Afghan women barred from gyms, Taliban official says

The Taliban has banned women from using gyms in Afghanistan, according to a senior Taliban official, in the latest edict by the group cracking down on women’s rights and freedoms since they took power more than a year ago.

The latest curbs come months after the Taliban, which returned to power in August 2021, ordered access to parks to be segregated by gender.

The Taliban has banned girls from middle school and high school, despite initial promises to the contrary, restricted women from most fields of employment, and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public.

A spokesman from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue said that the ban was being introduced because people were ignoring gender segregation orders and that women were not wearing the required headscarf, or hijab.

The ban on women using gyms and parks came into force this week, according to Mohammed Akef Mohajer, a Taliban-appointed spokesman for the ministry.

The group has “tried its best” over the past 15 months to avoid closing parks and gyms for women, ordering separate days of the week for male and female access and imposing gender segregation, he said.

“But, unfortunately, the orders were not obeyed and the rules were violated, and we had to close parks and gyms for women,” said Mohajer.

“In most cases, we have seen both men and women together in parks and, unfortunately, the hijab was not observed. So, we had to come up with another decision and for now we ordered all parks and gyms to be closed for women.”

Taliban teams will begin monitoring establishments to check if women are still using them, he said.

A female personal trainer told The Associated Press that women and men were not exercising or training together before at the Kabul gym where she works.

“The Taliban are lying,” she insisted, speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. “We were training separately.”

On Thursday, she said two men claiming to be from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue entered her gym and made all the women leave.

“The women wanted to protest about the gyms [closing], but the Taliban came and arrested them,” she added. “Now we don’t know if they’re alive or dead.”

Taliban-appointed Kabul police chief spokesman Khalid Zadran said he had no immediate information about women protesting gym closures or arrests.

The United Nations special representative in Afghanistan for women, Alison Davidian, condemned the ban. “This is yet another example of the Taliban’s continued and systematic erasure of women from public life,” she said. “We call on the Taliban to reinstate all rights and freedoms for women and girls.”

Hardliners appear to hold sway in the Taliban-led administration, which struggles to govern and remains internationally isolated.

The country has been reeling from an unprecedented economic crisis that has forced millions of Afghans into poverty and hunger amid international diplomatic and financial isolation and the evaporation of foreign aid following United States sanctions.

Afghan women under Taliban rule continue to struggle for basic rights such as education and employment [File: Hussein Malla/AP]

‘Idle attractions’

The Ferris wheel and most of the other rides in Zazai Park – which offers a spectacular view of Kabul city – have ground to a sudden halt because of a lack of business.

Before this week’s ban, it could accommodate hundreds of visitors on days when women brought their children for family gatherings.

An empty amusement park is seen in Kabul, Afghanistan
An empty amusement park is seen on Thursday, November 10 in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the Taliban have banned women from using gyms and parks [Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo]

On Wednesday, only a handful of men wandered nonchalantly through the complex.

Habib Jan Zazai, co-developer of the complex, fears he may have to close down a business into which he has poured $11m, and which employs more than 250 people.

“Without women, the children will not come alone,” he told AFP.

He warned that such edicts would discourage investment by foreigners or Afghans living abroad, as well as impact revenue collection.

“A government is run by taxes. If an investor is not paying tax, then how can they run?”

Mohammad Tamim, 20, sipping tea in the park during a visit from Kandahar, where he is a schoolteacher, called the ban “bad news”.

“Every human psychologically needs to be entertained,” he said.

“Muslims need to be entertained – especially after 20 years of war.”

Kabul-based women’s rights activist Sodaba Nazhand said the bans on gyms, parks, work, and school would leave many women wondering what was left for them in Afghanistan.

“It is not just a restriction for women, but also for children,” she said.

“Children go to a park with their mothers. Now children are also prevented from going to the park. It’s so sad and unfair.”

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