KABUL — At Kabul’s Lycee Mariam market, known for its long row of stalls selling women’s clothing, news of the Taliban’s latest edict requiring women to wear a veil had not yet reached that afternoon.
Some of those browsing the stores wore the full blue burka the Taliban imposed when they first came to power in the 1990s. Others, however, had scarves covering their hair, but their faces uncovered.
“Even when you go on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, you don’t have to cover your face,” said one.
“Humans are born free, no one is allowed to talk about women’s clothing,” said Fatima, a fashionable student with sunglasses perched on her head.
Afghanistan is a deeply conservative country, and many women wear the burka, but in major cities it is also common to see women wearing the simple headscarf.
After taking power last August, the Taliban delayed issuing new laws on what women should wear – until Saturday.
At a press conference, the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue announced that all women should cover their faces in public and laid out a series of escalating penalties for anyone who refuses to comply.
Punishment begins with a woman’s male guardian (usually father, brother, or husband) visiting her home by Taliban officials.
Then, if a woman’s appearance was still not deemed acceptable, her male relative would be summoned to see ministry officials, and after that he could even potentially be imprisoned for three days or brought to trial.
Akif Muhajir, spokesman for the ministry, told the BBC the order was based on the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
Other Muslims dispute the interpretation, but Akif Muhajir described face coverings as a “compulsory” part of the religion.
Only 1% of Afghan women, he insisted, did not already conform to the group’s understanding of how they should dress. “It is not only the order of the Islamic Emirate,” he added, “but the order of Allah.”
Most Muslims around the world do not consider face coverings to be a mandatory part of religion, and after taking over the country, the Taliban initially appeared to take a more flexible attitude to governance.
In recent weeks, however, they have introduced more sweeping measures, many of which regulate women’s daily lives – for example, giving men separate days to visit public parks and banning them from undertaking longer journeys without male guardian.
Teenage girls have still not been allowed to return to school in most of the country, and while women work in some sectors such as health and education, many others have been told not to. not return to their offices.
Western diplomats have said that the resumption of development funding for the country – currently in the grip of a severe economic crisis – depends on the Taliban’s treatment of women.
When announcing this latest decree at the press conference, however, a cleric said the Taliban could never be pressured by the West to compromise on their beliefs. —BBC