Taliban Burqa Mandate Escalates Attack on Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

The Taliban have ordered women in Afghanistan to cover themselves from head to toe and only go out in the company of male chaperones, intensifying the worst aspects of the misogynistic rule they first displayed in power and that they swore not to repeat this time.

A decree issued on Saturday by the Taliban Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – which replaced the Ministry for Women’s Affairs – appears set to finally ensure the disappearance of women from public life. It comes as the country faces an economic and humanitarian catastrophe, with millions facing hunger and unemployment, and no access to cash under US sanctions as many Taliban cabinet members are sanctioned. as terrorists. The International Labor Organization has said the total number of job losses since the Taliban takeover last August is expected to reach 900,000 by the middle of this year, with women particularly hard hit by the Taliban who force them to withdraw from work.

While it comes as no surprise, the culmination of the creeping controls on women and girls that the Taliban has introduced since last year represents the Islamists’ defiant response to calls from the international community to respect human rights. human rights, and women’s rights in particular, if they wish to be recognized as a legitimate government.

The Taliban have ordered women in Afghanistan to cover themselves from head to toe and only go out in the company of male chaperones, intensifying the worst aspects of the misogynistic rule they first displayed in power and that they swore not to repeat this time.

A decree issued on Saturday by the Taliban Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – which replaced the Ministry for Women’s Affairs – appears set to finally ensure the disappearance of women from public life. It comes as the country faces an economic and humanitarian catastrophe, with millions facing hunger and unemployment, and no access to cash under US sanctions as many Taliban cabinet members are sanctioned. as terrorists. The International Labor Organization mentioned Total job losses since the Taliban takeover last August are expected to reach 900,000 by the middle of this year, with women particularly hard hit by the Taliban forcing them out of work.

While it comes as no surprise, the culmination of the creeping controls on women and girls that the Taliban has introduced since last year represents the Islamists’ defiant response to calls from the international community to respect human rights. human rights, and women’s rights in particular, if they wish to be recognized as a legitimate government.

But international condemnation made little difference. Afghanistan under the Taliban has come to mirror the fictional totalitarian society of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, where women’s bodies are treated as the property of the state. (Meanwhile, the Taliban’s burqa decree comes hot on the heels of a leaked draft US Supreme Court ruling that would effectively end federal protections for women’s reproductive rights in the United States.)

The concealment order met with helpless desperation. The State Department said it was “deeply troubled by recent measures the Taliban has taken against women and girls, including restrictions on education and travel. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “alarm.” The European Union expressedworry.” The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said it was “deeply concerned.”


Women in burkas beg with their children on a busy street in Kabul on March 21, 2013.

“What we need to see, and haven’t seen yet, is that consensus translates into concerted and coordinated action,” said Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “Honestly, it feels since August 15, when the situation for women and girls has deteriorated dramatically, as if the international community felt that it was unfortunate but not really their problem.

“We look especially to countries that have committed to a feminist foreign policy – ​​Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, Norway and Sweden – to step up and show leadership in the fight against this most serious women’s rights crisis on the planet. and the most serious women’s rights crisis since the Taliban last took power in 1996,” she added.

Afghanistan is now the only country in the world that requires women to fully cover up in public. The prevailing misogyny, disguised as tradition and religious traditions, has long seen women cover their hair and wear loose clothing. Communities in some parts of the country are demanding full coverage for women, and in recent years, Gulf-style abayas were also popular in cities, as expectations of a Taliban takeover grew.

However, the latest regulations on female behavior effectively disempower all women and girls. Their only choice is whether or not to reveal their eyes. They must now be covered by a burka or one hijab every time they leave home. the burka is a wide, pleated item that fits over the head like a tight skullcap and has a thick grid over the face. Wearers have no peripheral vision and cannot see their feet, making walking dangerous; the synthetic fabric is hot and uncomfortable. The alternative is a full hijab which covers the entire body and face, leaving room only for the eyes.

Women’s compliance is the responsibility of their parents or male guardians. Failure to comply is a punishable offence, with men facing jail time if loved ones repeatedly flout the guideline. Women without close male relatives – widows without brothers or sons, for example – already face extreme hardship, unable to move freely from their homes, even to buy food.

Shaharzad Akbar, former chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, currently in exile, said the decree “gives men, and even younger men and boys, even more power over female members of their family”, which could exacerbate an already serious situation. domestic violence problem.

“It is the Taliban who further tell women that they have no protection or support, and will be constantly watched inside and outside the home, with nowhere to go to seek protection and dignity,” she said.

The directive builds on restrictions on women’s access to health, education, employment and travel introduced by the Taliban since they retook control of Afghanistan last August, after a 20-year experiment in democracy and modern values ​​overseen by the United States and its Western allies. Although the Taliban have said they will allow girls’ education, no schooling is allowed beyond grade six for young Afghan women; boys can go to school without restriction.

Women have been squeezed out of most jobs, except for jobs that men cannot do, such as cleaning women’s toilets. They cannot travel alone, the airlines being even Told that they should not allow single women to board domestic or international flights. While women made up less than 20% of the workforce before the collapse of the republic, International Labor Organization said employment could fall further, by 21%, by the middle of this year.


A woman in a burqa begs on the ground in Kabul in 2013.

A woman in a burqa begs on the ground in Kabul on March 21, 2013.

The freedoms that two generations of Afghans had come to take for granted were quickly shattered. Yet the new rules come as no surprise to those who remember the Taliban’s first round of power, from 1996 to 2001, when the burka has become a symbol of subjugation. Women were reduced to chattels in a society that lived in fear of arbitrary reprisals for dress and grooming transgressions. Women have been beaten in the street by “vice and virtue” policemen.

The Taliban promised before they returned last year that things would be different this time around, that women would be treated with “respect” according to the laws of Islam. But what laws and what interpretation have never been specified. Islam does not make women disappear, although there are discriminatory injunctions on issues such as inheritance and testimony in court. Even in strict Islamic societies like Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to work and drive – and show their face if they wish.

Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights activist and former MP, said Afghanistan was now unique in making a so-called crime committed by one person the fault of another. The decree was likely to “increase hatred towards the Taliban”, she said, noting that women and girls had publicly protested against the Islamists since their return.

“The Taliban are trying to use women’s rights to pressure the international community for recognition,” she said. Tighter restrictions on women and girls would give the Taliban, which is aligned with major terrorist organizations including Al-Qaeda and which runs one of the largest drug cartels in the world, easy potential concessions in exchange of diplomatic recognition.

But there seems to be little the international community can do to influence the behavior of the Taliban. Almost universal condemnation greeted the cancellation of a promise to reopen secondary school for girls within hours of the start of classes on March 23, the first day of the school year.

The World Bank, which holds more than $1 billion in trust for Afghanistan, has mentioned that its members must see progress on equal access to education before funds are released. It suspended $600 million earmarked for four projects in health, education and agriculture after the March 23 cancellation of schooling, but the Taliban have not budged.