Afghan women defiant but feel ‘imprisoned’ by order to cover faces

Burqa-clad women walk along a street in Kandahar on 7 May, 2022AFP

Women in Afghanistan expressed defiance on Sunday after the Taliban issued a directive ordering them to cover fully in public, including their faces, or stay indoors, saying the change would effectively leave them “imprisoned”.

Afghanistan’s supreme leader and Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada approved the order on Saturday in a move that threatens to push freedoms back toward the harsh rule imposed by the Islamists when they previously held power between 1996-2001.

It also goes against promises about a softer rule made to the international community after the Taliban took power in August last year.

“I am being imprisoned. I can’t live in freedom and all my social life is being controlled by the Taliban,” activist Tahmina Taham, a former government employee who lost her job after the Taliban stormed back to power last year, told AFP.

“Forget about being a woman, I have been stripped of my liberties even as a human being.”

Akhundzada’s decree also specified that women working in government jobs who did not follow the order “should be fired” and that employees whose wives and daughters do not comply will also be suspended from their jobs.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan condemned the decree and said it might further “strain engagement” between the Islamists and the international community, which has tied the resumption of aid to Afghanistan’s economy and the recognition of the Taliban government to their ability to respect women’s rights.

There were no immediate signs of Akhundzada’s order being followed in Kabul on Sunday, with many women seen on the streets without covering their faces.

In the western city of Herat, considered liberal by Afghan standards, resident Fatima Rezaie said many women were now defiant and won’t accept changes imposed by force.

“Women are not the same as 20 years ago,” Rezaie told AFP.

“(Today) they are firm and steadfast and ready to stand up to defend their rights.”

But in the southern city of Kandahar, the de facto power centre of the Taliban where the reclusive Akhundzada is believed to reside, women were seen wearing the burqa.

‘Weak point’

In the 20 years between the Taliban’s two stints in power, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though considerable social barriers still impeded freedoms.

But since their return, the Taliban have imposed severe restrictions on women’s rights banning them from many government jobs, secondary education and also from travelling alone outside their cities.

Taham said the new “order will have a very negative impact on the personal and working life of women,” adding her sister had to quit studying after her university refused her admission in a mixed-sex class.

Many are incensed at the retraction of hard-fought freedoms.

“Where (in Islam) is it said that women’s hands and faces should be covered?” said Azita Habibi, a midwife at a hospital in Herat.

But Akhundzada’s decree has also left many women worried for the safety of their male guardians.

“Even I have decided to wear a full covering hijab because I don’t want the men in my family to be punished or dishonoured,” said Laila Sahar, a former NGO worker who gave a fictitious name to protect her identity.

“A weak point of a woman is her family, her children, her partner. The Taliban have smartly used this weakness to force her in wearing a hijab,” prominent activist Hoda Khamosh told AFP.

“But no woman will accept to stay at home or stop working.”