Afghanistan’s supreme leader has ordered the country’s women to cover their faces in public – one of the harshest restrictions imposed on them since the Taliban seized power last year and an escalation of growing restrictions on women that is drawing a backlash from the international community and many Afghans.
“They should wear a chadori (head-to-toe burqa) as it is traditional and respectful,” said a decree issued by Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhunzada that was released by authorities at a function in Kabul on Saturday.
A spokesman for the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice read the decree from Akhunzada at a media conference, saying that a woman’s father or closest male relative would be visited and eventually imprisoned or fired from government jobs if she did not cover her face outside the home.
The spokesman added that the ideal face covering is the burqa, which became a global symbol of the Taliban’s previous hardline rule from 1996 until 2001. Most women in Afghanistan wear a headscarf, but many in urban areas, such as Kabul, do not cover their faces.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Fawzia Koofi, former Afghanistan parliament deputy speaker, said the Taliban’s decrees regarding women can only be regarded as “oppression and repression”.
“The question is, in the middle of all this suffering for Afghan people, why is the issue of women the only one taking priority,” asked Koofi, while referring to the deepening economic crisis across the country.
“The biggest challenge women face every day is the lack of jobs and economic crisis,” she said.
Since taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban have reintroduced draconian restrictions on freedoms and movements, particularly directed at women, that are reminiscent of their last rule in the 1990s.
Over the last few months, Taliban leaders, particularly from the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, have announced many new restrictions, even as criticism and international pressure mounts against them.
In December, the ministry, which replaced the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs, imposed restrictions on women from travelling further than 72km (45 miles) without a close male relative.
“Many months into their reign of power in Afghanistan, the Taliban have imposed one of the most iconic aspect of their rule from the 1990s, which is forcing women to cover their faces in public, and it’s clearly aimed at controlling women who have been the most troublesome section of the population,” said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“If we see any of the demonstrations that have taken place since August when the Taliban took over, it’s been women and girls at the forefront, and this is intended to ensure that women have no public face. The Taliban believe that the woman’s place is in the home. She should not come out without a close male relative, and if she does come out, she should cover her face,” she told Al Jazeera.
This restriction was further expanded to include travelling abroad, and several solo women travellers were reportedly stopped from boarding flights. Similar bans were also introduced in several healthcare centres across the country, forbidding women to access healthcare without a mahram (male chaperone).
In January, a group of 36 UN human rights experts said that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are institutionalising large-scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.
“We are concerned about the continuous and systematic efforts to exclude women from the social, economic, and political spheres across the country,” the experts said in a statement.
A surprise U-turn in March in which the group shuttered girls’ high schools on the morning they were due to open drew the ire of the international community and prompted the United States to cancel planned meetings on easing the country’s financial crisis.
The country has been reeling from a humanitarian crisis with more than half of the population facing hunger. The Taliban has struggled to revive the aid-dependent economy, which is in freefall due to sanctions and exclusion from international financial institutions.
The US and other nations have cut development aid and enforced strict sanctions on the banking system since the Taliban took over in August, pushing the country towards economic ruin.