With Afghanistan in Their Grip, Taliban Roll Back the Clock

KABUL, Afghanistan — Girls are barred from secondary schools and women from traveling any significant distance without a male relative. Men in government offices are told to grow beards, wear traditional Afghan clothes and prayer caps, and stop work for prayers.

Music is officially banned, and foreign news broadcasts, TV shows and movies have been removed from public airwaves. At checkpoints along the streets, morality police chastise women who are not covered from head to toe in all-concealing burqas and headpieces in public.

A year into Taliban rule, Afghanistan has seemed to hurtle backward in time. The country’s new rulers, triumphant after two decades of insurgency, have reinstituted an emirate governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law and issued a flood of edicts curtailing women’s rights, institutionalizing patriarchal customs, restricting journalists and effectively erasing many vestiges of an American-led occupation and nation-building effort.

For many Afghans — particularly women in cities — the sense of loss has been devastating. Before the Taliban seized power, some young people realized ambitions of becoming doctors, lawyers and government officials, and explored international opportunities, as well.

“Now it’s gone — all of it,” said Zakia Zahadat, 24, who used to work in a government ministry after she earned a college degree. She is mostly confined to home these days, she said. “We have lost the power to choose what we want.”

To enforce their decrees and stamp out dissent, the new Taliban government has employed police state tactics like door-to-door searches and arbitrary arrests — drawing widespread condemnation from international human rights monitors. Those tactics have instilled an undercurrent of fear in the lives of those who oppose their rule, and have cut off the country from millions in development aid and foreign assistance as it slips again into pariah state status.

That international isolation is exacerbating an economic and humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the country since the Western-backed government collapsed last year, and the country’s alienation is likely to deepen, since American officials accused the Taliban of harboring the leader of Al Qaeda this month.

Millions became unemployed after jobs with foreign embassies, militaries and NGOs vanished practically overnight, malnourished children have flooded Kabul’s hospitals in recent months and more than half the population faces life-threatening food insecurity, according to the United Nations.

In one way, however, the country has been better off: It is largely at peace, after decades of war that tore families apart and left no corner of Afghanistan untouched.

When Western troops withdrew last year and the war ended, so did a scourge that claimed tens of thousands of Afghan civilian lives. Gone were the American raids and airstrikes, the crossfire between the Afghan security forces and the insurgents, and the indiscriminate Taliban roadside bombs and devastating suicide attacks.

The relative calm has offered a welcomed respite for Afghans living rural areas, particularly in the south, whose lives were upended by fighting over the past two decades.

So far, the Taliban have also avoided returning to the brutal public spectacles of flogging, amputations and mass executions that marked their first rule in the 1990s and widely turned international opinion against their rule.

But the Taliban’s restrictions, and the economic collapse that accelerated after they seized control of the country in August 2021, have had an outsized effect on the capital, Kabul, where the long occupation by Western forces had profoundly affected day-to-day life in the city.

Before the Taliban seized power, men and women picnicked together in parks on weekends and chatted over cappuccinos in its coffee shops. Girls in knee-length dresses and jeans tore around skate parks and built robots in after school programs. Clean-shaven men wore Western suits to work in government offices, where women held some high-ranking positions.

Over the past two decades, Western donors touted many of those facets of life as signal achievements of their intervention. Now the Taliban’s vision for the country is once again reshaping the social fabric.

Thousands of women who served as lawyers, judges, soldiers and police officers are no longer at their posts. Most working women have been restricted to jobs in education or health care, serving fellow women.

The Taliban’s scrubbing of women from public spaces today feels like being jerked back in time, many say, as if the lives they built over the past 20 years seem to disappear more with each passing day.

Marghalai Faqirzai, 44, came of age during the first Taliban government. She married at 17 and spent most of her time at home. “Women didn’t even know they had rights then,” she said.

But in recent years, Ms. Faqirzai earned a university degree, attending school alongside one of her daughters. Another daughter, Marwa Quraishi, 23, attended a university and worked in a government ministry before she was fired by the Taliban last summer.

“I always assumed my life would be better than my mother’s,” Ms. Quraishi said. “But now I see that life will actually get much worse for me, for her — for all us.”

With the restrictions on women, crackdown on freedom of expression and policymaking in the Taliban’s interim government confined to a select few men and religious scholars, most Afghans have lost any hope of having a hand in molding the future of their country.

“Many people have lost their sense of safety, their ability to express themselves,” said Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “They’ve lost their voice — any feeling that they could be part of building a country that looks the way they want it to.”

Before the Western government collapsed last year, Fereshta Alyar, 18, had been in 12th grade and preparing to take the national university entrance exam. Every day she spent her mornings doing homework, went to school and to an after-school math program in the afternoons, then returned home to study more.

For months after the Taliban seized power and closed girls’ secondary schools indefinitely, she fell into a deep depression — the seemingly endless possibilities for her future vanished in an instant. Now she spends her days at home, trying to muster the willpower to study her old English language textbooks alone. Like many of her old classmates, Ms. Ayar survives on the hope of one day leaving the country, she says.

The Taliban insist that they have deep public support for these changes. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention, which has issued the decrees, says that the edicts have helped restore Afghanistan’s traditional status as a strictly observant Islamic nation.

“All these decrees are for the protection of women, not the oppression of women,” Mohammad Sadiq Akif, the spokesman for the ministry, said in an interview.

