The Taliban’s new hijab rule: how far has it gone?
While the Taliban have said hijab is not compulsory, there have been widespread efforts to implement it.
On May 7, the Taliban ordered women to cover their faces in public - a move that has sparked widespread criticism in Afghanistan and abroad.
The group's supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada issued a decree that said that if a woman did not cover her face outside of the home, her father or closest male relative would be visited and face potential imprisonment or dismissal from state jobs.
According to the group, the all-encompassing blue burqa - the ‘chadori’ - is traditional and respectful. For many, the chadori is symbolic of the Taliban’s 1996-2001 stint in power, when it was obligatory for women to wear the garment in public.
The decree is the latest in a string of restrictions aimed at women since the Taliban’s return last August. Girls’ high schools remain closed, and women travelling further than 72km (45 miles) should be accompanied by a close male family member.
While some women in Afghanistan choose to wear the chadori or burqa, many in urban areas such as Kabul wear a headscarf but do not cover their faces. The decree has prompted some women campaigners to take to the streets in protest.
"I fear confronting them”
Afghan Witness (AW) spoke to women campaigners and former government employees in several provinces.
“I think the Taliban play politics with women's rights and hijab issues,” says Robeena, not her real name, an activist from Kabul, adding that the decree was issued amid the security crisis the group faced due to clashes in Panjshir, Baghlan and Takhar provinces.
“They did it in order to divert attention from the conflict and allegations of human rights violations against the group in those provinces.”
“The Taliban create a buzz every other month around women's issues in order to grab and maintain attention from the international community,” Robeena adds.
The extent to which the Taliban are enforcing the dress code remains unclear, and reports have been mixed.
On May 16, one of the Taliban’s top leaders and Acting Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, gave an exclusive interview to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. When asked about the hijab edict, he replied, “We are not forcing women to wear hijab, but we are advising them and preaching to them…” He added, “Hijab is not compulsory, but it is an Islamic order that everyone should implement.”
According to Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Heather Barr, “Taliban decrees are largely self-implementing”, with many people tending to “comply automatically” out of fear.
"I fear confronting them [the Taliban],” says Meena, not her real name, a former government employee from Bamyan province. “Thus, I also cover my face when I go out."
Meena says the decree is being implemented to “some degree” in Bamyan - which is located in central Afghanistan - and that “women have started adhering to it.”
“The restrictions are being strictly implemented on female university students and government employees," Meena tells AW. "Female students would not be allowed to enter universities unless their faces are covered - the same is with female government employees who have been warned they would be dismissed unless they obey."
"We have also been told to cover our hands as well by wearing gloves,” she adds.
In other provinces, women shared different experiences. Activist Robeena tells AW that in the capital Kabul - from her experience - the decree has not been fully implemented.
"Where I live, no such restrictions have been implemented and we do not adhere to the edict… Some women wear chadori, some wear long black robes and some dress like they did before,” Robeena says.
No colourful headscarves
However, on May 18, the day after AW spoke to Robeena, students in Kabul Education University - also known as Shahid Rabbani Education University - told Afghanistan International they were not allowed to wear colourful headscarves into the university, and had their student cards confiscated.
Additional videos have surfaced on social media claiming women were prevented from entering the university due to wearing colourful headscarves, including two videos posted on the Twitter account of BBC journalist Suhrab Seerat.
AW was able to geolocate the footage:
There have also been videos of 'inspectors' from the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (DPVPV) reportedly ‘roaming’ around a shopping mall in Kabul and monitoring how women are dressed. “It is not the decree of the ministry, it is the decree of God,” one preaches in a video shared by the BBC’s Yalda Hakim. “The real cause of moral corruption is the face. If the face is not covered, then what is the point of Hijab?”
On May 16, reports surfaced that three female students were beaten for wearing colourful clothes at Balkh University. AW followed up with several sources in the northern province of Balkh, including a women’s rights activist, a former university lecturer, a civil society organisation (CSO) activist, and a university student.
