Afghan journalists and activists have expressed concern over a new “religious guideline” issued by Taliban rulers, saying the move is another form of control over women.
The Taliban, as 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 to women, raising fears about women’s rights and media freedom.
Akif Muhajir, a spokesman for the Ministry of Virtue Promotion and Prevention, said “these are not rules but a religious guideline”.
However, activists fear that 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 August 15.
The Taliban have been accused of backing down on their promise to protect women’s rights and media freedom. The latest move, which urged women to wear the hijab when presenting their reports, does not specify the type of protection to be worn.
Such restrictions, as well as stricter control of news reporting, have been made to preserve “national interest”, according to the group.
“Munka in media”
Zahra Nabi, a broadcast journalist who co-founded a women’s television channel, said she felt cornered when the Taliban regained power and chose to step down the same day.
“All media are under their control [Taliban] control, ”Nabi, who established Baano TV 2017, told Al Jazeera.
The network, which was once run by 50 women, was a symbol of how far Afghan women have come since the Taliban’s first coup in the 1990s.
With most of the network’s crew members now gone, Nabi has continued to do her job, and like many other established journalists in Afghanistan, she has had to work under the radar.
“We work in a very tough environment and even collect reports under the burqa,” said Nabi, referring to an outer garment worn to cover the entire body and face used by some Muslim women.
“It is really difficult for female journalists,” she said, citing a recent example in which 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 with local women a safe office space to work in,” said Nabi.
Now that Baano TV is switched off, the 34-year-old said that she is trying to find other ways to show her reports, perhaps through social media platforms or via transmitters outside the country.
Commenting on the move, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday that the new strict guidelines will particularly hurt women.
“The Taliban’s new media rules and threats against journalists reflect broader efforts to silence all criticism of the Taliban regime,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asian director at HRW.
“The disappearance of space for dissent 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 had pulled out to “clamshell the media” slowly.
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 by being seen on TV,” she said, adding that the group has taken away their “freedom” as well as their financial autonomy.
The 35-year-old urged the Taliban to allow female journalists to resume their work “without being harassed” as soon as possible.
“It is their most fundamental right, because it is crucial for their livelihood, and for their absence from the media landscape to have the effect of silencing all Afghan women,” she said.
“obliged to obey”
In the past, the Taliban have stated that private media could operate freely as long as they do not go against Islamic values. Within days of coming to power, the group had said the government would be guided 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 broadcasting without a hijab or broadcasting foreign dramas with women would attract legal scrutiny.
Asked whether avoiding the guidelines would be punishable by law, Muhajir from the Ministry of Promoting Virtue and Prevention of Vices told Al Jazeera that citizens are “obliged to obey the guidance”, without developing it.
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 “erase women from public life.”
The move comes after the group excluded women from higher roles in the government, abolished the Ministry of Women, women’s sports and the system set up to address gender-based violence, she said.
Almost immediately after taking power, the Taliban also instructed high school girls to do so stay home and do not go to school. But now girls in parts of the country have had to resume lessons.
Although the vast majority of Afghan women cover their heads, some 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 not be something by force, but theirs [women’s] own decision, she tells Al Jazeera.
Because the guidelines do not specify the type of head covering women are expected to wear, Taliban officials will feel “justified in deciding what is and is not acceptable hijab,” Barr said, making women vulnerable to being stopped and harassed on the street.
The consequences of such policing will force professional women to constantly wonder if their hijab meets the Taliban’s standard.
This will have a “deeply disappointing” effect on their ability to perform their job, 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