The math teacher feared that her large shawl, wrapped tightly around her head, and swinging light brown coat would not comply with the latest decree of the country’s religiously driven Taliban government. After all, there was more to see than just her eyes. Her face was visible.
Arooza, who asked to be identified by only one name so as not to be noticed, did not wear the all-encompassing burqa preferred by the Taliban, which on Saturday issued a new dress code for women appearing in public. According to the edict, only a woman’s eyes may be visible.
The decree by Taliban leader Hibaitullah Akhunzada even suggested that women should not be allowed to leave their homes unless necessary, and outlines a range of punishments for male relatives of women who break the code.
It was a major blow to women’s rights in Afghanistan, who lived in relative freedom for two decades before the Taliban takeover last August — as the US and other foreign forces retreated in the chaotic end of a 20-year war.
As a reclusive leader, Akhuzada rarely travels outside southern Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional core area. He prefers the harsh elements of the group’s last time in power, in the 1990s, when girls and women were largely excluded from school, work and public life.
Like Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, Akhunzada imposes a strict form of Islam that unites religion with ancient tribal traditions, often blurring the two.
Akhunzada has adopted traditional village traditions where girls often marry at puberty and rarely leave their homes, calling it a religious requirement, analysts say.
The Taliban are divided between pragmatists and hardliners as they struggle to move from an insurgent to a governing body. Meanwhile, their government faces a worsening economic crisis. And the Taliban’s efforts to gain recognition and help from Western countries have failed, largely because they have failed to form a more representative government and have restricted the rights of girls and women.
So far, hardliners and pragmatists in the movement have avoided open confrontation.
However, the division deepened in March, on the eve of the new school year, when Akhunzada made a last-minute decision that girls would not be allowed to attend school after completing sixth form. In the weeks before the start of the school year, senior Taliban officials had told journalists that all girls would be allowed to go back to school. Akhunzada claimed that admitting the older girls to school was against Islamic principles.
A prominent Afghan meeting with the leadership who is familiar with their internal squabbles said a senior cabinet minister expressed outrage at Akhuzada’s positions at a recent leaders’ meeting. He spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser, said he believes the Taliban leaders have chosen not to spar publicly because they fear any perception of division could undermine their rule.
“The leadership doesn’t see some things at a glance, but they all know that if they don’t keep it together, everything can fall apart,” Farhadi said. “In that case, they could collide with each other.”
“For that reason, the elders have decided to get along even when it comes to unpleasant decisions that are causing them a lot of commotion in Afghanistan and internationally,” Farhadi added.
Some of the more pragmatic leaders seem to be looking for quiet solutions that will soften the harsh decrees. Since March, there has been a growing refrain, even among the most powerful Taliban leaders, for older girls to go back to school while quietly ignoring other repressive edicts.
Earlier this month, Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, who heads the powerful Haqqani network, told a conference in the eastern city of Khost that girls have a right to an education and that they will soon be going back to school – although he didn’t say when. He also said that women played a role in building the nation.
“You will receive very good news that everyone will be very happy about … this problem will be solved in the coming days,” Haqqani said at the time.
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, women wore the usual conservative Muslim dress on Sunday. Most wore a traditional hijab consisting of a headscarf and a long cloak or coat, but few covered their faces, as the Taliban leader had ordered the day before. Those who wore a burqa, a head-to-toe garment that covers the face and hides the eyes behind a net, were in the minority.
“Women in Afghanistan wear the hijab, and many wear the burqa, but this is not about hijab, this is about the Taliban who want to make all women disappear,” said Shabana, who wore bright gold bracelets under her black coat, her hair flowing. hidden behind a black headscarf with sequins. “This is about the Taliban who want to make us invisible.”
Arooza said the Taliban rulers are inciting Afghans to leave their country. “Why should I stay here if they won’t give us our human rights? We are people,” she said.
Several women stopped to talk. They all challenged the final edict.
“We don’t want to live in a prison,” said Parveen, who, like the other women, wanted to give only one name.
“These edicts seek to erase an entire generation and generation of Afghans who grew up dreaming of a better world,” said Obaidullah Baheer, a visiting scholar at New York’s New School and a former lecturer at American University in Afghanistan.
“It forces families to leave the country by any means necessary. It also fuels grievances that would eventually culminate in large-scale mobilizations against the Taliban,” he said.
After decades of war, Baheer said it wouldn’t have cost much on the part of the Taliban to satisfy the Afghans with their rule “an opportunity the Taliban will quickly waste.”