“Letter from Kabul” is a newsletter in which our contributors provide their own unique glimpses into life on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
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In the days after the Taliban government announced that all Afghan women should wear face veils in public, I found myself wandering the streets of Kabul thinking about the impact the decree would have on the mothers, sisters and daughters of our nation. A lot has changed in this country since last summer, some things for the better and some for the worse, and these changes are not always clearly visible.
In Koti Sangi, a predominantly Shia neighborhood in the west of the city, and Shahr-e Naw, near the abandoned British and American embassies, life appeared to be continuing much the same as it had in years gone by. Girls laughed as they shopped and women bustled through the markets with their children. All of them were dressed in a manner in keeping with mainstream Islamic jurisprudence, just as they would have been before the Taliban retook power. Many wore burqas and niqabs, while others opted for headscarves and loose-fitting abayas. It’s true that a year ago I would have seen more young women wearing jeans and blouses, but I still saw some. That, however, was the only noticeable change.
The Taliban’s controversial decree is still new and needs time to take effect, but I suspect that one of its greatest effects will be psychological. On top of other recently introduced restrictions on women’s rights, it is a very worrying development. Barred from schools, unable to mix even with male relatives in parks and isolated in the few places they are allowed to work, the Afghan women who have raised us, supported us, educated us and protected us through years of war now find themselves being singled out for persecution in what is meant to be a time of peace.
I cannot claim to detect widespread tension in the streets. Instead, I think the impact of all these restrictions will be subtler and deeper than any kind of open unrest. It will also be more damaging. This is a moral issue and a practical one. Women deserve to feel like an active and appreciated part of our society. We need them to help us build our country as wives and mothers but also as so much more.
The most anxious women I have spoken to in recent months are those who continue to hold down jobs in the government and private sector. Even before the latest decree was issued they were worried about feeding their families and trying to sustain their careers. Those who used to enjoy going to work wearing makeup no longer do so. In offices they now carry out their duties separately from the men: typing, writing, cleaning, eating, talking and praying in their own confined spaces. They criticize the Taliban quietly among themselves and on the condition of anonymity or off the record to me.
Many Afghan men, I should point out, are unhappy with and confused by the way the government is treating women. A retired old army colonel described the situation to me as “a mess.” Another man speculated that some officials in the Taliban might actually regret taking power and are provoking people deliberately in the hope that they will rise up against them. It is a strange idea, but conspiracy theories make a certain kind of sense in times such as these.
The new restrictions on women’s dress were announced during a press conference by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice on May 7. Couched merely as “advice,” in keeping with the ministry’s mode of operating, the decree said women should show their eyes only in public and make sure their clothes are “not too tight to represent the body parts” and not “thin enough to reveal the body.” Any clothes that meet the requirements will be deemed acceptable, but the ministry recommended using the burqa, also known as the chadori. Long black abayas and veils were judged the next best alternative. Although the decree is meant to be advisory, it includes a list of punishments that will be applied to those who ignore the guidance. The male guardian of any woman caught violating the decree will be warned. If she violates it a second time her male guardian will be summoned to meet Taliban officials. A third offense will lead to her guardian’s being imprisoned for three days. What makes all this particularly bewildering is that the ministry itself acknowledged that 99 percent of Afghan women already dress appropriately. Why, then, introduce a decree that generated negative headlines across the world and caused further division here? The Taliban’s own complex internal politics, rather than common sense and the interests of the public, seem to be dictating policy at the moment.
In truth, the burqa used to be regarded as a rather exclusive item of clothing worn by wealthy, conservative urban women. Poorer women in the cities or those in the countryside preferred the kind of clothes they would be required to wear on the hajj pilgrimage — a loose-fitting dress and headscarf. In the mid-1990s, burqas were hand-sewn and often decorated with elaborate floral patterns, making them far too expensive for most Afghans to buy. It was only during the first Taliban regime that their prices began to drop, when they were mass-produced on sewing machines. Even now, Afghans associate different colored burqas with different cities: blue for Herat, white and green for Mazar-e Sharif, yellow and orange for Kandahar, pink and gray for Peshawar. Black niqabs, meanwhile, started to become popular only after the U.S. invasion, when some women adopted them as a kind of political statement against the occupation.
My colleague, Ahmed-Waleed Kakar, recently wrote an essay for New Lines about the Ministry of Vice’s long and controversial history, and I ask anyone reading this to look at his piece for more detail about the way it operates. At the same time, I would like to add that men and women’s clothing has long been a curious issue of concern for Afghan governments of radically different political persuasions.
After returning from a trip to Europe in 1928, King Amanullah Khan ordered that the delegates to an all-male loya jirga, or grand assembly, must wear jackets, waistcoats and neckties rather than the traditional local clothing that was customary on such occasions. He also decreed that women were no longer required to wear the veil in public and attempted to force men in parts of Kabul to wear Western-style suits. This dress code even included the sort of hats that Afghans of my generation more readily associate with the reruns of Charlie Chaplin films we watched on TV growing up. Chaplin’s bittersweet slapstick still resonates with some of us today. Amanullah Khan, however, was forced from power less than a year after his reforms, in 1929. The Taliban’s rather superficial attempts at Islamization might not be quite as misguided as Amanullah’s superficial attempts at liberalization, but they both show how out of touch Afghan governments can be. The communist regimes of the late 1970s and 80s were even worse. They informally regarded local clothing as a sign of political opposition, arresting and killing many Afghan men just for wearing turbans or skull caps. That approach also backfired.
Hardliners in the Taliban clearly feel they have earned the right to govern as they see fit after helping to lead the movement back into power after 20 years of war. A degree of intransigence, and a desire for victors’ justice, is understandable, but recent events do not bode well for the future. In a speech he gave in Kandahar to mark Eid, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada, did not address any of the daily concerns facing Afghans: mass unemployment, a prolonged drought, the closure of girls’ schools. Instead he praised the “jihadi resistance” and spoke vaguely about “Islamic brotherhood” and “Islamic love.” He has taken a similar approach in all his known public speeches so far. That would not be a problem if Afghans felt the government was listening to them as well as preaching to them, but at the moment too many people in this country feel like they no longer matter.