The Taliban Have Made the Burqa Mandatory Again

Hunger and poverty stalk the nation, but the Islamists want to disappear women from public life.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A burqa-clad woman with a child
A burqa-clad woman with a child
A burqa-clad woman sits in a graveyard along with a child as they beg in Kabul on March 21, 2013. Massoud Hossaini photos

The Taliban have ordered women in Afghanistan to cover up head to toe and only go outdoors in the company of male chaperones, intensifying the worst aspects of the misogynistic rule they displayed their first time in power and which they vowed not to repeat this time.

A decree issued Saturday by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—which replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs—seems designed to finally ensure that women disappear from public life. It comes as the country faces economic and humanitarian disaster, with millions of people facing hunger and unemployment, and with no access to cash under U.S. sanctions, as many members of the Taliban cabinet are sanctioned as terrorists. The International Labor Organization said total job losses since the Taliban takeover last August are expected to be as high as 900,000 by the middle of this year, with women hit particularly hard as the Taliban force them out of work.

Though it comes as no surprise, the culmination of creeping controls on women and girls that the Taliban have been introducing since last year represents the Islamists’ defiant answer to pleas from the international community that they respect 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 up head to toe and only go outdoors in the company of male chaperones, intensifying the worst aspects of the misogynistic rule they displayed their first time in power and which they vowed not to repeat this time.

A decree issued Saturday by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—which replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs—seems designed to finally ensure that women disappear from public life. It comes as the country faces economic and humanitarian disaster, with millions of people facing hunger and unemployment, and with no access to cash under U.S. sanctions, as many members of the Taliban cabinet are sanctioned as terrorists. The International Labor Organization said total job losses since the Taliban takeover last August are expected to be as high as 900,000 by the middle of this year, with women hit particularly hard as the Taliban force them out of work.

Though it comes as no surprise, the culmination of creeping controls on women and girls that the Taliban have been introducing since last year represents the Islamists’ defiant answer to pleas from the international community that they respect human rights, and women’s rights in particular, if they wish to be recognized as a legitimate government. 

But international condemnation has made little difference. Afghanistan under the Taliban has come to reflect the fictional totalitarian society of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women’s bodies are treated as the property of the state. (Meanwhile, the Taliban burqa decree comes just after a leaked draft decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that would effectively end federal protections for reproductive rights for women in the United States.)

The cover-up order has met with impotent despair. The State Department said it was “deeply troubled by recent steps the Taliban have taken directed at women and girls, including restrictions on education and travel.” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “alarmed.” The European Union expressed “concern.” The U.N.’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said it was “deeply concerned.”

Women in burqas beg with their children on a busy Kabul street in 2013.
Women in burqas beg with their children on a busy Kabul street in 2013.

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

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

“We are particularly looking to the countries that have pledged to have a feminist foreign policy—Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, Norway, and Sweden—to step up and provide leadership on tackling this, the 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 forces women to cover themselves entirely in public. Prevailing misogyny, dressed up as tradition and religious lore, has long seen women cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothing. Communities in some parts of the country demand total coverage for women, and in recent years Gulf-style abayas have been popular in cities, too, as the expectation of a Taliban takeover grew.

The latest regulation on female behavior, however, effectively removes all autonomy from all women and girls. Their only choice is whether or not to reveal their eyes. They must now be covered by a burqa or a hijab whenever they leave their homes. The burqa is a wide, pleated article that fits onto the head like a tight skullcap and has a thick grill across 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 that covers the entire body and face, leaving space for the eyes only.

Compliance by women is the responsibility of their male relatives or guardians. Noncompliance is a punishable offense, with the men facing prison if female relatives repeatedly flout the directive. Women without close male relatives—widows with no brothers or sons, for instance—are already facing extreme hardship, unable to move freely from their homes even to buy food.

Shaharzad Akbar, a former head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission who is now in exile, said the decree “gives men, and even younger men and boys, even more power over the female members of their families,” potentially exacerbating an already grave problem of domestic abuse.

“This is the Taliban further telling women they have no protection and support, and will be policed constantly inside and outside the home, having 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 with democracy and modern values overseen by the United States and Western allies. Though the Taliban said that they would allow education for girls, no schooling is permitted past the sixth grade for young Afghan women; boys can attend schools with no restrictions.

Women have been forced out of most work, except for jobs that men cannot do such as cleaning women’s bathrooms. They cannot travel alone, with airlines even being told that they must not allow solo women to board domestic or international flights. While women accounted for less than 20 percent of the workforce ahead of the collapse of the republic, the International Labor Organization says employment could fall further, by 21 percent, by the middle of this year.

A burqa-clad woman begs on the ground in Kabul in 2013.
A burqa-clad woman begs on the ground in Kabul in 2013.

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

Freedoms that two generations of Afghans had come to take for granted have been rapidly rolled back. Yet the new rules come as no surprise for those who remember the Taliban’s first turn in power, from 1996 to 2001, when the burqa became a symbol of subjugation. Women were reduced to chattel in a society that lived in fear of arbitrary retribution for clothing and grooming transgressions. Women were beaten in the street by “vice and virtue” police.

The Taliban promised ahead of their return last year that things would be different this time around, that women would be treated with “respect” according to the laws of Islam. But which laws and which interpretation were never made clear. Islam does not disappear women, even if there are discriminatory injunctions on matters such as inheritance and court testimony. Even in strict Islamic societies like Saudi Arabia, women are permitted to work and drive—and show their faces if they choose.

Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights activist and former member of parliament, said Afghanistan was now unique in making a so-called crime by one person the fault of another. The decree was likely to “increase the hate for the Taliban,” she said, noting that women and girls have been protesting publicly against the Islamists since their return.

“The Taliban are trying to use women’s rights to put pressure on the international community for recognition,” she said. Tighter restrictions on women and girls would give the Taliban, who are aligned with major terrorist organizations including al Qaeda and who run one of the world’s biggest drug cartels, easy potential concessions to make in return for diplomatic recognition.

But there seems to be little the international community can do to influence the Taliban’s behavior. Almost universal condemnation greeted the reversal of a pledge to reopen secondary schooling for girls hours after classes started on March 23, the first day of the school year.

The World Bank, which holds more than $1 billion in trust for Afghanistan, has said that its members need to see progress on equal access to education before the funds are released. It suspended $600 million earmarked for four projects in health, education, and agriculture after the March 23 reversal on schooling—but the Taliban haven’t budged. 

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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