“My name is Ommulbanin, I live in Afghanistan, I was born in 2000 and I’ve been working hard to help my family and study.” Twenty-one years old, with a book in her arms, Ommulbanin Adeeb walks down one of the narrow streets leading onto the main street of Kart-e-Char, a neighborhood southwest of downtown Kabul in the university area. She’s walking with two friends.
She is the only one willing to give us a comment on the May 7 announcement from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice: a full face covering will be compulsory for all women, except for the eyes alone. The chadori [what we know as the burqa] is recommended, which the Taliban have reinvented as “traditional dress.”
“No, I won’t stand for it. I want to continue studying, but not on their terms.” Ommulbanin tells us about her studies at private schools, volunteer activities, teaching children. She says she will never cover her face. Instead, “I’ll stay home, help the family, teach the children.” She speaks of a “catastrophic situation.”
Her friend was stopped by a man who asked her about her clothing. It wasn’t compliant with the new code. Islam is just a pretext, she says with conviction.
“Islam doesn’t say this, to cover your face. They interpret it in their own way to build a black world: we want the blue sky.” She says she is lucky to have her father and brother on her side – those who, according to the Taliban, are supposed to act as controllers and sensors of how their female relatives dress, to avoid being fined, fired or jailed. She hopes for “a victory,” but doesn’t exclude having to stay at home. That is the alternative that the Taliban are hoping for.
Here in Kabul, in four different neighborhoods – Shar-e-now, Kart-e-Char, Barestan and part of the central bazaar area – there have been no noticeable changes in dress codes in these first days. “Not for now, but the Taliban are serious. They say they have hired thousands of officials at the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue,” says Ahmed (not his real name), an expert in the field of education.
Along the road between the Barestan and Kart-e-Char districts, in front of the Silo, the enormous food production plant restarted by the Taliban with great fanfare after decades of closure, there is one of Kabul’s many checkpoints. Troops of the Emirate control much more of the territory than they did just six months ago, in November.
Here, at the checkpoint in front of the Silo, the militants are in white coats and long black beards. They look like doctors, but are tasked with monitoring the “Islamic health” of the residents. These are ugly signs of control and repression, impositions and edicts, and more and more shrinking of spaces, especially for women.
One of our interlocutors says that the effects of the edict will come with time: the Taliban would mobilize resources and organize to make sure it is enforced. Another said that its purpose was to raise the stakes with Washington and Brussels, in a cynical calculation at the expense of women: more rights denied means more room for negotiations to “give them back.”
Yet another is convinced that this is the result of internal dynamics, nine months after the conquest of power in Kabul and the transition from guerrilla group to institutional power group. It serves to please the most conservative elements, at least on paper. In some rural areas, the edict is already common practice.
And among the Taliban, there are those who know that it cannot be applied in cities like Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Kunduz – except at the cost of completely alienating a population caught between internal repression, external sanctions, humanitarian and economic crisis and worrying signs of new conflicts, new military fronts – and new civilian casualties.
“I’m still going out, but that announcement made an impression on me.” With white high-soled sandals, denim pants under a long green dress, drawn-on eyebrows and careful makeup, Sufiya Izwedar interrupts her reading of The Three Daughters of Eve, a novel by Turkish writer Elif Shafak, to talk to us. The novel speaks of three women who are seeking their autonomy in re-Islamized Turkey: “the Sinner, the Believer and the Doubter.”
We are back in Kart-e-Char, a once lively area of cafes frequented by students, male and female. Several have closed. There are fewer young women around. “Many of my friends have left Afghanistan,” Sufiya tells us, aged 24. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in management but is skeptical about whether she’ll get a job afterwards. She’s staying here for now, but if her passport finally comes through, she’d also give exile a try.
She rejects the Taliban edict: “It’s absurd. We are the ones who should choose the type, the shape, the color of our clothing, not them,” she says. She didn’t worry about it today when leaving the house. But in the future, she will see: “I would like to avoid it, but if I were to be forced, I would wear it only while I’m traveling, then I would take it off immediately.”
She doesn’t intend to protest, as some women have done, here in Kabul. She would rather wait and see what happens. According to one of her friends with whom she meets for coffee regularly, “there is little or nothing that can be done” against Taliban policies. Another, Abdullah (not his real name), disagrees: “There are three options: to leave, although it’s increasingly expensive and difficult; to mobilize, but the risks are high; or to join the resistance.”
He is referring to the “National Resistance Front of Afghanistan,” led by commander Massoud’s son and men from the old Republic, who are partly active in Tajikistan. Four days ago, the Front launched its most important military offensive since September 2021 in some northern provinces.
“The dawn of freedom is closer,” they claimed, celebrating the reconquered districts. However, Zabiullah Mujahed, speaking for the Taliban, denied there were any clashes at all.
The Taliban came to pay us a visit on Monday, around 9:15 p.m. We first heard the voices in the hallway, then they muscled their way in.
There were five of them, both young and old. Armed, they took seats without being invited. “Who are you? Why are you here?” Our papers were in order. “We are the authorities, we are here for your safety. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
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