Women must have male escorts during long taxi journeys, and election commissions are closed.
Even as they appeal to the international community to release frozen humanitarian aid funds and bank accounts, Taliban officials are taking new steps to restrict women’s freedoms and demolish democratic institutions, defying the top two international concerns that have kept most foreign aid at bay as a cold winter approaches for millions of Afghans.
Over the last week, the influential Ministry of Islamic Guidance published guidelines mandating women to wear complete head coverings in public taxis and to be accompanied by a male relative if they travel more than 45 kilometers. The rules further state that taxi drivers must refuse to transport female clients who do not comply and refrain from listening to music while driving since it is “un-Islamic.”
In the political sphere, Taliban spokespeople announced the closure of two national election supervision bodies and two cabinet departments. One long-standing ministry dealt with legislative matters; the second was established in 2019 to promote peace during the prolonged — and ultimately failed — talks to end the 20-year conflict between Islamist rebels and Western-backed government troops.
These activities come on the heels of a number of previous acts, including the military occupation and shutdown of the national independent bar organization. Rights organizations and observers regard the steps as evidence that Afghanistan’s new, highly conservative Islamist rulers are tightening and broadening their hold over society, despite earlier assurances of forbearance after taking power in mid-August.
“The Taliban are reverting to their repressive policies of the past, shattering the myth of a kinder and more moderate Taliban 2.0,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. Even if their leaders carry cellphones and laptops now, he added, “they feel emboldened, and they are not about to change the ideology that defined them” when they held power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001.
According to Kugelman and others, Taliban leaders do not appear to be very concerned about the impending humanitarian disaster, which foreign relief agencies estimate will envelop the poor, drought-stricken nation of 39 million this winter. They imply that the Taliban’s demands for the release of foreign cash are more of a battle of wills — a game of chicken with the West — than a genuine expression of concern about the country’s crumbling economy and growing levels of hunger and cold.
In an interview this week, the Taliban’s deputy spokesperson, Bilal Karimi, stated that while his government “appreciates” foreign help, it is attempting to “handle” the present humanitarian situation with its own resources and charities. “We want to solve problems via dialogue, and we want to have good ties with the rest of the world,” he continued, “but the rest of the world must also desire good relations with us.”
When asked about the new limits on women, he stated that his administration is “even more devoted to women’s rights than others” and that there are “no barriers” to women working or studying as long as they are physically segregated from males.
“We fought for 20 years for an Islamic system,” he said. “We are still working on putting the mechanisms in place, but we need more time.”
Karimi stated that he had “no clue” of the new travel limits for women outlined in a handwritten directive issued by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. “This is an Islamic society, and it is natural for women to wear hijab anyhow,” he said, adding that the ministry’s statements are “recommendations, not requirements.”
Human rights groups, on the other hand, compared the new rules to the draconian restrictions imposed on women’s activities during the first Taliban regime, when those who ventured outdoors without a male relative, or who failed to cover their faces and bodies with voluminous burqas, risked being punished with lashings by vigilantes from the same ministry.
“This will have a huge impact on women and girls. It will make it difficult for those who want to study at universities away from home, and it will stop those fleeing to escape domestic violence,” said Heather Barr, an official of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch in New York. “This is another move toward making girls and women prisoners in their own homes, and a signal that more such violations may be coming.”
In Kabul this week, lines of male taxi drivers waited at busy outdoor bazaars, calling out their destinations, and groups of women crammed inside them with their purchases. One young woman in a fashionable outfit and makeup, sorting through a sidewalk table of secondhand sweaters, said she was very upset about the new travel rules.
“The situation is getting more and more difficult for us,” said Shaqaf Salah, who said she was forced to quit pre-med studies. “I am married and educated, and still I have no rights. I was a very good student, and now I am sitting at home. My husband is with me today, but what if he wasn’t? How would I get out of the house?”
On Wednesday, a group of approximately 50 women staged a brief demonstration in downtown Kabul, demanding that the US and other foreign governments give funding to the Afghan government. They said that women bore the weight of poverty and want the freedom to work, but they blamed the West primarily, and they carried banners that read, “Joe Biden, my children have nothing to eat.” The Biden administration has withheld more than $8 billion in Afghan government assets, however it has begun to redirect monies to humanitarian relief programs.