Afghan Taliban order female TV presenters to cover faces on air
Women journalists describe new directive a 'psychological prison'
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The move comes days after authorities ordered women to cover their faces in public, a return to a policy of the Taliban's past rule and an escalation of restrictions that are causing anger at home and abroad.
"Yesterday we met with media officials... they accepted our advice very happily," Akif Mahajar, spokesman for the Taliban's Ministry of Vice and Virtue, said on Thursday.
While he framed the move as "advice", Mahajar added: "The last date for face covering for TV presenters is May 21," referring to when compliance with the new requirement should begin.
He did not respond to a query on what the consequences would be of not following the advice.
Most Afghan women wear a headscarf for religious reasons, but many in urban areas such as Kabul do not cover their faces. During the Taliban's last rule from 1996 to 2001, it was obligatory for women to wear the all-encompassing blue burqa.
Mahajar said female presenters could wear a medical face mask, as has been widely used during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Women in Afghanistan had pursued work and education after the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 following a US-led invasion, endeavours that were forbidden to them under Taliban rule at the time.
The Taliban said it has changed since its last rule, but recently added regulations such as limiting women's movement without a male chaperone. Older girls above 13 years old have also yet to be allowed back to schools and colleges.
A local television channel's female employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told British news agency that Taliban officials had visited their office on Wednesday. "Today (Thursday) the production department wore masks but the news office continued as usual," the employee said.
Some channels have already begun implementing the new rule.
It's a somber Thursday morning at TOLOnews, Afghanistan's leading independent news channel. The staff was told the day before that the Taliban have ordered female presenters to cover their faces on air.
In the newsroom, headquartered in central Kabul, two presenters break down in tears in conversation with CNN. "They want women to be removed from the screen. They are afraid of an educated woman," says 27-year-old Khatera, who has been anchoring the morning news for the past five months.
"First, they deprived girls from going to school and then they came onto media now. I am sure, they don't want the presence of women in general," she adds.
Station director Khpolwak Sapai tells the team that he considered just closing down after receiving the directive, but then thought that female staff who are willing to anchor with their faces hidden should be allowed to do so.
Previously, female presenters had already adjusted to the Taliban's takeover by moving their headscarves to hide their hair.
The international community has made clear that respecting women's rights and girls' education will be a key condition to the recognition that Afghanistan's new rulers seek.
But many Afghan women fear what the future holds.
The latest directive adds to a long list of challenges that Afghanistan's leading independent news channel has contended with over the past nine months, including seeing more than 90% of its staff flee the country following the Taliban's arrival.
"All of my reporters that used to work in this room — all presenters, male and female — left," Sapai tells CNN in an interview in his office. "And all the producers... All human resources working at TOLOnews left. At management level, "I stood alone," Sapai says, "I was only thinking how to keep the screen alive [and] not to go dark... I can't believe I did it."
Amid the chaos, Sapai didn't have time to be scared for his own safety as he focused on how to keep the lights on.
Now the network's female presenters, who enjoyed their rights for 20 years, fear a steep slide backwards.
"What should we do? We don't know. We were ready to the last to fight to perform our work, but they don't allow us," 23-year-old news anchor Tahmina says in tears. "This is a psychological prison and demotivating," she adds. "We don't have the motivation to go on screen freely and openly."
Her colleague Heela, who used to be on camera, is working as a producer now out of fears for her safety.
Her fears are not unfounded. In the past five years alone, 24 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, according to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Still, the network hosts on-air debates about the Taliban's dress code edicts and whether they're Islamic. And they even invite Taliban officials to debate these issues, sometimes with a female presenter.
Across town, the Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid attends a meeting with local journalists to belatedly mark World Press Freedom Day, which was on May 3. We stop him on the way in to ask why women have to cover their faces.
"It's advisory from the ministry," he says. When asked whether it is compulsory, Mujahid replies that "they should wear it," and likens it to the use of masks during the pandemic. "Like during the Covid pandemic, mask was mandatory."