By Shamil Shams, Shabnam von Hein – Deutsche Welle (DW)

The Taliban have further curbed women’s rights with their latest veil compulsion decree. Afghanistan’s civil society faces an uphill task to challenge the group without adequate support from the international community. 

If there was any hope that the Taliban would pay heed to repeated calls from Afghanistan’s civil society and the international community to uphold women’s rights, the Islamic fundamentalist group’s latest decree for women to cover their faces in public has dashed it.

The latest order to make veil compulsory is one of the harshest controls on women’s lives in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power in August last year. It is also reminiscent of the Islamist outfit’s strict Shariah-based rule in the late 1990s. “They [the women] should wear a chadori [head-to-toe burqa] as it is traditional and respectful,” Afghanistan’s Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said on Saturday.

The statement said the measure was introduced “in order to avoid provocation when meeting men who are not mahram [adult close male relatives],” adding that if women had no important work outside it was “better they stay at home.” From now on, if a woman does not cover her face outside the home, according to the decree, her father or closest male relative could be imprisoned or fired from government jobs. Older women and young girls are exempt from the latest Taliban order.

A decree condemned by civil society

Many Afghan women traditionally wear the hijab, but not all of them wear an all-covering burqa in public. The new order will restrict their mobility and access to employment.

Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Afghan women earned many rights, which the Taliban had taken away from 1996 to 2001. The hard-earned rights included the right to choose how they dress, and the right to employment and education. Since they retook power, the international community has been urging the Taliban to allow girls to go to school and give them more freedom in society. Instead, the new Afghan rulers have done the contrary and backslided on women’s rights.

Daud Naji, a former Afghan government official, wrote on Twitter that the Taliban have imposed a type of Hijab that is not suitable for working in office or in the field. “The Taliban have imposed the burqa, which abolishes [a woman’s] identity… The issue is not the hijab but the elimination of women,” he said.

Nahid Farid, a former Afghan member of parliament and women’s rights activist, has dubbed the veil mandate a “symbol of gender apartheid. (…) The dress code for women, and putting men as executors of this plan, along with the Taliban’s restrictions on girls’ education, prove that the group seeks to control the body and mind of half of the population,” she wrote on Facebook.

A larger plan to subjugate women

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, rising living costs and unemployment have left many people with barely enough money to buy food. However, the Taliban government has no solution for stopping the collapse of the economy.

Instead, the Islamist militant group has decided to focus on setting up rules of conduct and dress codes for women based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. New, stricter rules are announced almost every day. For example, since the end of March, women are only allowed to board an airplane in the company of a man.

The Taliban also recently backtracked on a promise to allow girls to attend school. Secondary schools for girls will be opened once “appropriate dress codes” are agreed upon for students aged 12 and older, according to a statement issued last week by the Ministry for the “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” This ministry was set up in place of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs after the Taliban took power in August.

Rifts within the Taliban

Afghanistan’s economy has been in free fall following the Taliban takeover. The war-torn country has not been able to stand on its own economically and has been highly dependent on payments from abroad in recent years. Western donors, however, turned off the money tap after the Taliban takeover. Humanitarian aid intended to reach the suffering population directly through international organizations continues to be provided, but not in sufficient quantities.

In order to be recognized by the international community as a legitimate government, the Taliban would have to make certain changes, including accepting demands from Western donors, for example, on gender equality. The radical forces in the Taliban have indicated that they will not accept this. “The new restrictions were created by old and uncompromising Taliban leaders,” Afghanistan expert Tariq Farhadi told DW.

Farhadi, who was also an adviser to former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, believes that the radical wing of the Taliban has prevailed in an internal power struggle. “For them, ideology is more important than the welfare of the citizens. They have no interest in the Taliban’s rule being recognized by the world community,” he said.

A bargaining chip?

Soraya Peykan, a former professor at Kabul University, told DW that the limited and informal exchanges between the international community and the Taliban may break down if the Taliban continue to increase pressure on society.

Peykan said the Taliban had deliberately turned basic rights such as the right to education for girls into a bargaining chip in talks with the international community. “They want to use the granting of this right as leverage to gain a better position in negotiations,” he argued. But the Afghan conflict is no longer receiving the international spotlight that it did last year. With the West currently dealing with the Ukraine war, Afghan civil society has practically been left on its own to confront the Taliban’s harsh decrees.

Sardar Mohammad Rahman Ughelli, Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Ukraine, says the world is already “forgetting” about the Afghanistan crisis. “Even the international media is not covering the crisis in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the Taliban are now free to implement their regressive policies in the country.


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Cover image: Frog Oliver