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Shortly after taking Mazar-i Sharif, the Taliban took steps to impose the system of justice and social codethey have established in other areas of Afghanistan under their control.12 Women have been ordered not to move outside their homes unless completely covered and accompanied by a close male relative and have been prohibited from working. Girls schools have been closed.13 Hospitals are segregated by sex, and women may not be treated by male doctors. In other parts of Afghanistan where these policies have been enforced, the consequences for women have been grave. Women responsible for feeding and caring for their families are impoverished when they can neither work nor leave their homes. Women who do go out unaccompanied or improperly attired have been beaten on the spot. Refugees and health care workers have reported incidents of women who died when denied emergency medical care.

The Taliban's gender policies have seriously strained their relationship with nongovernmental relief organizations and the U.N., leading some groups to scale down programs or threaten to withdraw non-emergency assistance altogether.14

12 The Taliban’s social policy is informed by the conservative Deobandi school, and its strict interpretation of the Sharia, or Islamic law, and by some traditions of Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtuns. The Deobandis, followers of an eighteenth-century reform movement, have close ties to Wahhabism, a sect which has the support of the Saudi royal family. Edicts governing social behavior are enforced by the Amr bil-Maroof wa Nahi An il-Munkir, or Ministry for the Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice, whose vigilance squads exact summary punishment by beating or detaining transgressors. Enforcement of the Taliban’s code has been less a problem for Afghans living in rural Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan than for those in cities like Herat and Kabul, where the Taliban have felt less secure and have been wary of resistance from the non-Pashtun, urbanized population.

13 In Kabul, girls’ schools have been ordered closed, and boys’ schools have been closed because of the prohibition on work by women teachers and the lack of salary for remaining staff.. The Taliban have been less rigid in applying these strictures in Qandahar, where some girls’ schools function, and male doctors have been permitted to treat female patients under strict safeguards.

14 For more on women’s access to health care, see Physicians for Human Rights, The Taliban’s War on Women (Boston: August 1998). In the aftermath of U.S. airstrikes on August 20 on alleged terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and the subsequent shooting of two U.N. workers in Kabul, one of whom died, the U.N. and virtually every relief group evacuated its staff from the country. On October 23, the U.N. agreed on conditions for a return of U.N. staff, including explicit security guarantees and a commitment to investigate the attack on U.N. staff and the killing of the Iranian officials during the offensive on Mazar-i Sharif.

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