Beauty salon ban in Afghanistan a blow to women’s financial freedom

KABUL (Reuters): For the last eight years, Marzia Reyazee has supported her family with the earnings from her female-only beauty salon in Afghanistan, a business she spent more than $18,000 setting up.

But the 34-year-old mother of two is likely to find herself without her business, and with few other prospects for a livelihood, when the Taliban administration’s order to shutter women’s beauty salons comes into effect on July 25. “We can’t work here, we can’t feed our family, we need to work,” she said. Like many women in Afghanistan’s beauty services sector, Reyazee is the main breadwinner in the family.

The ban on beauty salons is the latest in a series of restrictions imposed by the Taliban on women in Afghanistan since taking control of the country two years ago during the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops.

More than 60,000 women are likely to lose their jobs, and 12,000 beauty businesses are likely to shutter, according to industry estimates, putting further strain on an economy already in crisis.

“It will disproportionately impact female entrepreneurs, which is a setback for resilience, poverty reduction, and economic recovery,” Roza Otunbayeva, the U.N. Secretary General’s special representative in Afghanistan, told Reuters.

A spokesperson for the Taliban administration did not respond to request for comment. The ban will also create a “significant” decrease in women’s employment, the International Labour Organization (ILO) told Reuters. During the rule of Afghanistan’s foreign-backed government, female participation in the formal work force was only around 23%, according to the ILO.

In addition to offering the usual services, the beauty salons provide many Afghan women with a safe, female-only space where they can meet outside their homes and without a male chaperone. The Taliban administration say they respect women’s rights in line with their interpretation of Islamic law and Afghan culture.

The ban on salons, released on July 4 by the morality ministry, said it was based on an order from the supreme spiritual leader. Similar orders have led to the closure of high schools and universities to women and stopped many Afghan female aid staff from work, moves foreign officials say are hampering any steps towards the formal recognition of the Taliban administration.

With sanctions on the banking sector, a cut in development aid and looming drops in humanitarian funding, the Taliban administration has said it is focused on weaning the country off reliance on aid and boosting the economy through private sector development. Senior Taliban officials say they support the development of female-owned businesses and have allowed spaces for women at trade fairs.

Otunbayeva, however, said the ban on salons “goes against past commitments from the de facto authorities that they will support female entrepreneurship”.

Faced with rapidly diminishing options, dozens of women, mostly employees of beauty salons, staged a protest this week against the ban, a rare event since the Taliban clamped down against protests over the closure of universities to female students in December. The Taliban used water cannons and fired shots into the air to break up the demonstration, protesters said.

“Day by day, the Taliban are trying to eliminate women from society. We are also human beings,” said a make-up artist, her eyes filling with tears. She declined to be named due to concerns for her safety.