Are Afghanistan's Taliban 'slowly slipping back' to ways of the 1990s?

Public lashings, executions and new round of restrictions for women come amid mixture of fear and calm for citizens

Taliban guards in Kabul in May, after the announcement of a decree that all Afghan women must wear full burqas in public. EPA
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Afghanistan’s Taliban government publicly lashed nine women and three men accused of adultery and theft last month at a stadium less than an hour from the capital, Kabul.

Two weeks later, an Afghan man convicted of murder was executed in public, said the Taliban on Wednesday, confirming the first such sentence since their return to power in August last year, when officials made clear a desire for recognition from the international community.

For Afghans, the brutal punishments represent the contradiction of the new Afghanistan.

German officials, the EU and the UN were quick to condemn the lashings, using words such as “appalled,” “inhuman” and “violations of human dignity”.

But the Taliban government shot back.

“States and institutions must not allow bigots to use their platforms to make irresponsible and provocative statements about our sacred religion of Islam and its laws,” foreign affairs spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi wrote on Twitter.

Other Taliban officials have said any criticism of the punishments was an affront to their ability to interpret Islamic law.

In response to the UN, Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called it “disrespect to the holy religion of Islam”.

Taliban officials have said they want positive relations with the rest of the world, including recognition, but that should not involve “interference” by outside powers in what they consider domestic religious issues.

However, to the people of Afghanistan, the lashings are an embodiment of the paradox of life under a Taliban government.

On one hand, the public punishments came on the heels of a new round of restrictions forbidding women and girls from entering public parks and hammams.

Taliban bar Afghan women from amusement parks

Taliban bar Afghan women from amusement parks

On the other, many admit the Taliban of today are not the same as the fearsome group that ruled for five years in the 1990s.

For those such as government worker Ajmal, 47, life in modern Afghanistan is a constant mix of emotions — a push-and-pull between looming fear and relative calm.

“Of course, this time is different, just look around,” says Ajmal, who would only provide a pseudonym for fear of retribution.

“People walk more freely. Every woman isn’t covered head-to-toe in a chadari [burqa]. Men shave their beards and can travel with their families.”

The ghost town of Kabul

When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, Ajmal was in his early 20s and travelled back and forth between Kabul and Peshawar. His first trip to the capital was in October 1996, a month after the Taliban had captured Kabul.

He says the city was “a ghost town”.

“People were walking around like the walking dead, with their heads down, just trying to pass by undetected,” he said.

Each time he came to Kabul, Ajmal would stay for several weeks, looking for work with the few active foreign NGOs.

He recalls seeing cassette tape ribbons hanging from posts, with music banned at the time, while people were trying to covertly turn on their TVs to watch the BBC, with television also banned.

Women would be physically assaulted for not fully concealing themselves under the all-encompassing blue chadari, required to be worn by all women, Ajmal says.

At that time, only female doctors were allowed to continue working. No girls were allowed to study.

Ajmal's family returned to Kabul in 2009, when the country was still ruled by the western-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which allowed citizens to enjoy relatively more freedom, even as insecurity increased with each passing year.

Having spent the past 16 months living in the country, he says life is better than before. He says there is still a TV in his house and his children can watch the World Cup and cricket matches.

As an educator, his wife is one of the few women in the country who can still work. She walks to her job every morning with one of her female colleagues, neither wearing a niqab or chadari and with no male chaperone, none of which would have been possible in the 1990s.

But, as is the case with so many other Afghans, he fears this situation will not last.

“My daughter is in the fifth grade now,” he says. “What will she do next year?”

In 32 of the country's 34 provinces, teenage girls are not allowed to attend high school, although secondary schoolgirl were told in December they could attend exams in 31 provinces — a move widely criticised by female pupils who say they have not been allowed to attend classes.

“Believe me, compared with the 1990s, if they continue like this, we should all throw our hats in the air,” he says. “But the problem is they are constantly issuing new edicts and we don’t know how long it will be until they go back to their old ways.”

In October, it was announced that female university students could no longer study journalism, agriculture or economics. Ajmal's teenage daughter had hoped to study journalism.

For Afghans too young to remember the first Taliban rule, the situation is even more precarious.

Zahed, 21, works in a shop catering to young women in Kabul. It is in one of city’s multi-level shopping centres, stocked with gold-embellished abayas and colourful dresses emblazoned with Versace and Chanel logos.

Zahed wears jeans and a T-shirt to work, which his father and elder brothers could not do in the 1990s. He says he still exercises caution when going out.

“I only go from home to the store and back,” he says, as young women wearing colourful headscarves browse clothes.

He says there are still young men and women who shop for cosmetics, fragrances, haircare products and “western-style” clothing, all of whom will pass Taliban at checkpoints, on the streets and even inside the shopping centres.

But he does not believe this will last.

Zahed says he has already experienced Taliban judgments for his choice of clothing.

One Friday in September, he and his friends headed to Paghman, a popular picnic spot 30km west of Kabul.

“They stopped us, looked at our clothes and said: ‘Look at how you are dressed. Look at your beard, what kind of beard is this? Dress properly next time’,” he says.

Today's Taliban 'different' from the old guard

For many people in Afghanistan, any signs of change are largely about their rights and freedom.

For officials, though, the changes are much more about the capabilities of the government itself.

Wali Mohammad Sanaee was a commander in the Taliban’s fighting forces during their 20-year fight against the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and its western backers.

Now in his mid-30s, he first took up arms as a teenager.

He works for the Kabul municipality, having replaced his gun with a pen — which he says is an example of how much the Taliban of today differs from its 1990s counterpart.

“The present-day [Taliban] is so different … today we have Mujahideen who have studied contemporary subjects” Mr Sanaee says. “They have knowledge of how to run administrations, while also being adept at their religious studies.”

He says he wants people to focus on how much the Taliban-led government has been able to engage with the international community despite sanctions, aid cutbacks and banking restrictions.

The Taliban “has everything” that other countries have, he says. “It has an army, an intelligence service, police, politics, media, domestic and international policies and so much more.”

Mr Sanaee takes pride in what he considers the administration’s accomplishments, despite no other country in the world recognising them as the official government of Afghanistan.

But others say niceties in urban areas will not last long.

“They are slowly but surely slipping back into the Taliban of the 1990s,” says Faiz Zaland, a university lecturer and analyst in Kabul.

He says changes in society since they last ruled the country in the dwindling days of a civil war are making that transition difficult.

At that time, a handful of warlords and their followers were accused of a litany of human rights abuses, including towards women, which the Taliban claim their strict interpretation of Islam would prevent from happening now.

In the past 20 years, Afghanistan has been in pace with the rest of the globe on mobile phone penetration and freedom of the press and social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

All of this, says Mr Zaland, means the Taliban of the 21st century have not been able to issue blanket bans as they did in the 1990s.

“In the big cities, the change is so huge and the gap is too vast to contain, so the Taliban are looking for a way to have a stronger grip over as wide an area of the population as possible, but that will take time,” he said

Updated: December 09, 2022, 6:21 AM