Many women already wear the burqa in rural areas. (Representational Image/ AP)
KABUL: The Taliban on Saturday imposed some of the harshest restrictions on Afghanistan's women since they seized power, ordering them to cover fully in public, ideally with the traditional burqa.
The militants took back control of the country in August last year, promising a softer rule than their previous stint in power between 1996 and 2001, which was marked by human rights abuses.
But they have already imposed a slew of restrictions on women -- banning them from many government jobs, secondary education, and from travelling alone outside their cities.
On Saturday, Afghanistan's supreme leader and Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada approved a strict dress code for women in public.
"Those women who are not too old or young must cover their face, except the eyes, as per sharia directives, in order to avoid provocation when meeting men who are not mahram (adult close male relatives)," said a decree approved by Akhundzada and released by Taliban authorities at a ceremony in Kabul.
It said the best way for a woman to cover her face and body was to wear the chadari, a traditional, blue, all-covering Afghan burqa.
"They should wear a chadari as it is traditional and respectful," it said.
Akhundzada's decree also said that if women had no important work outside then it was "better they stay at home".
The Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which released the new order, announced a slew of punishments if the dress code is not followed.
It said a woman's father or male guardian would be summoned and could even be imprisoned if the offence was committed repeatedly.
Women working in government institutions who did not follow the order "should be fired", the ministry added.
Government employees whose wives and daughters do not comply will also be suspended from their jobs, the decree said.
The new restrictions were expected to spark a flurry of condemnation abroad.
Many in the international community want humanitarian aid for Afghanistan and recognition of the Taliban government to be linked to the restoration of women's rights.
"It is an unexpeed regressive step and will not help Taliban in winning international recognition," said Imtiaz Gul, head of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies.
"Such steps will only intensify opposition to them."
During their first regime, the Taliban made the burqa compulsory for women.
Since their return to power, the much-feared vice ministry has issued several "guidelines" on dress but Saturday's edict is one of the harshest restrictions on women.
"Islam never recommended chadari," said a women's rights activist who asked not to be named.
"I believe the Taliban are becoming regressive instead of being progressive. They are going back to the way they were in their previous regime."
Another women's rights activist, Muska Dastageer, said Taliban rule had triggered "too much rage and disbelief".
"We are a broken nation forced to endure assaults we cannot fathom. As a people we are being crushed," she said on Twitter.
The hardline Islamists triggered international outrage in March when they ordered secondary schools for girls to shut, just hours after they reopened for the first time since their seizure of power.
Officials have never justified the ban, apart from saying girls' education must be according to "Islamic principles".
That ban was also issued by Akhundzada, according to several Taliban officials.
Women have also been ordered to visit parks in the capital on separate days from men.
Some Afghan women initially pushed back strongly against the restrictions, holding small demonstrations where they demanded the right to education and work.
But the Taliban cracked down on these unsanctioned rallies and rounded up several of the ringleaders, holding them incommunicado while denying they had been detained.
In the 20 years between the Taliban's two stints in power, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though the country remained socially conservative.
Many women already wear the burqa in rural areas.