Outrage among Afghan women over face veil decree divides Taliban

KABUL: Arooza was furious and scared, keeping her eyes peeled for the Taliban on patrol as she and a friend shopped Sunday in the Macroyan neighborhood of Kabul.
The math teacher was afraid that her large shawl, wrapped around her head, and light brown coat would not satisfy the latest decree by the country’s religion-driven Taliban government. After all, more than just her eyes were showing. Her face was visible.
Arooza, who asked to be identified by just one name to avoid attracting attention, was not wearing the burqa favored by the Taliban, which on Saturday issued a new dress code for women appearing in public. The edict said that only a woman’s eyes should be visible.
The decree by hardline Taliban leader Hibaitullah Akhunzada even suggested that women should not leave their homes unless necessary and outlines a range of punishments for male relatives of women who violate the code.
It was a major blow to women’s rights in Afghanistan, who for two decades had lived in relative freedom before the Taliban took over last August – when the US and other foreign forces withdrew at the chaotic end of a 20-year war.
A reclusive leader, Akhunzada rarely travels outside of southern Kandahar, the traditional heart of the Taliban. He favors the harsh elements of the group’s previous time in power, in the 1990s, when girls and women were largely barred from school, work and public life.
Like Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, Akhunzada enforces a rigid brand of Islam that unites religion with ancient tribal traditions, often confusing the two.
Akhunzada adopted traditions from tribal villages where girls usually marry at puberty and rarely leave their homes, and called it a religious requirement, analysts say.
The Taliban is torn between pragmatists and hardliners as they struggle to transition from an insurgency to a governing body. Meanwhile, his government has been dealing with a worsening economic crisis. And the Taliban’s efforts to gain recognition and help from Western nations have failed, largely because they failed to form a more representative government and restricted the rights of girls and women.
Until now, the movement’s radicals and pragmatists have avoided open confrontation.
However, divisions deepened in March, on the eve of the new school year, when Akhunzada issued a last-minute decision that girls should not go to school after completing sixth grade. In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, senior Taliban officials told journalists that all girls would be allowed to return to school. Akhunzada claimed that allowing older girls to return to school violated Islamic principles.
A prominent Afghan who knows the leadership and is familiar with its infighting said a top Cabinet minister expressed his outrage at Akhunzada’s views at a recent leadership meeting. He spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser, said he believed Taliban leaders chose not to fight in public because they feared any perception of divisions could harm their government.
“The leadership doesn’t agree on many issues, but everyone knows that if they don’t stick together, everything could fall apart,” Farhadi said. “In that case, they can start confrontations with each other.”
“For that reason, the elders have decided to tolerate each other, including when it comes to unacceptable decisions that are costing them a lot of uproar within Afghanistan and internationally,” added Farhadi.
Some of the more pragmatic leaders seem to be looking for discreet solutions that soften hard-line edicts. Since March, there has been a growing chorus, even among the most powerful Taliban leaders, to return older girls to school while silently ignoring other repressive decrees.
Earlier this month, Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, who leads the powerful Haqqani network, told a conference in the eastern city of Khost that girls have a right to education and that they will soon return to school. – although he didn’t say when. He also said that women have a role in nation building.
“You will receive very good news that will make everyone very happy … this problem will be resolved in the next few days,” Haqqani said at the time.
In the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sunday, women wore the usual conservative Muslim attire. Most wore a traditional hijab, consisting of a headscarf and a long cloak or coat, but few covered their faces, as directed by the Taliban leader a day earlier. 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 the hijab, it’s about the Taliban wanting to make all women disappear,” said Shabana, who wore glittering gold bracelets under her flowing black coat, hair hidden behind a black sequined scarf. “This is about the Taliban wanting to make us invisible.”
Arooza said Taliban rulers are pushing Afghans to leave their country. “Why should I stay here if they don’t want to give us our human rights? We are human,” she said.
Several women stopped to chat. They all defied the last decree.
“We don’t want to live in a prison,” said Parveen, who like the other women just wanted to give a name.
“These decrees try to erase an entire gender and generation of Afghans who grew up dreaming of a better world,” said Obaidullah Baheer, a visiting professor at the New School of New York and a former professor at the American University in Afghanistan.
“This drives families to leave the country by any means necessary. It also fuels grievances that would eventually escalate into large-scale mobilization against the Taliban,” he said.
After decades of war, Baheer said it wouldn’t take much on the Taliban’s part to make Afghans happy with their rule, “an opportunity the Taliban are rapidly squandering.”

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