The ruling Taliban ordered local television channels in Afghanistan Thursday to ensure that female program presenters cover their faces while on screen, increasing curbs on women's rights despite a global outcry.
Afghan media outlets confirmed that they had received the edict from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, charged with interpreting and enforcing the Taliban's version of Islamic Shariah law.
The country's Tolo News television said in a statement that ministry officials had called the new order "a final verdict and not up for discussion." The media outlet wrote on Twitter the "new order demanded all female presenters working in all TV channels to cover their faces while presenting programs."
Ministry spokesperson Akif Sadiq confirmed to VOA that it had directed all domestic media outlets in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to bar female staff from broadcasting unless their faces are covered.
Critics slammed the continued Taliban crackdown on women's rights.
"In addition to violating women's rights to freedom and expression, this will also block access to information for people with impaired hearing who lip read and ... people who rely on visual speech cues to help them understand people on TV," wrote Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch on Twitter.
Since regaining power in August 2021, the interim male-only Taliban government has subjected women to a series of onerous curbs.
Afghan women have been ordered to wear head-to-toe garments covering their faces when in public. Male guardians of those not complying with the decree could be sentenced to jail for three days or more.
Most women have been told not to return to their workplace or undertake long road trips unless accompanied by a close male relative. Secondary school girls over the age of twelve have not been allowed to resume classes.
The crackdown on women's rights has outraged Afghan activists and the international community. But the Taliban have defended the measures as in accordance with Afghan culture and Islamic tradition, a position repudiated by some Islamic law scholars who say the gender-specific dress codes are inspired only by rural Afghan norms.
Most Taliban leaders have reportedly been educated at religious seminaries in rural parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Thursday's edict comes as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, is visiting the country, where he met with Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and other Taliban leaders.
Bennett discussed the issue of human rights, particularly those of women.
Muttaqi's office said in a post-meeting statement that he asked Bennett to look at the rights situation in the Muslim nation through the lens of local attitudes and customs.
"Minister Muttaqi asked Mr. Bennett to report objectively & not based on statements by media, antagonist circles & self-exiled opposition," the Taliban foreign ministry wrote on Twitter.
Bennett's visit coincided with the Taliban's announcement on Tuesday that they had dissolved the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). The U.N. envoy criticized the move on Thursday.
"The abolition of is a massive setback," Bennett tweeted. "An independent domestic mechanism to monitor & promote human rights & receive complaints is critical for human rights protection in Afghanistan. Following up with defacto authorities."
'The AIHRC performed extraordinary work in extremely difficult conditions over many years, shining a spotlight on the human rights of all Afghans, including victims on all sides of the conflict," said UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in a statement released Thursday. 'The AIHRC has been a powerful voice for human rights and a trusted partner of UN Human Rights, and its loss will be a deeply retrograde step for all Afghans and Afghan civil society.'
The Taliban have also closed several other bodies that worked for the promotion of the freedom of Afghans, including the electoral commission and the ministry for women's affairs, since taking over Afghanistan in August.