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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Taliban impose head-to-toe coverings for women

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban government decreed Saturday that Afghan women must cover themselves from head to toe, expanding a series of onerous restrictions on women that dictate nearly every aspect of public life.


Women in Burqas and children await treatment at a World Food Program-supported health clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Women in Burqas and children await treatment at a World Food Program-supported health clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)


The decree, by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, drew condemnation from women’s rights advocates and the United Nations, which described it as another bald betrayal of Taliban pledges to respect gender equality.


The ministry suggested the burqa as the preferred garment for covering a woman’s face, hair, and body. But it did not mandate wearing the garment as long as women otherwise cover themselves with a hijab.


The full-body burqa, long emblematic of patriarchal control of women’s public attire in Afghanistan, was described by the ministry as “the good and complete hijab” — a garment with various versions that cover a woman’s hair and much or all of her face and body.


Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August, Afghan women have been subjected to a cascade of announcements restricting their employment, education, travel, deportment and other aspects of public life. Many had assumed that the return of a burqa-style body covering was the inevitable next step.


A woman walks along the side of the Kabul–Kandahar Highway north of Ghazni, Afghanistan, in Dec. 8, 2021. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)
A woman walks along the side of the Kabul–Kandahar Highway north of Ghazni, Afghanistan, in Dec. 8, 2021. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)


The burqa, which leaves only a woman’s hands and feet visible and includes a stitched facial netting for vision, as required by the Taliban when it ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.


The ministry’s definition of “hijab” Saturday described a garment that “should not be too short or too tight,” the announcement said. The intent was to obscure the outlines of a woman’s body, the ministry said.


The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said the Taliban decree would create new strains in the militant group’s efforts to gain international recognition as the country’s legitimate government.


Women in Burqas and children await treatment at a World Food Program-supported health clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Women in Burqas and children await treatment at a World Food Program-supported health clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)


In a statement posted on its website, the mission said the decree “contradicts numerous assurances regarding respect for and protection of all Afghans’ human rights, including those of women and girls, that had been provided to the international community by Taliban representatives during discussions and negotiations over the past decade.”


Shabana Shabdeez, 24, a women’s activist in Kabul, said she would refuse to cover herself, “even if they kill me.” She added, “Women are born free. It is their basic human right to walk around freely.”


In public announcements regarding women in recent months, the government has often delivered vaguely worded proclamations left open to interpretation. Wary of Western condemnation as the Taliban government seeks diplomatic recognition and humanitarian aid, many announcements have appeared to rely on inference and intimidation.


But the ministry, which is responsible for enforcing the government’s interpretation of Islamic law, was specific Saturday about punishments for the male head of family of women who fail to adhere to the latest decree.


At a three-hour news conference dominated by pronouncements promoting the religious virtues of the burqa, ministry officials and Islamic religious figures dictated a series of escalating punishments — including jail time for male family heads who repeatedly disregard warnings from government officials regarding women’s attire.


If a woman failed to wear the prescribed hijab in public, ministry officials would visit her home and advise the male head of the family to require her to comply, the ministry announcement said.


Failure to comply would result in a summons to the ministry, officials said. If the man still failed to follow the guidelines, he would be jailed for three days.


If the jail sentence did not compel adherence, the man would be required to appear before a religious court for further punishment, ministry officials said.


Male government employees whose wives or daughters fail to cover themselves in public would be subject to suspension or dismissal, the announcement said. And the relatively few women still permitted to hold jobs — such as nurses, doctors, and teachers — could be fired for failure to comply with the regulations.


“We want our sisters to live with dignity and safety,” said Khalid Hanafi, the acting vice and virtue minister.


Shir Mohammad, a vice and virtue official, said in a statement that “all dignified Afghan women” should cover themselves from head to toe. “Those women who are not too old or too young must cover their face, except the eyes,” he added.


Since the Taliban takeover in August, more women in Kabul appear to have begun wearing burqas. But the majority of women on the streets of the capital have continued to wear less encompassing versions of hijabs, with many covering only their hair and leaving most or all of their faces visible.


Even under the previous, Western-backed government, many women — especially in rural areas and small towns — continued to wear burqas. The history of the garment dates back generations in Afghanistan and is a product of conservative Afghan culture that long preceded the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s.


At Saturday’s news conference, religious speakers delivered dissertations on the Islamic history of the hijab and its benefits according to Islamic law and practice.


The ministry instructed officials across Afghanistan to put up posters in bazaars and other public locations with instructions and images of approved garments for women. In recent months, small posters have appeared in Kabul depicting head-to-toe hijabs, including burqas, as proper public attire for women.


On Saturday, ministry officials said the “ruling, importance and benefits of the hijab” should be discussed in mosques and distributed through the news media.


In September, the Taliban converted the previous government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs to the office for the Vice and Virtue ministry. Under the Taliban government of the 1990s, women who failed to wear a burqa in public were often beaten by vice and virtue religious police, who also delivered warnings to male relatives.


Also, Saturday, a spokesperson for an Afghan opposition group that has mounted an insurgency against the Taliban government repeated earlier claims that it had “liberated” three districts in the northern province of Panjshir. Asked whether the National Resistance Front, as the movement calls itself, had seized government district centers, the spokesperson replied by text message, “They were besieged in the district offices,” referring to Taliban officials.


The Taliban government spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Twitter that “no military incident has taken place” in Panjshir or any other nearby areas. NRF claims “were not true, no one should be worried,” Mujahid wrote.


He added that thousands of Islamic Emirate fighters were in Panjshir and preventing any military advances by the front.


The NRF was formed by several leaders or supporters of Afghanistan’s Western-backed government before it collapsed last summer. It is part of a resistance that consists of a smattering of armed fighters spread across the mountains of northern Afghanistan, according to interviews with more than a dozen resistance fighters and leaders.


The NRF has an estimated several hundred fighters, many of them low-ranking officers in the former government’s security forces. It is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of deceased Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud left Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power and has directed the NRF from abroad.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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