The United Nations has condemned Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers for ordering women to cover their faces in public, the latest in an increasing number of restrictions that have prompted a backlash from the international community and many Afghans.
The Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice published a decree from the movement's supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, in Kabul on Saturday. UNAMA, the UN's Mission to Afghanistan, released a statement on Saturday saying it was seeking a meeting with the group and would discuss a wider international response to the decree.
“Those women who are not too old or young must cover their face, except the eyes, as per Sharia directives, in order to avoid provocation when meeting men who are not mahram [close male adult relatives],” the decree stated.
It added that if women had no important work outside it was “better they stay at home”.
The father or closest male relative of women who failed to comply would face prison or dismissal from government jobs, the spokesman said. The Taliban also warned that foreign countries should respect the Taliban's decision.
“We call on the world to co-operate with the Islamic Emirate and people of Afghanistan … Don’t bother us. Don’t bring more pressure, because history is witness, Afghans won’t be affected by pressure,” the Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Mohammad Khalid Hanafi, said at a news conference.
The Taliban imposed similar restrictions on women during their first regime between 1996 and 2001.
After seizing power again in August last year, the group has faced intense criticism for restricting women's rights. This has been led by western governments but also by some religious scholars and Islamic countries.
The UN said in a statement on Saturday that it would immediately seek meetings with the Taliban over the issue, adding it would consult with others in the international community on the implications of the ruling.
“UNAMA is deeply concerned with today's announcement by the Taliban de facto authorities … this decision contradicts numerous assurances regarding respect for and protection of all Afghans' human rights,” the statement said.
Infuriating many Afghans is the knowledge that many of the Taliban of the younger generation are educating their girls in Pakistan, while in Afghanistan women and girls have been targeted by repressive edicts since taking power.
Girls have been banned from school beyond grade 6 in most of the country since the Taliban's return.
Universities opened earlier this year in much of the country, but since taking power the Taliban edicts have been erratic.
While a handful of provinces continued to provide education to all, most provinces closed educational institutions for girls and women.
Women's rights activist Narges Nesar said life is getting tougher for Afghan women.
“It is meaningless to live in Afghanistan, because you feel like a prisoner. You can only eat and sleep and live according to their [Taliban] will,” she said.
“It is interfering with women's private lives,” Kabul-based women's rights advocate Mahbouba Seraj said of Saturday's decree. “Today we have lots of other problems, like suicide attacks, poverty … People are dying every day, our girls can’t go to school, women can’t work … But they just think and speak and make laws about hijab [women's Islamic dress].”
The US and other countries have cut development aid and introduced strict sanctions on Afghanistan's banking system, pushing the country towards economic ruin.
The Taliban claimed to have changed since they last ruled, when the militants banned girls' education or women leaving the house without a male relative and women were required to cover their faces.
However, in recent months the hardliners have forbidden women from travelling without a male chaperone and banned men and women from visiting parks at the same time.
In March, the militants shut girls' high schools on the morning they were due to open, reneging on earlier promises. The move prompted the US to cancel planned meetings on easing the country's financial crisis.
With reporting from agencies.