By Special correspondent
Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities said Sunday that women seeking to travel anything other than short distances should not be offered transport unless they are accompanied by a close male relative. The guidance, issued by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also called on all vehicle owners to offer rides only to those women wearing Islamic hijabs.
“Women traveling for more than 45 miles (72 kilometers) should not be offered a ride if they are not accompanied by a close family member,” ministry spokesman Sadeq Akif MuHajjir said on Sunday, specifying that it must be a close male relative.
The guidance, circulated on social media networks, comes weeks after the ministry asked Afghanistan’s television channels to stop showing dramas and soap operas featuring women actors. The ministry had also called on women TV journalists to wear hijabs while presenting.
MuHajjir said Sunday that the hijab would also be required for women seeking transport. The ministry’s directive also asked people to stop playing music in their vehicles. The Taliban’s interpretation of the hijab — which can range from a hair covering to a face veil or full-body covering — is unclear, and the majority of Afghan women already wear headscarves.
Since taking power in August, the Taliban have imposed various restrictions on women and girls, despite pledging a softer rule compared with their first stint in power in the 1990s. In several provinces, local Taliban authorities have been persuaded to reopen schools — but many girls still remain cut off from secondary education.
Early this month, the group issued a decree in the name of their supreme leader instructing the government to enforce women’s rights. The decree did not mention girls’ access to education.
Activists hope that the Taliban’s battle to gain international recognition and get aid flowing back into one of the poorest countries in the world will lead to them making concessions to women.
Respect for women’s rights has repeatedly been cited by key global donors as a condition for restoring aid. Women’s rights were severely curtailed during the Taliban’s previous stint in power.
Beheading the mannequins
The Taliban have ordered shop owners in western Afghanistan to cut the heads off mannequins, insisting figures representing the human form violate Islamic law. A video clip showing men sawing the heads off shop dummies in Herat has gone viral on social media, drawing scorn both inside and outside the country.
Since returning to power in August, the Taliban have increasingly imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law and severely curtailed freedoms — particularly those of women and girls. While the hard-line group has not issued any formal national policy on mannequins — or other creeping restrictions — various local authorities are clamping down on what they say are immoral practices.
Aziz Rahman, head of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Herat, confirmed the order to AFP on Wednesday.
Some shopkeepers had tried to get around the decapitation order by covering mannequin heads with scarves or bags, but Rahman said that did not go far enough. “If they just cover the head or hide the entire mannequin, the angel of Allah will not enter their shop or house and bless them,” he said.
Several shopkeepers in the city of around 600,000 were angered by the order. “As you can see, we have cut the heads off,” Basheer Ahmed, a garment seller, told AFP, adding each dummy had cost 5,000 afghanis (around $50). “When there is no mannequin how do you expect us to sell our products? The customer likes it when the garment is draped properly over a mannequin.”
After returning to power on August 15 the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh rule that characterized their first stint in power, from 1996 until 2001, when any artificial representation of the human form was outlawed. But restrictions have been creeping back including local reports of orders for people to attend prayers five times a day, for men to grow beards, and for Western clothing to be discouraged.
Women, in particular, are feeling the brunt of the new orders, and are slowly being squeezed out of public life. Most secondary schools for girls are shut, women are barred from government employment apart from select specialized areas, and last week new guidelines stated they cannot undertake long journeys unless accompanied by a male relative.
The Taliban have also stepped up raids on liquor sellers, rounded up drug addicts and banned music.
Their takeover has devastated aid-dependent Afghanistan’s economy, with billions of dollars of assets frozen by the United States and international aid largely paused. However, the UN Security Council last week adopted a US resolution to help humanitarian aid reach desperate Afghans while keeping funds out of the hands of the Taliban government, which has yet to be recognized by any country.