According to the university student, on Sunday 15 May 2022, while female security personnel at Balkh University were monitoring the hijab of female students at the university entrance, a female student wearing a colourful headscarf was beaten by university security personnel. The source said the student attempted to defend herself against insults and humiliation, but was subjected to physical abuse.
A women’s rights activist and former professor said cases of humiliation and harassment of female students at Balkh University have become a common practice by the Taliban, and that many of these cases go unreported in the media.
Hijab checkpoints in Takhar
There were reports of similar levels of hijab implementation in Takhar province, located in the northeast of the country.
On May 16, the Afghan newspaper Aamaj News reported that the Taliban in Takhar were not allowing unveiled women and women without a mahram (male guardian) to travel to and move around the capital Taloqan. According to Aamaj’s source, agents appointed by the DPVPV were stopping women without hijab and telling them in ‘an abusive manner’ to return to their homes.
AW spoke to sources on the ground in Taloqan, including a staff member of an NGO, a journalist, and a local resident. According to the local journalist, the Taliban did not allow women without hijab or burqa - or women who did not have a mahram accompanying them - to pass the entrance gates of Taloqan city on Monday.
The journalist added that on the same day, a number of female students who did not wear the hijab according to Taliban standards were prevented from entering the university by the Taliban's personnel from the DPVPV in Taloqan.
According to an NGO official in Taloqan, the Taliban's DPVPV launched a three-day operation on Monday morning to monitor the implementation of the recent order. The source told AW that since Monday, several teams from the Taliban's DPVPV have set up checkpoints at the entrance gates and some public places inside Taloqan. According to the source, they had two goals: to instruct women to observe hijab and return those who did not to their homes.
Sources told AW that the Taliban are inspecting all vehicles passing through the
checkpoints, which they say has upset passengers as it has caused significant disruption to their plans. According to sources, some of the women had travelled long distances and were then made to return home.
UN women told to observe hijab
On May 17, Associate Women’s Rights Director at Human Rights Watch, Heather Barr, tweeted that the hijab decree was also being imposed on Afghan women working at the United Nations (UN).
According to the memo shared by Heather Barr, the DPVPV team approached the UN compound on May 16 and asked management to inform all the female staff of the UN - including IOM and UNAMA - to observe hijab. According to the memo, the Taliban’s DPVPV team had asked to access the premises to check whether women were observing hijab, and said that they will return on May 17 to monitor this.
In an additional poster reportedly put up outside the UN compounds, two types of face covering are printed: a blue burqa and black veil. The slogan, which is written in Pashto and Farsi, says “according to Sharia a Muslim woman must observe hijab’’.
On May 18, Hasht e Subh Daily reported that the Taliban had issued a letter to the health authorities of the Nazi district of Nangarhar province in the east of the country, instructing them not to allow women without Islamic hijab and a male guardian to enter the hospital. According to the news report, during a visit to hospitals in the Nazi district of the province, Taliban ‘Virtue Promoters’ warned the hospital’s authorities to implement hijab orders on both female staff and patients entering the hospital.
No high school for girls, human rights commission dissolved
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August, the group claimed women’s rights will be respected and their regime will be more moderate than previous periods of Taliban rule.
However, the recent hijab decree has attracted widespread criticism from the international community, and the Taliban has also faced intense condemnation from Western governments, as well as some religious scholars and Islamic nations, for keeping girls' high schools closed and restricting other aspects of women’s rights.
Experts warn that the country faces financial ruin as the United States and others have cut development aid and sanctioned the banking system since the Taliban takeover, with millions of Afghans facing acute poverty.
This week, the Taliban also dissolved Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, deeming it no longer necessary, which has sparked further panic among organisations and activists - both in the country and outside of it.
As AW published this article, TOLO news reported that the Taliban have issued a new order demanding female presenters working on all TV channels to cover their faces while presenting programmes.
Research by Afghan Witness
19 May 2022