socially, all of it is anathema to the Taliban. It reflects so-called “Western values” of equality and autonomy and freedom for women, and this is in stark contrast to Talibani religious and cultural views.
The restrictions on women significantly impacted female healthcare practitioners – doctors, nurses, researchers, midwives, and more. Whether by Taliban decree, prevailing and stubborn cultural norms, or local decision, women in healthcare were effectively locked out of it. Travel restrictions stated a woman could not travel beyond a 45 mile radius without a male guardian, but women were routinely beaten (and worse) for traveling very short distances away from home, and word of this had a very chilling effect on women deciding to step out of their homes. The rule that women’s faces must be covered in public was also horrendous to professional Afghan women who had lived their lives in much of the country for 20 years without such rules. Economic instability largely due to international sanctions also played a role in the space women would occupy in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Many professional Afghan women fled the country in the days and months following U.S. withdrawal. They sought resettlement in countries like the United States, Canada, and England, and preferred to stay in refugee camps in intermediary countries rather than return. This included Afghan doctors and nurses. In addition to this hemorrhaging of talent, there are no longer any graduating classes of doctors, nurses, or midwives. This loss from both ends is certain to have long-lasting ramifications, and Afghan women and girls will die as a result.
For those women that remain, the current environment does not allow them to practice before. In the weeks following their rise to power, the Taliban proclaimed that they wanted women to be able to return to work, and were going to train women doctors to be able to see women patients.
This supposed measure has done very little to change the grim landscape of accessing medical care that Afghan women and girls face. Due to the restrictions on travel and attire, many female doctors and nurses do not feel safe leaving the house. Many who did work under the previous administration no longer enjoy the support of a male guardian and must now stay home because that family member does not wish them to resume their former professional lifestyle.
Others who are still managing to work, such as in hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders, report regular harassment. Taliban officials have been reported to regularly show up at hospitals and demand that medical staff remove their uniforms and wear more traditional Afghan/Islamic dress. When doctors and nurses refuse, they are beaten, arrested, fired, and worse. Repeated protests by Afghan women doctors and nurses have not achieved the results hoped for, either. The few who persist and still see patients regularly have to do so under the watchful gaze of that patient’s male guardian, which restricts the flow of information as Afghan women and girls may not be comfortable sharing their needs and concerns in full within earshot of a male guardian, especially if that guardian is abusive. Many men refuse to see female doctors out of fear of harassment by Taliban themselves, and this further reduces the space a female Afghan medical practitioner may occupy in this new-old Afghanistan.
Because information about Afghanistan is limited now, it is unclear how many women are currently working in medicine in the country. But the information that does flow, through Afghans themselves and NGOs and journalists and others trying to preserve vital infrastructure in the challenged country, shows that the situation is dire.