afghanistan school girls protest
© Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP
Afghan women and girls take part in a protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul on March 26, 2022, demanding that high schools be reopened for girls
Afghanistan's supreme leader has ordered the country's women to cover their faces in public - one of the harshest restrictions imposed on them since the Taliban seized power last year and an escalation of growing restrictions on women that is drawing a backlash from the international community and many Afghans.

Comment: As we've learnt with the Russia sanctions, 'the international community' isn't always the most impartial judge. Moreover, all things considered - including the two-decade war, the country's history, religion, customs - is this so 'harsh'? From a Western perspective it may be, but then there are numerous customs and rules enforced throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, that aren't congruent with Western values.

The Taliban have currently banned girls from attending secondary school - but not from primary or tertiary education - claiming that they can cannot yet guarantee their safety, and this followed a bombing attack that killed 85 people, injured 160, with the majority of those being girls between the age of 12-20 years.

"They should wear a chadori (head-to-toe burqa) as it is traditional and respectful," said a decree issued by Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhunzada that was released by authorities at a function in Kabul on Saturday.

Comment: Documentary interviews of women forced to wear the chadori reveal that they find it to extremely uncomfortable and cumbersome, and they don't seem to particularly like wearing it at all.

A spokesman for the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice read the decree from Akhunzada at a media conference, saying that a woman's father or closest male relative would be visited and eventually imprisoned or fired from government jobs if she did not cover her face outside the home.

The spokesman added that the ideal face covering is the burqa, which became a global symbol of the Taliban's previous hardline rule from 1996 until 2001. Most women in Afghanistan wear a headscarf, but many in urban areas, such as Kabul, do not cover their faces.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Fawzia Koofi, former Afghanistan parliament deputy speaker, said the Taliban's decrees regarding women can only be regarded as "oppression and repression".

"The question is, in the middle of all this suffering for Afghan people, why is the issue of women the only one taking priority," asked Koofi, while referring to the deepening economic crisis across the country.

"The biggest challenge women face every day is the lack of jobs and economic crisis," she said.

Comment: Indeed, men too; and the US theft of $7 billion from Afghanistan's central bank and the disruption of aid has made the situation many times worse.

Since taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban have reintroduced draconian restrictions on freedoms and movements, particularly directed at women, that are reminiscent of their last rule in the 1990s.

Comment: The Taliban also announced that amputations and beheadings will be brought back as forms of criminal punishment (which will mostly effect men). Although Saudi Arabia is currently topping the charts with the execution of 81 men in one day in May 2021.

Over the last few months, Taliban leaders, particularly from the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, have announced many new restrictions, even as criticism and international pressure mounts against them.

In December, the ministry, which replaced the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs, imposed restrictions on women from travelling further than 72km (45 miles) without a close male relative.

"Many months into their reign of power in Afghanistan, the Taliban have imposed one of the most iconic aspect of their rule from the 1990s, which is forcing women to cover their faces in public, and it's clearly aimed at controlling women who have been the most troublesome section of the population," said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

"If we see any of the demonstrations that have taken place since August when the Taliban took over, it's been women and girls at the forefront, and this is intended to ensure that women have no public face. The Taliban believe that the woman's place is in the home. She should not come out without a close male relative, and if she does come out, she should cover her face," she told Al Jazeera.

This restriction was further expanded to include travelling abroad, and several solo women travellers were reportedly stopped from boarding flights. Similar bans were also introduced in several healthcare centres across the country, forbidding women to access healthcare without a mahram (male chaperone).

In January, a group of 36 UN human rights experts said that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are institutionalising large-scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.

Comment: Similar bans on the freedoms of women are in force in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"We are concerned about the continuous and systematic efforts to exclude women from the social, economic, and political spheres across the country," the experts said in a statement.

A surprise U-turn in March in which the group shuttered girls' high schools on the morning they were due to open drew the ire of the international community and prompted the United States to cancel planned meetings on easing the country's financial crisis.

The country has been reeling from a humanitarian crisis with more than half of the population facing hunger. The Taliban has struggled to revive the aid-dependent economy, which is in freefall due to sanctions and exclusion from international financial institutions.

The US and other nations have cut development aid and enforced strict sanctions on the banking system since the Taliban took over in August, pushing the country towards economic ruin.