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How some in Afghanistan have reacted to the burqa mandate

(LONDON) — The burqa mandate is back in Afghanistan, and, with it, a wave of disappointment and distress taking over the lives of millions of people in the country who do not believe in hijab.

Earlier this month, on May 7, the Vice and Virtue Ministry of the Taliban issued a decree saying all women in the country have to cover themselves head to toe. The decree says it is to protect the women’s “dignity” and called for those women who do not follow the hijab in government agencies to be dismissed.

“For all dignified Afghan women, wearing hijab is necessary and the best hijab is chadori (the head-to-toe burqa) which is part of our tradition and is respectful,” said Shir Mohammad, an official from the Vice and Virtue Ministry, in the statement.

The ministry updated the mandate on Sunday, May 22, requiring all TV presenters in Afghanistan to keep their faces covered while on-camera.

These announcements led to reactions among the international community and human rights groups. Many male TV presenters stood by their female colleagues by covering their faces with masks during their time on-camera.

The solidarity moved to social media, where the hashtag #FreeHerFace became popular.

Khpalwak Safi, broadcaster of Afghanistan’s leading Tolo TV, was among the figures who covered his face to show solidarity with female journalists. The move was welcomed by his colleagues.

On Wednesday, the official Twitter account of TOLO News called for the related officials and institutions to hear their message.

“It’s time for foreign governments to do much more to raise their concerns. Diplomats meeting with the Taliban should signal support for the #FreeHerFace campaign and speak out publicly against the Taliban’s intensifying violations of the rights of women and girls,” the Human Rights Watch wrote on May 23.

“This latest order is part of steady flow of Taliban actions that have blocked girls’ secondary education, pushed women out of most employment, curtailed women’s freedom of movement, obstructed women’s access to health care, and abolished the system designed to protect women and girls from violence,” the rights organization said.

Among those who showed solidarity was Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala Yousafzai’s father, the Peace Nobel laureate who has been advocating for girls’ education.

“Faces are windows to our souls and personalities. Our faces are our identities. It is our basic human right to show our identities. Also when girls are enrolled in schools they get an identity,” he tweeted with the hashtag #FreeHerFace.

“It is always a surprise to me to see this kind of restriction and focus on women when we have about a 95% poverty rate in the country,” Payvand Seyedali, an American health and human rights activist who has lived in Afghanistan for the past decade consulting with NGOs, told ABC News.

According to the mandate, if women reject covering head-to-toe, the first step would be to identify the house of the unveiled women. However, the mandate says, “their guardian should be advised and punished,” not the women themselves.

If the same woman is seen again without the Taliban’s standard dress code, their guardian will be summoned to the relevant department. The guardian then will be detained for three days and will finally be handed over to the courts to be sentenced to an appropriate punishment.

“The most important observation for me is how humiliating it is for women to not be able to be accountable for their own actions,” Seyedali said, addressing the consequences of prosecuting guardians rather than women themselves.

“On the other hand,” she added, “you also see that women are forced to make decisions that they don’t want to make for the benefit of their families. There is no girl and no woman in this country who wants to see her brother go to jail, who wants to see her father go to jail.”

The U.S. Amnesty International asked the international community to “hold the Taliban accountable.”

“Despite the Taliban’s continued assurances that they respect the rights of women and girls, millions of women and girls have been systematically discriminated against since the Taliban became the de-facto authorities,” the organization wrote in a tweet.

The burqa mandate comes after the restrictions on Afghanistan women’s freedom of movement as the Taliban had prohibited them from travelling out of their town without a male guardian. The other major restriction has been closing schools for girls after the sixth grade.

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