Global pushback can make the Taliban rethink its burqa decree

Last week’s news that the Taliban was bringing back the burqa came as no surprise to anyone following the intensifying attacks against women in Afghanistan. Months of encroaching restrictions, backtracking on girls’ rights to education, and a passive and distracted international community, resigned to the fact that the Taliban is now de-facto in charge, led to a moment that we all feared.

Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, announced via the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that it is “required for all respectable Afghan women to wear a hijab.” A follow-up statement identified the chadori or burqa (the blue full-body veil) as the “best hijab” of choice.   

The edict then goes further. It also makes clear that women are no longer allowed to drive a car and can only leave home when necessary. All of this is bad enough. But in the most shocking abuse of power, the edict shifts all responsibility for women complying with this edict to men — with criminal consequences for the men if the women disobey. Male guardians (mahram) will be warned the first time a woman is caught without a hijab, summoned the second time, and imprisoned for three days for repeat offenses.

The edict takes the public misogyny of the Taliban’s leadership and implements it in private. It pits family members against each other and creates an environment that is essentially institutionalized domestic violence. It is gender apartheid of the most egregious form, unmatched by anything else in the world.

Long gone are the days the Taliban felt obliged to reassure the international community that they would protect women’s rights. They are emboldened by the lack of consequences for their actions and the toothless statements of concern and condemnation from global leaders.

Many argue that the hands of the international community are tied without troops on the ground. They are wrong. There is still leverage. The Taliban wants to be seen and recognized as a legitimate government, complete with respected diplomats and an international presence. This can, and must, be denied to them.

In parallel, the U.S. and its allies must oppose any renewal of the United Nations exemption to the international travel ban on Taliban leadership, scheduled to be reviewed again in June. The exemption was put in place to allow these individuals to participate in the “peace process” but Taliban actions over the past eight months have shown they have no peaceful intent. Allowing the exemption to continue for this reason is laughable. Similarly, the U.S. must apply the same strength and determination that it has shown in the Ukraine conflict to ensure financial sanctions against Taliban leadership continue. The international community must cite the Taliban’s egregious actions against women as justification for these restrictions.

There are also still practical ways of supporting women and girls in Afghanistan that the international community must not ignore. Palwasha Hassan, senior fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, told Mina’s List last month that many women’s groups have been forced to close or drastically cut back their services tailored for women due to lack of funding, on top of the extremely harsh operating environment. Donor governments must find ways to channel increased funding to women’s organizations, so they can provide services to women and girls in desperate need while continuing to push for the restoration of women’s rights.

In the U.S., the administration should immediately develop a legal mechanism that creates a pathway to safety for at-risk Afghan women activists, leaders and human rights defenders. In extraordinary displays of bravery, protests led by Afghan women’s civil society have continued, even against last week’s edict. Understandably, however, numbers of protestors are dwindling as they face harsher and more violent consequences including detention and torture. These women and other leaders, remain in desperate need of relocation — especially those with a history of leadership who were almost entirely left behind during evacuation efforts last August — and grow more desperate by the day.  

The “burqa edict” is not just an escalation in the oppression of women. It is a declaration of war against their basic humanity. And with it, the Taliban has exposed its true intentions. How we respond is essential not only to the women of Afghanistan but for women everywhere.

Passively accepting this edict and all that has led up to it, sends a message to the world that women are expendable. And if we fail to use every tool at our disposal to hold the Taliban accountable and support Afghan women and girls practically, we are complicit in their silencing and erasure.

Teresa Casale is Executive Director of Mina’s List, which has worked in Afghanistan since 2014 on advancing women’s participation in political leadership and the peace process.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated on May 18 at 9:34 a.m.

Tags Afghanistan Taliban Politics of the United States Taliban takeover Treatment of women by the Taliban Women's rights

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