KABUL, Afghanistan — Arooza was furious and scared, keeping her eyes peeled for the patrolling Taliban as she and a friend shopped in Kabul’s Macroyan neighborhood on Sunday.
The math professor feared that his large shawl, tight around his head, and his pale brown coat might satisfy the latest decree of the country’s religiously-run Taliban government. After all, more than his eyes showed. His face was visible.
Arooza, who asked to be identified by a single name to avoid attracting attention, was not wearing the overall burqa favored by the Taliban, who on Saturday released a new dress code for women appearing in public. The edict stated that only a woman’s eyes should be visible.
The decree from hardline Taliban leader Hibaitullah Akhunzada even suggested women not leave their homes unless necessary and spelled out a series of penalties for male relatives of women violating the code.
It was a blow to the rights of women in Afghanistan, who had lived for two decades in relative freedom before the Taliban takeover last August – when US and foreign forces withdrew at the chaotic end of a war 20 years old.
A reclusive leader, Akhunzada rarely travels outside of southern Kandahar, the traditional heartland of the Taliban. It favors hardline elements from the group’s previous period 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 enforces a strict form of Islam that marries religion with ancient tribal traditions, often blurring the two.
Akhunzada took the traditions of tribal villages where girls often marry at puberty and rarely leave their homes, and called it a religious requirement, analysts say.
The Taliban has been split between pragmatists and extremists, as it struggles to grow from an insurgency to a ruling body. Meanwhile, their government faces a deepening economic crisis. And Taliban efforts to win recognition and help from Western nations have failed, largely because they failed to form a more representative government and curtailed the rights of girls and women.
So far, the movement’s hardliners and pragmatists have avoided open confrontation.
Yet divisions deepened in March, on the eve of the new school year, when Akhunzada made a last-minute decision that girls should not be allowed to attend school after finishing sixth grade. . In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, senior Taliban officials had told reporters 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 meets the leaders and knows about their infighting said a senior cabinet minister expressed outrage at Akhunzada’s views at a recent leaders’ meeting. He spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser, said he believed the Taliban leaders had chosen not to argue in public because they feared any perception of divisions would undermine their rule.
“The leaders disagree on a number of issues, but they all know that if they don’t stick together everything could fall apart,” Farhadi said. “In that case, they might start clashes with each other.”
“For this reason, the elders have decided to support each other, including when it comes to unacceptable decisions that cost them a lot of uproar in Afghanistan and abroad,” Farhadi added.
Some of the more pragmatic leaders seem to be looking for silent workarounds that will soften hardline edicts. Since March, there has been a growing chorus, even among the most powerful Taliban leaders, to send older girls 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 town of Khost that girls had the right to education and would return school soon – although he didn’t say when. He also said that women had a role to play in nation building.
“You will receive very good news which will make everyone very happy…this problem will be solved in the following days,” Haqqani said at the time.
In the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sunday, women wore the usual conservative Muslim dress. Most wore a traditional hijab, consisting of a headscarf and a long robe or coat, but few covered their faces, as ordered by the Taliban leader 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 it’s not about the hijab, it’s about the Taliban who want all women to disappear,” said Shabana, who wore gold bangles shining under her flowing black coat, her hair tucked behind a black sequined scarf. “It’s about the Taliban who want to make us invisible.”
Arooza said Taliban leaders are pushing Afghans to leave their country. “Why should I stay here if they won’t give us our human rights? We are human,” she said.
Several women stopped to talk. They all challenged the last edict.
“We don’t want to live in a prison,” said Parveen, who, like the other women, only wanted to give one name.
“These edicts attempt to erase an entire genre and a generation of Afghans who grew up dreaming of a better world,” said Obaidullah Baheer, visiting scholar at the New School in New York and former senior lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan.
“It pushes families to leave the country by any means necessary. It also fuels grievances that would eventually escalate into full-scale mobilization against the Taliban,” he said.
After decades of war, Baheer said it wouldn’t have taken much from the Taliban to make Afghans settle for their regime “an opportunity the Taliban are quickly squandering.”