Panicked Afghans by the thousands tried to escape their country as the United States evacuated last year. They feared that a victorious Taliban would offer no more respect for basic rights, especially those of women, than the movement did when it ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. For its part, the Taliban issued soothing promises of an “inclusive” government that would eschew the executions, persecution and forced veiling of women that marked its first reign.
Those who fled distrusted the Taliban, and evidence is mounting that they were right. Having announced in March that it would break a promise to reopen secondary schools to girls, the Taliban on May 7 ordered almost all Afghan women to wear clothing that covers them from head to toe, preferably the shapeless garment known as a burqa. The decree further urged women to stay home except when necessary, and made their male relatives — “guardians” — legally responsible for violations of the dress code. It amounts to quasi-house arrest for half the country’s people.
Small but courageous groups of women staged protest marches in Kabul on Tuesday. In at least one instance, they were met by Taliban operatives, who threatened to shoot them, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — though there were apparently no casualties or reported arrests. Other women in Kabul appear to be resisting the new edict passively, refusing to don a burqa and continuing to travel through the city unaccompanied, according to a May 8 Associated Press report. The Taliban has not yet enforced the rule strictly, though whether because of some unofficial grace period or because of policy disagreements within the ruling group is impossible to say.
What is clear is that women must fear enforcement, because hard-line opposition to their freedom is now the Taliban’s official declared position. “Islamic principles and Islamic ideology are more important to us than anything else,” said Shir Mohammad, a spokesman for the Taliban Ministry for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. Theocracy of this stripe is wrong in principle. In this case, moreover, the Taliban appears to be articulating its own extreme traditions rather than any religious consensus. Of course, there is no opportunity for democratic discussion on such matters in Afghanistan, since the ultimate decision-maker is the Taliban’s leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is not only unelected but also — almost literally — invisible. He has appeared in public only twice since 2016; subordinates issued the new decree in his name.
The Taliban’s reversion to repressive type presents a challenge for the United States and other democratic countries, which — laudably — decried this latest broken promise. The U.N. Security Council took up the matter Thursday at the request of Norway, but at a closed session. The Biden administration has conditioned diplomatic recognition and economic aid on Taliban respect for human rights. Though a difficult line to draw, given the Afghan people’s desperate humanitarian needs, the United States has been right to draw it; this country and its allies cannot bankroll a regime that so blatantly subjugates women. We, too, have basic principles to uphold.