The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taliban ordered female newscasters to cover up. Men joined in protest.

Afghan male staff at ToloNews wear masks to show solidarity with female colleagues ordered to wear veils, at the studio in Kabul on May 23. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Taliban has ordered all female newscasters to cover their faces while on air, as part of broader rules requiring all women in Afghanistan to cover head to toe.

It’s dangerous for women to refuse to comply. So some male colleagues have donned face coverings in protest.

“We are in a deep grief today,” Khpolwak Sapai, deputy director of Afghanistan’s ToloNews, said in a Facebook post Sunday, the day after the Taliban’s edict went into effect.

He shared photos of male and female staff members sitting together in an office full of screens, all wearing black masks.

It’s a simple act but one that could come at a heavy price under the Taliban. The extremist group has whipped, beaten and arbitrarily detained journalists since it retook power nationwide in August.

Taliban orders head-to-toe coverings for Afghan women in public

The international community has refused to formally recognize the Taliban government because of its poor treatment of women, as well as its repression of religious minorities and political freedoms. The Taliban, citing a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law, has banned women from traveling without male guardians, and limited women’s and girls’ access to education and employment.

But as Afghanistan’s economy continues to crumble and its humanitarian crises grow, the group’s leaders have urged international donors to re-engage and send aid, arguing that they have changed since last in power during the 1990s.

Yet this messaging is rebutted by a decree issued May 7 ordering women to cover head to toe while in public — as was required when the Taliban last ruled — according to a statement from the United Nations mission in Afghanistan. “This decision contradicts numerous assurances regarding respect for and protection of all Afghans’ human rights, including those of women and girls, that had been provided to the international community by Taliban representatives.”

Taliban rule through the eyes of four women in Afghanistan

The decree did not at first apply to Afghanistan’s cohort of female journalists who came of age in the two decades of burgeoning freedoms following the Taliban’s initial ouster.

But on Thursday, the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue said it was extending the ruling to include female newscasters and anchors starting May 21. The ministry told Reuters that surgical masks could count as a face covering.

On Saturday, female news anchors briefly refused to comply. But by Sunday, they were presenting the news in face coverings after the Taliban ramped up pressure on media companies, ToloNews reported.

“I was called on the telephone yesterday and was told in strict words to do it,” Sapai of ToloNews told AFP. “So, it is not by choice but by force that we are doing it.”

The Taliban had previously required women to have their head covered in a veil while on air.

“It’s okay that we are Muslims, we are wearing hijab, we hide our hair, but it’s very difficult for a presenter to cover their face for two or three hours consecutively and talk like that,” Farida Sial, a presenter with ToloNews, told the BBC.

“They want to erase women from social and political life,” she added.

Photos of Afghan journalists, both male and female, wearing masks have circulated online under the English hashtag #freeherface.

“The rule blatantly violates women’s rights to freedom of expression, as well as personal autonomy and religious belief,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Monday.

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai told CNN on Friday that female television presenters should refuse to comply with the rule, as “it is not an Afghan tradition.”

Since the Taliban takeover, some 230 media outlets have closed, and more than 6,400 journalists lost their jobs, according to a December survey by Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association. Female journalists have been hit hardest, with 4 of every 5 no longer working in the field.

The United States is in “dialogue” over gender rights with Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban-led government’s foreign minister, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West said in a tweet Saturday.

West said he and Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls and human rights, spoke with Muttaqi on Saturday and “conveyed unified int’l [international] opposition to ongoing and expanding restrictions on women and girls’ rights and role in society.”

Washington withdrew its last troops from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, two weeks after the Taliban seized control of Kabul.

“Believe me, we lost our way,” Benazir Baktash, a 26-year-old local television presenter in Kabul, told The Washington Post after the May 7 announcement.

The Taliban is “busy with very small issues, and there is a lot of other things to be done for the country,” she said. “They should issue rulings to decrease poverty and help people find jobs.”