By: Sherin Yousfi and Ziba Balkhi
Dr. Dawood* was treating a patient in the Abu Ali Sinai Balkhi seminary hospital in the Mazar-e-Sharif city about a month ago when a Taliban man entered the hospital with his wife who had a head wound. It was one o’clock in the morning. Dr. Dawood’s patient had been in a traffic accident and had a traumatic head injury that was bleeding profusely.
The Taliban member demanded Dr. Dawood treat his wife immediately. When Dr Dawood tried to tell him that the other injured person under treatment is in a serious condition and asked him to wait for 20 minutes, the Talib angrily took his weapon from his shoulder and assaulted Dr Dawood with the butt, beating him.
“We doctors in the hospital face a lot of insults and humiliation every day,” Dr. Dawood tells Rukhshana Media “As a doctor, I have been humiliated and insulted many times and I have even been beaten.”
Dr. Dawood says this scenario is not uncommon, and that when a member of the Taliban has a family member who is a patient, they often become abusive with the doctors and threaten the hospital personnel present that their family member should be given priority, regardless of injury.
Doctors in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif provinces have told Rukhshana Media that they have also imposed serious restrictions on female health workers.
Despite the Taliban leaders repeatedly announcing that women in Afghanistan can work in the health sector without any restrictions, both male and female doctors say that is not the case in practice. Instead, the Taliban has tried to enforce gender segregation in hospitals, and will frequently threaten staff.
One Taliban who instructed hospital doctors to prioritize his relatives gave the reason for this demand as being because they have “waged Jihad against the infidels (the US and its allies) for the past 20 years.”
“They want their patients to be given priority because they said they did Jihad,” Dr. Dawood says. “He said they cleansed the government of debauchery and reclaimed the country from the infidels.”
Dr. Sajida*, one of the female doctors in Balkh hospital, says that when a relative of a Taliban member is taken to the hospital, all doctors must leave their work and go to them, even if they have an non-threatening illness, otherwise they risk being beaten and insulted.
“Just two days ago, a member of the Taliban brought his sick family member,” she says. “The doctor here already had five to six urgent patients. One of the patients had an appendix operation. But when the Taliban member called the doctor, he had to leave the patients and go prescribe for the Taliban patient.”
Dr. Roqia*, also in Balkh hospital says its understood that a Taliban member will often resort to cursing and insulting doctors to get a family member treated.
Furthermore, the Taliban sometimes come to the hospital to monitor female behaviour. They check on whether the Islamic hijab is being worn properly and also encourage women to only wear long black dresses and warn the female staff against wearing make-up.
Dr. Roqia remembers one such visit with sadness.
“One day, a girl who was going an internship had her photo taken by the Taliban morality police. Her dress was a little short. They always find the reason being that a person is not wearing the hijab as preferred by the Taliban. They often use verbal abuse, and take their picture and tell them to come to their office,” Dr Roqia says.
The local Taliban also created a complaint investigation commission for the hospital, but the doctors say the members of the commission merely insult and humiliate the hospital staff.
“When they (the commission) have a meeting in the morning, one side is the men’s room and the other side is the women. And in the meeting, they always point their finger towards the women and say that we are here to stop prostitutes and indecency,” she says.
The Taliban’s morality police have prepared a seven-point notice regarding the activities of male and female doctors and posted it on the door and wall of the Balkh seminary hospital.
A copy of the notice, seen by Rukhshana Media, says, “General health personnel must observe Islamic hijab when they treat patients who need small treatment such as glaucoma patching, connecting cannula, and serum, checking blood pressure and dressings. Male patients should be treated by male personnel and female patients should be treated by female personnel.”
Shazia*, one of the nurses of the hospital, says that the Balkh provincial hospital is facing a shortage of staff and doctors, and when many patients come to the hospital, they are forced to act against the orders of the Taliban administration to treat patients, but risk punishment and possibly imprisonment.
“If we do not follow the orders of the Taliban, we will be threatened with death,” she adds.
“We note the warning that female doctors are not allowed to treat men and male doctors are not allowed to treat women,” she says. “But sometimes we have to as its necessary for that patient and we have a shortage of personnel. But if the Taliban catch us, they will insult us and threaten us with death and imprisonment.”
Several doctors in Kabul are also facing the same restrictions.
Sanam Payizi, who does not want the name of the hospital where she works to be mentioned in the report, told Rukhshana Media that the Taliban ordered that female doctors should wear long black clothes and not even talk to the male doctors.
But as Ms. Payizi explains, doctors have to talk and share their health notes with other staff in the medical department.
Thirty-year-old Parwana, who is busy working in the dental department of one of the hospitals in Kabul city, also says that the Taliban often use force to create disorder in the hospital and disrupt their work without considering the regulations and policies of the hospital.
“Taliban members forcefully tell us that their patients should be treated first,” she says. “Sometimes, when a woman is a patient to the hospital, they have to go into the operation room and the Taliban do not allow the male doctors to enter, or sometimes they do not allow the patient to remove her burqa from her head.”
“In general, all hospitals and doctors are in a state of chaos,” she says. “They don’t allow us to conduct any searches at the gate, and we are really worried about someone bringing explosive materials inside.”
Another female doctor in Balkh also says that the hospital does not allow male patients to be placed among female patients, but when the female patients are hospitalized, the Taliban members go to the women’s section of the hospital and stay there, regardless of their rules.
“Whether it’s night or day, the Taliban attendants enter the women’s room and say female patients are instead of their mothers and sisters but don’t allow other’s attendants to enter the females’ section,” she says.
Sabira Omid, 41, is a doctor in the gynaecological department of one of the hospitals in Kabul. She says that three weeks ago, the Taliban prevented her from entering the hospital because of her allegedly short clothes. Ms. Omid has worked in the department for twelve years, but she says that she has been discouraged from her duties by the Taliban’s restrictions.
“I had a very important operation to attend to,” she says. “But instead for two hours, I stood at the gate of the hospital arguing about why my dress is too short, while I was wearing a knee-length black winter coat. I was angry, why are there so many restrictions?”
“If these restrictions on women are not removed, I will have to leave the country because it is hard to bear,” she says.
The Taliban also do not allow women to work as dentists in the Ministry of Public Health.
Parwana says that about a month ago, she wanted to participate in a competitive exam in the dental department for a vacancy in the Ministry of Public Health. But she was told by the ministry that only men have the right to sit the test and be recruited for that position.
Suraiya, 21, who has recently graduated from Kabul University’s medical laboratory, says that she has approached the Taliban’s Ministry of Public Health and other hospitals many times to find a job, but she has not succeeded.
She says one of the Ministry of Public Health’s Taliban members told her that girls are only being assigned to the midwifery department.
“Hospitals are trying to attract fewer women staff because the conditions being set by the Taliban are so restrictive,” she says. “The head of the hospitals told me many times that when they recruit women there are more and more restrictions rising from the Taliban, and they apologize to me that they cannot give me a job.”
The Taliban have not publicly made any comment connected to these issues.
* The names of the interviewees have been changed at their request due to security reasons.