Asked about the women’s travel decree, Mr. Akif, 33, responded: “A woman is a helpless and powerless creature. If a woman goes on a journey alone, during the journey she could face a problem that she cannot solve by herself.” He said long-haul buses and taxis had been instructed not to transport women traveling alone.

Music had been banned, Mr. Akif said, “because our Prophet says listening to music develops hypocrisy in the human heart.” Foreign news reports and entertainment programs “turned people against Afghan culture,” Mr. Akif said.

Men may only visit parks on days reserved for men, he said, because “a man who goes to a park with his family may look at other women in the park, which is not a good thing.”

The Taliban’s initial pledge to open secondary schools for girls nationwide had been viewed by the international community as an important indicator of the Taliban government’s willingness to moderate. When the group’s top religious ideologues reneged on that promise in March, many Western donors halted plans to invest in long-term development programs, aid workers say.

“Among the donor community there is a talk about before March and after March,” said Abdallah Al Dardari, the United Nations Development Program’s resident representative in Afghanistan.

In rural areas, where conservative, patriarchal social customs have dominated life for decades, many Afghans chafed under the American-backed government, which was stained by corruption and often incapable of providing public services or security.

And there is little doubt that the sense of constant peril that dominated the country both in its cities and the countryside through 20 years of war has eased.

“Now I can walk freely, the change is like the difference between the ground and the sky to me,” said Mohammad Ashraf Khan, 50, a resident of Zari district of Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan.

For most of the past two decades, Mr. Khan was unable to escape the brutality of the war. His 27-year-old grandson was killed on his farm after soldiers with the former government mistook him for a Talib fighter, he said. His 17-year-old nephew was killed by a roadside bomb. The gas station he owned once burned down after fighting broke out on the highway beside it.

Now he can drive for hours down the road to Kandahar city, free of the fear that he could be killed in a sudden flash of fighting. His modest income has been slashed by more than 70 percent with the economic downturn, he said, but that matters less to him than the freedom that came with the end of the war.

“I’m just happy the fighting is over,” he said.

But for many Afghans, the sudden economic collapse, soaring food prices and rampant unemployment have been devastating.

One recent morning in the village of Alisha, a cluster of mud brick homes tucked into the mountains of Wardak Province, dozens of mothers and rail-thin children gathered outside a home serving as a temporary clinic.

Lahorah, 30, arrived early that morning, her 1-year-old son, Safiullah, tucked beneath the folds of her long, cotton scarf. Before the Taliban seized power, her husband worked as a laborer, building people’s homes or cultivating their farms. He earned a few dollars a day — a meager living, but enough to put food on the table, she said.

But after the economy crashed last year, the work dried up. Her family survived the winter on stores of food they had saved. When those ran out this spring, her neighbors and relatives in the village offered what they could to her and her five children. But now, even they do not have any food left to share.

“I have never in my life experienced such difficulties as we have now,” she said.

Across major cities, informal markets hawking desperate people’s household belongings have taken over entire streets. Makeshift stalls are packed with shiny blue and pink curtains, flimsy wardrobes, TVs, refrigerators and multiple piles of red Afghan rugs.

Sitting in his stall in Kabul one recent afternoon, one vendor, Mohammad Nasir thumbed a string of red prayer beads in his hand, musing on the city’s seemingly sudden economic decline.

Earlier that day a mother had come with her two young sons, who were crying for food, to bring Mohammad a rug to sell. But even more heartbreaking was what he saw during his commute home earlier that week, he said.

“Beside a river, someone was throwing away stale bread, and people were there collecting the stale bread to eat,” he said. “I’m 79 years old and I have never seen such a thing in Kabul.”

“Even under the previous regime of the Taliban — people were hungry, but I didn’t see that,” he added.

Across the country, the Taliban’s crackdown on dissent has injected a different kind of stress. Armed Taliban intelligence and security agents show up unannounced at people’s homes to rifle through them, and search their phones at checkpoints across the city.

Journalists have been detained, beaten, jailed and subjected to media guidelines warning them not to “contradict Islamic values” or report “against national interests” — effectively gutting the robust, independent Afghan news media sector that had developed over the past 20 years.

Small protests of women’s activists have been broken up violently as the Taliban seek to stamp out any show of dissent.

Many vaguely worded decrees have led to confusion among residents and harsh enforcement by the morality police tasked with interpreting them.

Nasrin Hamedi, 49, said she was accosted by a gun-toting enforcer from the Virtue and Vice ministry while riding in a minibus in Kabul. She was wearing modest and concealing clothes, she said, but her face was uncovered — a new degree of infraction under Taliban rule. She said the Talib screamed at her, questioning whether she was truly a Muslim.

“He shouted at me: ‘If you are going to dress like this, you have to leave the country,’ ” she said.

Still, some Afghans in the city are determined to push back against the welter of Taliban decrees on daily life. After female TV presenters were ordered to cover their faces on the air, the staff of Tolonews — men and women — wore black masks on the air and posted photos of themselves on social media with the comment: “We are in a deep grief today.”

Khatera Ahmadi, 26, a Tolonews presenter, said she continued to appear on TV despite pleas from her family to quit for her own safety.

“My biggest fear is that they will close the station and 20 years of achievement will be lost,” Ms. Ahmadi said. “I will continue working — not just for myself, but for all Afghan women.”

Yaqoob Akbary and Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul, and Najim Rahim from Houston.



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