Afghan journalists and activists have expressed concern over a new “religious guideline” issued by Taliban rulers, saying the movement is another form of control over women.
The Taliban, which took over Afghanistan about 100 days ago, on Sunday urged female journalists to follow a dress code and urged TV stations to stop showing soap operas with women, raising fears of women’s rights and media freedom.
Akif Muhajir, a spokesman for the Ministry of Promoting Virtue and Prevention of Charge, said “this is not rules but a religious guideline”.
Activists, however, fear it could be abused to harass female journalists, many of whom have already fled the country in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover on 15 August.
The Taliban have been accused of backing their pledge to protect women’s rights and media freedom. The latest move, which encouraged women to wear the hijab while presenting their reports, does not specify what type of cover they should wear.
Such restrictions, as well as a tightening of control over news reporting, have been made to preserve “national interest,” according to the group.
Zahra Nabi, a TV journalist who co-founded a women’s TV channel, said she felt in a corner when the Taliban resumed power and chose to go off the air the same day.
“All media are under their control [Taliban] control, ”Nabi, who established Baano TV in 2017, told Al Jazeera.
The network, once run by 50 women, was a symbol of how far Afghan women have come since the Taliban’s first attempt in power in the 1990s.
Since most of the network’s crew members are now gone, Nabi has stuck to doing her job, and like many other established journalists in Afghanistan, she has had to work under the radar.
“We work in a very harsh environment and even collect reports under the burqa,” Nabi said, referring to an outer garment worn to cover the entire body and face used by some Muslim women.
“It’s really hard for female journalists,” she said, citing a recent example where she had to enter the city of Kunduz as a humanitarian worker and not as a journalist.
“I do not show myself as a journalist. I had to arrange a safe office space with local women to work in, ”Nabi said.
Now that Baano TV is off, the 34-year-old said she is trying to find other ways to showcase her reports, perhaps through social media platforms or via broadcasters outside the country.
Commenting on the move, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday that the new strict guidelines would particularly hurt women.
“The Taliban’s new media rules and threats against journalists reflect broader efforts to curb any criticism of the Taliban regime,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at HRW.
“The disappearance of any room for disagreement and worsening restrictions for women in the media and art is devastating.”
Sonia Ahmadyar, a journalist who lost her job in August, said the Taliban has moved too slowly to “mumble the media”.
“Day by day, the Taliban have imposed restrictions on women” in order not to keep them active, “Ahmadyar told Al Jazeera.
Women “feel really discouraged about appearing on television,” she said, adding that the group has taken away their “freedom” as well as their financial autonomy.
The 35-year-old called on the Taliban to allow female journalists to resume work “without being harassed” as soon as possible.
“It is their most basic right because it is crucial to their livelihood and because their absence from the media landscape would have the effect of making all Afghan women silent,” she said.
‘Obliged to obey’
In the past, the Taliban has ruled that private media would be able to operate freely as long as they did not go against Islamic values. Within days of coming to power, the group had said the government would be governed by Islamic law.
But journalists and human rights activists have criticized the guidelines as vague, saying they are subject to interpretation.
It is still unclear whether it would attract legal scrutiny to go on the air without the hijab or broadcast foreign dramas with women.
Asked whether it would be a criminal offense to evade the guidelines, Muhajir of the Ministry of Promoting Virtue and Prevention of Last Al Jazeera said citizens are “obliged to obey the guidelines” without elaborating.
According to Heather Barr, co-director of the HRW’s Women’s Rights Department, the Taliban’s directive is just the latest step from the group to “delete women from public life”.
The move comes after the group excluded women from leading roles in government, abolished the Ministry of Women, women’s sports and the system set up to respond to gender-based violence, she said.
Almost immediately after taking power, the Taliban also instructed high school girls to stay home and not go to school. However, girls in parts of the country have now been allowed to resume teaching.
Although the vast majority of Afghan women cover their heads, there were some who did not. But whether they did or not – “it was important that it was their choice,” Barr said.
Shaqaiq Hakimi, a young Afghan activist, agreed.
“God gave us … the right to decide. So it should be nothing by force but theirs [women’s] own decision, ”she told Al Jazeera.
As the guidelines do not specify what type of headdress women are expected to wear, Taliban officials will feel “empowered to determine what is and is not acceptable hijab,” Barr said, leaving women vulnerable to being stopped and harassed. the street.
The consequences of such policing will force professional women to constantly wonder if their hijab is up to the Taliban’s standard.
This will have a “deeply cooling” effect on their ability to perform their jobs, according to Barr.
But women like Nabi said the restrictions will not deter her from doing her job.
“We are working, we will not stop and we will continue what we do,” she said. “That’s our plan.”
Hakimi reiterated Nabi’s sentiment, saying that if women stop fighting for their rights, “no one will give them to us”.
Additional reporting by Mohsin Khan Momand in Kabul