Taliban crack down on social freedoms with even stricter policing

Afghan women chant and hold signs of protest during a demonstration in Kabul, March 26, 2022. Taliban rulers refused to allow dozens of women to board several flights, including some overseas, because they were traveling without a male guardian (Photo: AP)
Afghan women chant and hold signs of protest during a demonstration in Kabul, March 26, 2022. Taliban rulers refused to allow dozens of women to board several flights, including some overseas, because they were traveling without a male guardian (Photo: AP)


Women in particular face tighter restrictions under Afghanistan’s new government

KABU : From a white pickup truck crawling through a busy street in west Kabul, members of the Taliban’s religious police, dressed in white tunics and black turbans, admonished fellow Afghans through a loudspeaker mounted on the roof of the car.

“Dear Muslim brothers and sisters, hijab and implementation of Shariah law is the duty of every Muslim," they shouted, referring to Muslim clothing for women.

“You, girl, fix your head scarf. Your hair is showing," another religious policeman scolded a woman during another patrol. “Who are you showing off to?"

The Taliban have in recent weeks introduced draconian social restrictions, which in particular curb the freedoms of women, even as the group seeks international recognition after toppling the Western-backed republic in August.

Most notably, the Taliban last week decided to uphold a ban on secondary and schools for girls. They also banned live music at weddings and barred international media outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corp. and Voice of America from broadcasting in local languages.

Women must be accompanied by a male relative when traveling beyond 48 miles. In parts of Afghanistan, women are required to be accompanied by a male guardian to receive medical treatment.

When the Taliban took over in August, they sought to project a softer image than during their first time in power, for instance promising to respect the rights of women within the framework of Islam. Since then, the Taliban have hardened their position on a range of issues, a reflection that the group’s ultraconservative members are prevailing over moderates, at least on social policies. While the Taliban collectively adhere to a hard-line interpretation of Sunni Islam, there are disagreements within the group about how harshly to enforce rules such as gender segregation.

The more pragmatic members of the Taliban are worried that allowing religious policemen to aggressively enforce social rules could alienate the population and prolong their international isolation. Ideologues within the Taliban—including Haibatullah Akhundzada, the movement’s supreme leader—appear less concerned about a possible backlash.

In recent weeks, uniformed members of the Taliban’s religious morality police deployed by the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue—a much-feared institution during the group’s rule in the 1990s—have become more visible in the streets of the capital.

Efforts to police the population intensified ahead of Ramadan, which began Saturday. On a recent day in Kabul, religious police instructed taxi drivers not to play music inside the vehicle or to pick up intoxicated passengers or women who they deemed improperly covered.

On Friday, Taliban members hung banners in central Kabul reading: “My sister! Your hijab speaks louder than my blood."

“Women should have better hijab for Ramadan," said Abdullah Omari, a morality police chief overseeing seven central provinces.

“Hijab" is a catchall term that for many Muslims refers to a head scarf, which all Afghan women already wear in public. But the word can also refer more broadly to female clothing that covers parts or all of the body in accordance with Shariah law. The Taliban, Mr. Omari said, will enforce this broader view, saying the hijab is a religious code that mandates women cover their entire body in a loosefitting garment that ideally obscures the face as well, as burqas do.

For some women who still have active roles in society, the pressure of having to abide by the Taliban’s restrictive rules is unbearable. At Indira Gandhi’s Children’s Hospital in Kabul, a government letter pinned to the notice board instructed female staff to wear Islamic clothing, without elaborating. Some female health workers there said they found the order humiliating.

“If we don’t wear a proper hijab, we may be fired," said one female doctor who is her extended family’s sole breadwinner. She was wearing a tightly wrapped head scarf, a long dress over a pair of pants and a lab coat. “But I don’t know what that means. What kind of hijab do they want? We cannot work in a burqa," she added, tears streaming down her face.

Last week the Taliban said that men and women must use Kabul’s parks, popular sites for family picnics, on alternate days. From the first day of Ramadan, the Taliban imposed similar segregation on amusement parks, making this past Friday the last day that parents could jointly take their children to ride carousels.

“I feel like, from tomorrow, I will be in prison," said Sedarah Afzali, a 20-year-old high-school graduate wearing a tooth gem and a nose stud, nail polish and a bright orange head scarf. She has barely seen her girlfriends since the Taliban takeover because her family kept her from moving around the city alone for her safety.

“I begged my brothers today to take us here," she said, gesturing at her two sisters, Neda, 23, and Nazi, 17, who were with her at the park. The Taliban takeover ended 20 years of war, Ms. Afzali said, but she preferred life under the former republic: “Back then, security wasn’t good but we could enjoy life. We had freedom."

The Taliban say they are merely advising Afghans on how to behave and have yet to reinstate the widespread corporal punishment they used to rule the country in the 1990s. But fear of the group’s past leads many Afghans to self-censor and drives parents to do what they can to keep their children safe.

In a coffee shop in central Kabul, where she and two girlfriends were drinking energy drinks and smoking cigarettes, 25-year-old Fatima Hashemi said her family tried to keep her from going around town.

“This is the only place we can have a little bit of freedom," Ms. Hashemi, a former journalist, said of the coffee shop. Her friend stubbed a cigarette on the floor, out of sight. “But we are too afraid to even enjoy this moment together."

Until recently, men and women were allowed to mix in the cafe. Now, women have been relegated to a corner behind bamboo screens. Music has been turned off, the only soundtrack supplied by a customer’s iPhone playing a pop song. When Taliban morality enforcers enter the coffee shop, the usher sounds an alarm on the upper floors to give female patrons a chance to fix their headscarves or put out cigarettes.

Men feel the restrictions, too. Male government workers say the Taliban bar them from the office if they don’t grow long beards, while female staff have been told not to wear makeup.

Basset Zewari, a 23-year-old bitcoin trader wearing bluejeans and a red polo T-shirt, said the Taliban want men to wear traditional Afghan clothes—a long tunic and baggy trousers.

“My father told me today, ‘Be careful when you go outside in those jeans,’" Mr. Zewari said.

While women are allowed to study at university, male and female students must be taught in separate shifts or separated by partitions, according to the Ministry of Higher Education’s official guidelines viewed by The Wall Street Journal. Female students must take a seat in classrooms five minutes before male students and leave five minutes later, to ensure they don’t cross paths.

The restrictions also deal a blow to local businesses already suffering under a crushing economic crisis. Following the Taliban takeover, foreign countries including the U.S. imposed economic sanctions, halted foreign trade, suspended aid to the Afghan government and froze its foreign reserves.

“These parks depend on families and children. The new restrictions will stop most of our customers from coming here," said the manager of an amusement park in Kabul.

“All other Islamic countries have amusement parks," he added. “Islam tells you to laugh and have fun. We have never allowed anyone to behave in an un-Islamic way here."

Saeed Jelani, a member of the Taliban’s police force visiting the amusement park on his day off, said it wasn’t forbidden in Islam to have fun, as long as women wore clothing that only revealed their eyes.

“This is our Islamic rules and tradition: Women must stay inside the house," Mr. Jelani said, as families milled around him eating ice cream, an hour before the park closed for the last time before genders would be segregated.

“When men and women are close together, it leads to adultery and prostitution," he said.


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