Anna Frediani is a French undergraduate studying Economics & Management at King’s and Economics & Political Science at Panthéon-Sorbonne University. She would love to pursue a career in the United Nations as she is passionate about gender studies and international relations.
Following the announcement of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Taliban forces quickly took control of most areas within the country. In several regions, the Taliban has executed government officials and members of the security forces. The fighting in 2020 and 2021 resulted in a peak of civilian casualties, both from Taliban and Islamic State attacks as well as from government air strikes.
Since the proclamation of a decree by the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice on May 9th, Afghan women are now required to cover their faces in public spaces; this obligation also now applies to female television presenters. Therefore, Afghan women can only show their eyes on air, whereas they were previously allowed to wear a headscarf that covered their hair. The Taliban favour the traditional burqa, which was compulsory during the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001.
This ban clearly represents a new stage in the invisibilisation process of women in the public and media space. Some female presenters had initially chosen not to comply with the injunction, fearing that if they did, the next step would be to ban them from working (according to Abid Ehsas, head of news at Shamshad TV). However, this was followed by direct pressure on the TV stations’ management, which eventually forced the presenters to abide by the Taliban’s demands.
Additionally, the Taliban had reportedly ordered for women working in the government to be dismissed if they do not follow the new dress code. Similarly, male employees can also face getting fired if their wives or daughters do not comply. However, the spokesman for the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Mohammad Sadeq Akif Mohajir, declared that the authorities had no intention of forcing female presenters to quit their jobs.
ToloNews, one of the country’s few independent channels, was forced to execute the decree by force, according to its news director Khpolwak Sapai. Being the country’s most watched channel, the message sent by the Taliban is strong, especially since only a privileged minority has access to social media in Afghanistan.
As a sign of protest, several male journalists and local personalities have chosen to wear masks and started the #FreeHerFace movement on social media platforms.
According to Heather Barr, Associate Director of the Women’s Rights unit and Afghanistan Specialist at Human Rights Watch, this is their first protest movement on social media since the Taliban returned to power. Indeed, she points out the uniqueness and novelty of men mobilising in solidarity with the Afghan women.
Heather Barr explains that if Afghan women do not comply with this obligation, it is not them but their ‘guardians’ – the men in their families – who will be condemned. This makes it even more difficult for these men to resist, as many fear reprisals and thus force their wives, daughters, or sisters to comply with the decree.