KABUL: The Taliban have ordered airlines in Afghanistan to stop women from flying unless accompanied by a male relative, in the latest crackdown on basic human rights by the country's new rulers since seizing power.
The hardline Islamists have imposed sweeping restrictions on freedoms, mostly targeting Afghan girls and women, and on Sunday (Mar 27) also ordered local television channels to stop broadcasting BBC news bulletins.
Over the weekend, they also decreed that men and women could not visit parks in the capital on the same days.
After returning to power, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh rule that characterised their first stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, but restrictions have crept back - often implemented regionally at the whim of local officials.
Women are increasingly being shut out of public life - barred from school and most government jobs, and ordered to dress according to the Taliban's strict interpretation of the Koran.
In their latest crackdown, the Taliban ordered Afghanistan's Ariana Afghan Airlines and Kam Air to stop women from boarding flights unless they were escorted by a "mahram", or adult male relative.
The decision was taken after a meeting on Thursday between representatives of the Taliban, the two airlines and Kabul airport immigration authorities, aviation officials told AFP.
"No women are allowed to fly on any domestic or international flights without a male relative," said a letter written by a senior official of Ariana Afghan Airlines to his staff, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
A spokesman for the Taliban's religious enforcers, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, denied ordering the flight ban, but two travel agents AFP contacted confirmed they had stopped issuing tickets to solo women travellers.
It was not clear if the edict would affect foreigners, although local media reported that an Afghan woman with a US passport was prevented from flying last week.
"Some women who were travelling without a male relative were not allowed to board a Kam Air flight from Kabul to Islamabad on Friday," a passenger on the flight told AFP.
The Taliban have already banned inter-city road trips for women travelling alone, but until now they were free to take flights.
The flight ban came as the vice ministry ordered that men and women should not visit parks in Kabul on the same days.
Women are now permitted to visit parks only on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, while the remaining days are reserved for men, a ministry notification said.
"It is not the Islamic Emirate's order but our God's order that men and women who are strangers to each other should not gather at one place," Mohammad Yahya Aref, an official at the ministry, told AFP.
The new restriction on women follows Wednesday's shutdown of all girls' secondary schools just hours after they were allowed to reopen for the first time since August.
Tens of thousands of girls had flocked back to class, but officials ordered them home just hours into the day, triggering international outrage.
Taliban sources said that the decision was taken after a closed-door meeting of the movement's top leaders last week in Kandahar, the de facto power centre of the group.
Several Afghan women activists have warned of nationwide protests if the schools were not open within a week.
Rina Amiri, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, said repressing Afghan women and girls was no substitute for governance.
"Create a culture of hope rather than one of fear," she said on Twitter.
The Taliban appear also to have set their sights on local media networks, which flourished under the previous US-backed regimes.
On Sunday, the authorities ordered the BBC's television partners in Afghanistan to stop broadcasting news bulletins in Pashto, Persian and Uzbek.
"Since the foreign TV channels are broadcast from abroad, the Islamic Emirate has no access to control their contents," government spokesman Inamullah Samangani told AFP.
The Taliban have already ordered women journalists working in Afghan television networks to wear hijabs, and stopped channels from broadcasting foreign dramas.