By: Ziba Balkhi
Forced to remain mostly at home since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August last year, Somaiya Shams* is devastated by the encroaching restrictions that the Taliban continue to introduce.
Now if she goes outside, Somaiya, 22, now has to wear a burqa, something she never had to wear before. She calls it a “mobile prison” from which she watches the world through to small holes of the blue prison grate covering her eyes.
As a civil activist in Balkh Province before the fall of the Taliban, she had fought many battles for human rights before. But she never believed that one day she would be fighting against something as basic as being forced to wear a burqa.
It’s been a fortnight since the residents of Kart-e-Solh area in Mazar-e-Sharif were warned on a Monday evening by the local Taliban through the mosque loudspeaker that women should not leave the house without wearing a niqab – a head covering that only allows eyes to be visible. Around the same time, the Taliban had been warning local shopkeepers (can you add a link to the Rukhshana Story?) to not do business with women who are not wearing their preferred hijab – an all-covering black hijab.
Women in Balkh Province say that the Taliban’s treatment of women is simply oppressive and inhuman under a pretext of morality and the hijab. The women who shared their experience with Rukhshana Media say there’s been beatings, death threats, and insults from the Taliban levelled at any woman who they decide is not properly dressed. These women say the hijab is an excuse but the ultimate goal is to suppress women.
Last week, Somaiya was walking towards the center of the city with her friend in the Zargari area near Darwaz-e-Shadian when a Taliban man with a gun stopped them. Somaiya was wearing a burqa, and her friend was wearing a black hijab. But not a niqab.
“The Taliban stopped us on the way and called her some very disgusting words,” she says. “He called her a whore in the market.”
Somiaya says she argued with the Talib to defend her friend, but then he also turned on her and was threatened with his gun.
“I was so angry when I heard such loathsome words from the Taliban forces, calling a respectable, honorable, and educated lady who is a doctor, ‘a prostitute’”, she says “When I stood up to them and said, what’s wrong with this hijab? You wouldn’t believe that even pointed a gun at me and warned me to be careful or they’ll empty the gun on me.”
The Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice calls the hijab a divine law and shari’a order. For this reason, they have decreed women must wear their prescribed clothing and if not, they will punish offenders. The burqa and black niqab are the preferred Islamic veil by the Taliban. And while not decreed, they also prefer plain clothes. Women have reported being harassed by Taliban for wearing colours in some cities and government institutions.
The Taliban’s restrictions reach much further than simply clothing, and Somiaya says that she is fed up with living under the shadow of the Taliban.
“The Taliban use ugly words at us for only a tiny thing like some visible hair or under any other pretext,” she says.
Fatima*, 24, tells Rukhshana Media that she had a family member who was travelling in the car with her fiancé when the Taliban stopped them.
“My family relative had gone out with her fiancé while wearing a regular hijab, so her face was visible” she says. “A Taliban vehicle made them pull over and they were asked about their relationship.”
The Taliban did not believe that they were engaged. They set upon both of the couple, slapping the woman and beating the man to the point where he had to be hospitalised. The Taliban forces said it was her fiancé’s fault for allowing her to leave the house without a proper veil. According to the Taliban, the male chaperone must supervise the type of clothing worn by the woman and if its deemed inappropriate, he will also be punished.
“They were trying to force the woman to get into their vehicle in any way possible,” Fatima says. “But she was refusing and fighting them, then people started gathering around them. After a lot of arguing and complaining, then the Taliban forces leave the area.”
Rukhshana Media has spoken to at least eight women with all similar stories of abuse and mistreatment from the Taliban.
Najia*, 21, witnessed a woman being beaten by Taliban forces because she did not wear a niqab.
“I wanted to go to Rawzia or Sakhi shrine with a friend,” she says. “When I got near the gate of the shrine, there was a woman in front of me who was wearing a facemask but not a niqab.”
“The Taliban forces told her that they will not allow her to enter without a niqab,” she says. “She pretended not to hear of what the Taliban forces told her because the Taliban insulted her so much that I can’t even tell you. There is no ugly word left that they did not call that lady.”
According to Najia, when the woman ignored the Taliban, the guard at the gate, who was also a Taliban force, slapped the woman several times.
“The guard brought up his weapon and threatened the woman with it. He told her, “If you don’t leave here, we will shoot you,” she says.
On another occasion, Najia was walking with her friend inside the mosque when the Taliban men there started staring at them.
“One of them said to the other, ‘They came from abroad, they came from Europe.’ They told us to get out of the mosque or we’ll get kicked. With an ugly tone, they showed the weapons in their hands and indicated that if we don’t leave, they will hit us with it.”
Zarghuna*, 22, also said that she was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint a few days ago because she did not have a niqab, and she was refused to be allowed to continue to travel.
“They even took me out of the car and told me to go home again,” she says. “They even threatened to kill me. They said that if they see me without a niqab again, they will pull out my eyeballs with their weapons,” she says.
Others have witnessed men being arrested by the Taliban forces because of their female companions.
Sajida Karimi* says that she saw a 50-year-old man arrested by Taliban forces in a shopping mall in Mazar-e-Sharif because the woman he was with wasn’t wearing an appropriate veil, according to them.
“The girl did not have a mask and had a little make-up. Again, the Taliban forces used ugly words for the lady and took away the man who was with her,” she says.
The morality police in Mazar-e-Sharif city has ordered the shopkeepers to not sell to women who do not adhere to their prescribed hijab.
A number of shopkeeprs say the Taliban morality police tell them every day not to have any dealings with women without “proper” veils. They are threatened that if they don’t follow this, their shops will be identified and shut.
Sakina*, 30, sells cosmetics in one of the stores in Mazar-e-Sharif. She says that the Taliban morality police come to her store every day.
“The Taliban morality police monitor the shops daily. If a shopkeeper does not close the shop during the call to prayer or if they sell to women who don’t adhere to the Taliban prescribed hijab, the shop is forced shut on the spot.”
Sakina says that she witnessed that the Taliban arrest a man who came to the store with three women in his family because one of the women was not wearing a niqab.
“When the Taliban morality police saw them like that, they yelled at ladies and took the man away with them,” she says. “The ladies bought niqabs from the shop and went after the Taliban forces screaming and crying until they set their brother free.”
She says, if a woman comes to the shop and doesn’t wear the hijab required by the Taliban, she will be insulted with abusive words by the morality police.
“I myself have witnessed many girls who came wearing a hijab but did not have a niqab or burqa. The Taliban are extremely rude to them called them very ugly words in front of them.”
Masooma*, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif city, says she has also witnessed maltreatment of women by Taliban forces at Balkh City Center Market. A young woman who was dressed in more fashionable clothing but without a niqab was stopped by the morality police. They began to publicly abuse her for her clothing, under the pretext of wearing an inappropriate hijab. They insulted her and tried to humiliate her with degrading words and accusations.
Masooma says some people gathered around to watch, but no one dared to defend her.
Note*: The names of the interviewees have been chosen as pseudonyms at their request.