Afghanistan's Culture and Information Ministry has defended its request that female television presenters wear head scarves and avoid heavy makeup, which one newscaster has warned will contribute to her feeling of "being caged."
The controversy arose after the ministry, acting on complaints that female presenters were not observing Islamic and cultural norms, made the request in a letter distributed to state and private media earlier this week.
The move was criticized by journalists and characterized by some as an effort by the Afghan authorities to placate the Taliban amid reported peace negotiations involving Afghan and U.S. officials with the Islamist group.
Culture and Information Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin said on February 15 that attempts by Western media to link the move to the reported talks were "disgusting and hateful."
Rahin, who has held his ministerial post since 2010, touted his ministry's accomplishments and vowed to defend them.
"We are proud of our achievements made during the past 10 years. We are prepared to make all sacrifices to protect them," Rahin said, adding that the protection of "free speech, women's rights, and human rights are some of those achievements."
Rahin said that female newsreaders should appear different from actresses in movies and television soap operas, and added that most private channels were in agreement on the need to observe Afghan cultural and religious norms.
Women Already Under Pressure
But Nasrin, a newscaster at Kabul's Ariana Television Network, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that female presenters already faced a lot of family and societal pressure because of their high-profile jobs.
The additional restrictions, she said, would have a negative impact on their performance.
"Imposing more restrictions on presenters adds to their feeling of being caged," she said. "It prevents them from performing their jobs, such as reading news, well. And they will feel more uncomfortable."
Many of the country's private channels are operated by Saad Mohseni, one of Afghanistan's main media moguls. Mohseni says that one has to consider the pressure the minister faces in the current environment, in which religious conservatism has risen in the past few years.
Mohseni says that all of the female presenters working for the channels owned by his Moby Media Group, Lemar and Tolo TV, wear head scarves on the air. He suggests that the ministry's letter targeted a handful of channels that it deemed were "going overboard."
More than two dozen television stations have appeared in the decade since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the hard-line Islamic Taliban regime.
While Afghan women have regained many fundamental rights, analysts say their plight remains severe and their future uncertain as the issue of negotiations with the Taliban gains traction
With agency reports