KABUL: Top UN officials warned Wednesday that a Taliban government order banning Afghan women from working for its mission in the country would violate the world body's charter and demanded the ban be revoked.
The United Nations also announced it had instructed all its Afghan staff, men and women, not to report to office after the ban on its women staff was confirmed.
The Taliban authorities have imposed a slew of restrictions on Afghan women since seizing power in 2021, including banning them from higher education and many government jobs.
The increasing curbs are reminiscent of the Taliban's first government between 1996 and 2001, when the UN said they were responsible for repeated human rights violations -- particularly against girls and women.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded the ban on the organisation's women staff in Afghanistan be "immediately revoked".
"This is a violation of the inalienable fundamental human rights of women," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement on behalf of Guterres on Wednesday.
The UN said on Tuesday the Taliban government had extended a ban on women working for non-governmental organisations to the world body's workforce of some 400 Afghan women.
UN humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov told AFP in an interview: "The charter of the United Nations is going to be violated" because of the ban.
"It is absolutely clear that no authority can give instructions to the United Nations ... on who should be employed," he said. "We are not going to make an exception."
While it is unclear what the effect of a charter violation would be in the long term, the UN ordered all its Afghan staff, men and women, "not to report to the office until further notice".
'Assault against women'
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told journalists in New York that the organisation's Afghan women staff will continue to receive their salaries.
"I am terribly troubled by the fact that in the month of Ramadan, that what we get from the Taliban is a strike against the teachings and the belief of Islam," she said.
UN mission head in Afghanistan Roza Otunbayeva also denounced the ban.
"In the history of the United Nations, no other regime has ever tried to ban women from working for the organisation just because they are women," Otunbayeva said in a separate statement.
"This decision represents an assault against women, the fundamental principles of the UN, and on international law."
The mission called for women employees to be allowed to move freely across the country. "They cannot receive instructions on the performance of their duties from any authority external to the organisation," the statement read.
The world body's 400 women Afghan employees are the bulk of its 600 women staff working in Afghanistan. In total, there are about 3,300 Afghans in the 3,900-strong UN workforce there.
The UN airlifted $1.8 billion into Afghanistan between December 2021 and January 2023, funding an aid lifeline for the nation's 38 million citizens and shoring up the domestic economy.
The Taliban authorities ordered all NGOs in December to stop employing Afghan women after receiving "serious complaints" that women employees were not observing a proper Islamic dress code.
"These justifications have no basis considering what we know about Islam," said Alakbarov. Several conservative countries in the region still allow women to study and work, he said.
Many NGOs suspended their entire operations in the country in protest after the ban was announced, piling further misery on Afghanistan's citizens, half of whom are facing hunger, according to aid agencies.
It was agreed after days of discussion that women working in the health aid sector would be exempt from the decree, although the UN enjoyed a general exemption.
Aid workers say female employees are crucial in delivering help to women beneficiaries in a deeply conservative and patriarchal country such as Afghanistan.
The restriction will also hamper donation-raising efforts by the UN at a time when Afghanistan is enduring one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, Alakbarov said.
The Taliban government has imposed an austere interpretation of Islam since surging back to power.
Authorities have barred teenage girls from secondary school, women have been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from travelling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside the home, ideally with a burqa.
Women have also been banned from universities and are not allowed to enter parks or gardens.