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The Taliban orders women to wear head-to-toe clothing in public

Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a Saudi humanitarian aid group, in Kabul on April 25. Afghanistan's Taliban rulers on Saturday ordered all Afghan women to wear head-to-toe clothing in public.
Ebrahim Noroozi
Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a Saudi humanitarian aid group, in Kabul on April 25. Afghanistan's Taliban rulers on Saturday ordered all Afghan women to wear head-to-toe clothing in public.

Updated May 7, 2022 at 3:43 PM ET

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Taliban officials announced that women and girls would be expected to stay home, and if they were to venture out, to cover in all-encompassing loose clothing that only reveals their eyes – preferably, a burka.

The restrictions on women's movement and dress are the harshest that the Taliban have announced since they came to power in August. It suggested the increasing dominance of the group's hard-line leaders, who appear to be behind the extended ban on most women and girls attending secondary school.

Saturday's announcement seemed to confirm the fears of many Afghans that the Taliban remained unchanged after two decades out of power. When the Taliban last ruled — from 1996 to 2001 — they also enforced harsh restrictions on women's dress and movement, and prevented most girls from going to school.

The news was met with dismay by some Afghan women.

"So much pain & grief for women of my country, my heart is exploding," tweeted Shaharzad Akbar, the former head of a prominent Afghan human rights group, who now lives in exile.

The rules would mean punishments for a woman's male guardian

The directive on the clothing of women and pubescent girls came from the Taliban's acting minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, a known hard-liner, Khaled Hanafi.

"We want our sisters to live with dignity and safety," he said.

However, it wasn't clear what legislative stages — if any — the directive still had to go through to be implemented. The state-run Afghan Bakhtar news agency described it as a draft law that had been "approved and implemented" by the Taliban's supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada.

"This is just one more step closer to seeing the dominance of these really retrograde, out of touch elements of the Taliban," said Ashley Jackson, the co-director of the Kenya-based Centre for the Study of Armed Groups, where she focuses on the Taliban.

"I think it also symbolizes the ascendancy of this base in Virtue Ministry, which in the 1990s played a similarly outsized role."

The Bakhtar news agency said the rules would be implemented gradually, through preaching and persuasion at first — and then with punishments.

It is not the woman who will be punished, but her male guardians. Her brother, father, husband or son will be tasked with enforcing the rules, and they will be held to account if she defies them. Punishments would range from several days in jail to being fired from their jobs.

That transforms Afghan women to minors in the eyes of Taliban officials, said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch.

"The Taliban are really taking a very significant step in terms of stripping away what autonomy still remains for women and girls," she said.

"They're creating a situation where it's not even in the hands of women and girls themselves to make a decision about whether they're going to resist the Taliban on this, what what types of risks they're willing to take with their own safety because it's their male family members who are being endangered, not them."

The rules could affect the Taliban's pursuit of international recognition

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan condemned the directive, saying it "contradicts numerous assurances" that the Taliban would respect the human rights of Afghan women and girls over the past decade.

"These assurances were repeated following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, that women would be afforded their rights, whether in work, education, or society at large."

It also complicates efforts by the Taliban to seek international recognition – even as it makes it harder for the international community to work with the Taliban to alleviate a humanitarian crisis through the country.

The U.N. estimates that 93 percent of all Afghans are not getting enough food to eat, and just over 8 million face starvation.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.