Updated May 7, 2022 3:43 PM ET
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban officials have announced that women and girls should stay home and, if they venture outside, cover themselves in loose clothing that only reveals their eyes — preferably, a burqa.
Restrictions on women’s movement and clothing are the toughest announced by the Taliban since they came to power in August. This suggested the growing dominance of the group’s hardline leaders, who appear to be behind the prolonged ban on most women and girls from attending secondary school.
Saturday’s announcement seemed to confirm the fears of many Afghans that the Taliban will remain unchanged after two decades without power. When the Taliban last ruled – from 1996 to 2001 – they also imposed severe restrictions on women’s dress and movement, and kept most girls out of school.
The news was greeted with dismay by some Afghan women.
“So much pain and sorrow for the women of my country, my heart is exploding,” tweeted Shaharzad Akbarthe former head of a major Afghan human rights group, who now lives in exile.
Rules would mean punishment for a woman’s male guardian
The directive on the dress of pubescent women and girls came from the Taliban’s Acting Minister for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a known hardliner, Khaled Hanafi.
“We want our sisters to live in dignity and security,” he said.
However, it was not clear what – if any – legislative steps the directive still needed to go through to be implemented. Afghanistan’s state-run Bakhtar News Agency described it as a bill that had been “endorsed and implemented” by Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada.
“This is just one more step towards the dominance of these truly backward and out of touch elements of the Taliban,” he said. Ashley Jacksonthe co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups based in Kenya, where she focuses on the Taliban.
“I think it also symbolizes the ascendancy of that base in Virtue Ministry, which in the 1990s played an equally outsized role.”
The Bakhtar news agency said the rules would be implemented gradually, through preaching and persuasion at first, then with penalties.
It is not the woman who will be punished, but her male guardians. Her brother, father, husband, or son will be responsible for enforcing the rules, and they will be held accountable if she defies them. The penalties would range from several days in jail to be fired from their jobs.
This turns Afghan women into minors in the eyes of Taliban officials, said Heather Barre from Human Rights Watch.
“The Taliban is really taking a very big step in terms of removing the autonomy that is still left to women and girls,” she said.
“They’re creating a situation where it’s not even up to the women and girls themselves to decide whether they’re going to stand up to the Taliban on this, what kinds of risks they’re willing to take with their security because those are the male family members who are at risk, not them.”
Rules could affect Taliban’s quest for international recognition
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan condemned the directive, saying it “contradicts numerous assurances” that the Taliban would respect the human rights of Afghan women and girls over the past decade.
“These assurances were repeated after the Taliban took power in August 2021, that women would benefit from their rights, whether in work, education or society in general.”
It also complicates the Taliban’s efforts to gain international recognition – even if it makes it more difficult for the international community to work with the Taliban to alleviate a humanitarian crisis across the country.
The UN estimates that 93% of all Afghans do not have enough to eat and just over 8 million are at risk of starvation.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Many Afghan women feared that day would come. Today, the Taliban announced that women must veil themselves in public, ie wear loose clothing and cover their face except for their eyes. They gave them two choices – wear a burqa or a long loose dress and a face covering. NPR’s Diaa Hadid is online with us to tell us more. She covers Afghanistan from her base in neighboring Pakistan, and she is with us now.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hello, Michel.
MARTIN: So tell us how it happened.
HAID: It’s true. Well, an announcement was made at a press conference held today by a particularly intransigent ministry. He has a long name. Bear with me. It is the ministry of spreading virtue and preventing vice. It is the ministry that guarantees public adherence to the Taliban interpretation of Islamic law.
MARTIN: And what are the new rules?
HADID: Well, women are told to stay home. If they have to leave their home for any reason, they must wear a burqa. It’s that all-encompassing dress with the mesh face covering. Or they can wear a long dress, a scarf and a face veil. Above all, it is her male guardian. It is the male guardian of an Afghan woman who will be punished if she defies these rules.
MARTIN: You know, I remember a lot of people thought the Taliban would do this from day one, but they didn’t. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about that.
HAID: No. Yeah – because in fact the Taliban had been walking relatively lightly on the issue of women’s clothing for months. And the reasoning was that they didn’t want to turn the Afghans against them by suddenly imposing all these harsh rules. But, you know, also to be clear, Afghan women dress predominantly conservatively. And so it’s really in urban areas like Kabul, where the more liberal women and girls wear slacks, long shirts and headscarves – they’re the ones who will notice the difference.
MARTIN: So why now?
HADID: That’s a big question, and there might be pressure from the Taliban base. You know, those fighters might want to see those rules put in place. After all, why did they fight for two decades against a Western-backed government they considered un-Islamic? It could be that the hardliners within the Taliban leadership are showing their muscles. They have come under a lot of pressure lately from moderates within the movement because it was the extremists who were behind the ban on girls attending secondary school – and a reminder that this ban is still in effect for most Afghan girls.
MARTIN: I wonder, how will this actually work in real life? Similarly, are women doctors, women who – performing vital functions in society, few in number today, now all expected to stay at home?
HADID: Well, working women can probably still work. If they haven’t been fired from their jobs by the Taliban, you know, until now, they’ll probably still be able to go out and work, but they’ll have to cover up. What this effectively does is it really restricts the movements of most Afghan women because when the Taliban says a woman should stay home, it’s really up to a local commander to decide how he’s doing interpret that. A woman’s movements could be more micro-policed. She could be further harassed if she tries to leave the house.
Furthermore, it deprives women of their legal right to be an adult. When the Taliban say that a male guardian will be punished for this, what they are doing is reducing a woman to the status of a minor in the eyes of their laws because she is not being punished for it. It is her male guardian who could be punished by being imprisoned or even losing his job.
MARTIN: I understand it just happened, but how has the international community reacted so far?
HADID: Well, the European Union representative for Afghanistan has already condemned that. The UN has just issued a statement saying that this directive contradicts numerous assurances given to them by the Taliban. What it really does, however, is further complicate relations between the Taliban and the international community. They sought legitimacy. They were looking for trade. They want open borders with other countries. It’s really hard to see how this will evolve.
MARTIN: It was Diaa Hadid from NPR. Dia, thank you very much.
HADID: You’re welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.