The Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued the decree on behalf of the Taliban on Saturday, May 7: The women of Afghanistan must now wear head-to-toe coverings whenever they’re in public—and should generally not be in public at all. The order represents a dramatic intensification of the Taliban’s already extreme patriarchal rule in the country, where the militant Islamist group retook power following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last August. On Tuesday, May 10, women marched through the streets of the capital, Kabul, to protest the new restrictions. Western leaders voiced their opposition. And the U.S. State Department called the Taliban’s treatment of women generally “an affront to human rights” that would continue to hinder Afghanistan’s relationship with other countries. Where is this going?

Heather Barr is the associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Barr says the government’s current policy and conduct represent an almost complete reversion to what life was like for women and girls when the Taliban was originally in power between 1996 and 2000—leaving many women and girls feeling they have nothing left to lose, and in some cases possibly nothing left to live for. It’s a disaster compounded by the fact that a generation of women and girls were able to take advantage of greater freedom and educational opportunities over the past two decades. As Barr sees it, there's still an opening for free countries around the world to pressure the Taliban meaningfully on women’s rights, but these countries have yet to show a real commitment to the kind of unified, strategic action that would take.

Graham Vyse: What has the Taliban done to implement the new decree?

Heather Barr: Taliban decrees are largely self-implementing. People tend to comply automatically, because the Taliban has such a fearsome history of terrorizing the Afghan public. Taliban supporters and sympathizers also take an active role in enforcing their orders, even without specific orders. One of the most pernicious aspects of this latest decree is that it forces all men to be complicit in its enforcement, making their female family members prisoners in their own homes.

What’s most important about the decree isn’t the rules about clothing; it’s that rule saying women shouldn’t leave their homes unless it’s necessary regardless of what they’re wearing—and it’s unclear whether the Taliban considers going to school or going to work necessary. All this represents a serious escalation in what was already horrifying, growing oppression by the Taliban since they took full control of the country on August 15.

Vyse: What do we know about the public reaction in Afghanistan to the decree?

Barr: We know there’s been at least one protest by women. It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously brave you have to be to protest an order like this. Women began protesting immediately after August 15, and the Taliban’s response has been brutal from the start. They beat protesters; they beat and detained journalists who covered the protesters. That kind of abuse escalated early this year, when they pepper-sprayed protesters in Kabul, beat them, threatened them, and followed some of them home. They detained a group of protesters for several weeks, too, releasing them only after coercing confessions from them.

Joel Heard

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