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Afghan burqa-clad women stage a protest for their rights at a beauty salon in the Shahr-e-Naw area of Kabul on July 19. Afghanistan's Taliban authorities have ordered beauty parlours across the country to shut within a month, the vice ministry confirmed the latest curb to squeeze women out of public life.-/AFP/Getty Images

Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist based in Mumbai who covers South Asia.

In yet another move restricting women’s freedoms, the Taliban imposed a promised ban on hair and beauty salons across Afghanistan last week. The Taliban Ministry of Preventing Vice and Promoting Virtue justified its order by claiming that salon services violated the sharia, the Islamic laws that the Taliban is known to interpret through a fundamentalist lens.

In the nearly two years since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August, 2021, the group has imposed numerous restrictions on women’s access to public, social and political spaces, including bans on secondary schools, universities, gymnasiums, parks, public baths, or from holding jobs across various sectors, including in non-governmental organizations. Women are also prohibited from travelling long distances, defined as anything more than 72 kilometres, without a male guardian. Now, their ability to participate in the public sector has been even more harshly curtailed.

As in the past, Afghan women didn’t give up without a fight. Many salon owners and employees bravely took to the streets of Kabul on July 19, protesting the announcement of the looming ban with the slogan “nan, kar, adalet” (which translates to “bread, work, justice” in the Dari language). But they were small in number and, lacking in allies, they were quickly dispersed by Taliban security forces who used water cannons and tasers against them, while shooting indiscriminately in the air.

In this increasingly repressive environment, beauty and hair salons provided some of the last community spaces left in the country for women to find reprieve and to socialize outside their homes. But perhaps even more importantly, these establishments were part of the few remaining sectors in Afghanistan that allowed women to engage in business and work. According to a report by the International Labour Organization released in March, women’s employment is estimated to be 25 per cent lower than in the second quarter of 2021, when the Taliban took over; by comparison, male employment is down by seven per cent. And as the ILO pointed out, the primary reason that the figures of women’s employment weren’t worse was the “home-based self-employment” practices – such as farming and clothing repair – that have become the main avenues by which Afghan women can participate in the labour market and contribute to their household income.

The ban on salons – which affects an estimated 12,000 small businesses across Afghanistan – will thus prove to be a major setback to an already dire economic situation for Afghan women. It is estimated that around 60,000 Afghan women will become unemployed because of the ban, and many of them were their families’ sole breadwinners. With a lack of access to education or employment, women now have very few career opportunities that can provide for personal growth and financial independence, which are both frowned upon by the Taliban.

But such a dent to Afghanistan’s economy won’t just affect the country’s women alone. While Afghanistan struggles economically with Western sanctions, a flailing banking sector and isolation in terms of global trade, the Taliban cannot afford to erase an entire industry that contributes taxes to its coffers. After the group returned to power, the country’s GDP contracted by 20 per cent, with a sharp rise in the number of Afghans facing food insecurity. According to a World Food Programme report from earlier this year, about 15 million Afghans are not consuming enough food, with almost half of children under five years of age facing malnutrition. Afghanistan was also labelled as the least peaceful country in the world in this year’s Global Peace Index, and it was rated as “not free” by Freedom House’s 2023 report, with a score of 8 out of 100. Yet the Taliban has chosen to worsen this humanitarian crisis with gendered assaults on women’s freedoms that not only affect basic service delivery across sectors, but also help reverse a decade of progress made on several developmental and humanitarian indices.

Over the last two years, the U.S. and other governments have been seeking ways to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered to Afghans. In fact, just last week in Qatar, a delegation of U.S. representatives discussed that subject, as well as how to support Afghan women and girls, with Taliban leaders; they in turn called for Washington to lift its freeze on Afghanistan’s central bank reserves. However, the Taliban’s contributions to the ongoing crises through the marginalization of vulnerable Afghans need to be taken into account while engaging with the government. After all, the group has repeatedly proven that it is unable to provide serious governance – and their consistent attacks on women’s rights illustrates their apathy toward at least half, if not all, of Afghanistan’s population.

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