The Taliban has issued yet another decree imposing further restrictions on Afghan women, and criminalising their clothing.
While the Taliban have always imposed restrictions to govern the bodies of Afghan women, the decree is the first for this regime where criminal punishment is assigned for violation of the dress code for women.
The Taliban’s recently reinstated Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced on Saturday that it is “required for all respectable Afghan women to wear a hijab”, or headscarf.
The ministry, in a statement, identified the chadori (the blue-coloured Afghan burqa or full-body veil) as the “best hijab” of choice.
Also acceptable as a hijab, the statement declared, is a long black veil covering a woman from head to toe.
The ministry statement provided a description: “Any garment covering the body of a woman is considered a hijab, provided that it is not too tight to represent the body parts nor is it thin enough to reveal the body.”
Punishment was also detailed: Male guardians of offending women will receive a warning, and for repeated offences they will be imprisoned.
“If a woman is caught without a hijab, her mahram (a male guardian) will be warned. The second time, the guardian will be summoned [by Taliban officials], and after repeated summons, her guardian will be imprisoned for three days,” according to the statement.
Akif Muhajir, a spokesman for the ministry, said that government employees who violate the hijab rule will be fired.
And male guardians found guilty of repeated offences “will be sent to the court for further punishment”, he said.
The new decree is the latest in a series of edicts restricting women’s freedoms imposed since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last summer. News of the decree was received with widespread condemnation and outrage by Afghan women and activists.
“Why have they reduced women to [an] object that is being sexualised?” asked Marzia, a 50-year-old university professor from Kabul.
The professor’s name has been changed to protect her identity, as she fears Taliban repercussions for expressing her views publicly.
“I am a practicing Muslim and value what Islam has taught me. If, as Muslim men, they have a problem with my hijab, then they should observe their own hijab and lower their gaze,” she said.
“Why should we be treated like third-class citizens because they cannot practice Islam and control their sexual desires?” the professor asked, anger evident in her voice.
As an unmarried woman who looks after her mother, Marzia does not have a mahram. She is the sole breadwinner in her small family.
“I am unmarried, and my father died very long ago, and I look after my mother,” she said.
“The Taliban killed my brother, my only mahram, in an attack 18 years ago. Would they now have me borrow a mahram for them [to] punish me next time?” she asked.
Marzia has repeatedly been stopped by the Taliban while travelling on her own to work in her university, which is a violation of an earlier edict that forbids women from travelling alone.
“They regularly stop the taxi I am in, asking where my mahram is,” Marzia said.
“When I try to explain I don’t have one, they won’t listen. It doesn’t matter that I am a respected professor; they show no dignity and order the taxi drivers to abandon me on the roads,” she said.
“I have had to walk several kilometres to home or my classes on more than one occasion.”
‘Dignity and agency’
Marzia’s sentiments were echoed by women’s rights activists based in Afghanistan and outside the country.
Activist Huda Khamosh was a leader in the women-led demonstrations in Kabul that took place after the Taliban takeover last summer. She evaded arrest during a Taliban crackdown on female protestors in February. Later, Khamosh confronted Taliban leaders at a conference in Norway, demanding that they release her fellow female protestors held in Kabul.
“The Taliban regime was imposed on us, and their self-imposed rules have no legal basis, and send a wrong message to the young women of this generation in Afghanistan, reducing their identity to their clothes,” said Khamosh, who urged Afghan women to raise their voices.
“Never be silent,” she said.
“The rights granted to a woman [in Islam] are more than just the right to choose one’s husband and get married,” Khamosh said, referring to a Taliban decree on rights that focused only on the right to marriage, but did not address issues of work and education for women.
“Women have dignity and agency over their lives,” she said.
“Twenty years [of gains made by Afghan women] is not insignificant progress to lose overnight. We won this on our own might, fighting the patriarchal society, and no one can remove us from the community.”
The activists also said they had predicted the current developments in Afghanistan, and placed equal blame on the international community for not recognising the urgency of the situation.
Samira Hamidi, an Afghan activist and senior researcher at Amnesty International, said that even after the Taliban’s take over last August, Afghan women continued to insist that the international community keep women’s rights as “a non-negotiable component of their engagement and negotiations with the Taliban”.
But the international community had failed Afghan women yet again, Hamidi said.
“For a decade Afghan women have been warning all actors involved in peace negotiations about what returning the Taliban to power will means to women,” she said.
The current situation has resulted from flawed policies and the international community’s lack of “understanding on how serious women’s rights violations” are in Afghanistan, she said.
“It is a blatant violation of the right to freedom of choice and movement, and the Taliban were given the space and time [by the international community] to impose additional reprisals and systematic discrimination,” Hamidi said.
Khamosh, the activist, agrees.
“The world is betraying an entire generation with their silence,” she said.
“It is a crime against humanity to allow a country to turn into a prison for half its population,” she said, adding that repercussions from the ongoing situation in Afghanistan will be felt globally.
Marzia, the professor, shared a similar sense of disappointment.
“We are a country that has produced some of the most brilliant women leaders. I used to teach my students the value of respecting and supporting women,” she said.
“I gave hope to so many young girls and all of that has been thrown in [the] trash as meaningless,” she said.
“My heart breaks into pieces with every new ‘law’ and decrees they issue that contradicts our Islamic and Afghan values.”