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Taliban says it will be more tolerant toward women. Some fear otherwise.


In some parts of Afghanistan, including Kabul, a generation of girls grew up in a world completely different from the one their parents knew.

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The Taliban's return to the city and consolidation of power this week appeared to bring those nearly two decades of change, including hard-won rights for women, crashing down.

Friba, who fled from Kunduz, a northern provincial capital, to Kabul this month in the face of the Taliban's rapid advance, only to find herself living under the Taliban anyway, described the whiplash that many women who built lives in a new Afghanistan now face. "You are outside working with the community, with girls, with women - but suddenly, you go in a prison and you can't do anything for anyone," she told The Washington Post. "Now every Afghan woman [is] in prison in their room. They cannot go outside. They cannot be like before."

The Taliban, wary of once again governing as an international pariah, has tried to strike a more conciliatory tone this time around. "We assure the international community that there will be no discrimination against women, but, of course, within the frameworks we have," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday, clips of female journalists for Afghanistan's ToloNews broadcasting live from a Kabul street and interviewing a Taliban representative circulated around the world - offering an early sign of a Taliban transformed.

Still, accounts of discriminatory practices, and of the militant group resorting to its old, brutal ways, have emerged in recent weeks. Many Afghan women and their foreign allies are waiting nervously.

"They are worried that they will be pushed back at least a century," said Roya Rahmani, who became Afghanistan's first female envoy to Washington in 2018.

The last time the Taliban controlled the country, from 1996 to 2001, the group used severe methods to enforce an extreme interpretation of sharia law. Women were forced to wear burqas that covered the entire face and body, and those who went unaccompanied in public places faced beatings. Schools for girls were shuttered.

Hosna Jalil was 9 when U.S.-led forces invaded and the Taliban fell in 2001.

Images of terror from her early childhood remain etched in her mind: Men accused of crimes, naked, their face painted black, being driven around her village in the back of a pickup truck. Hands being cut off. Women being stoned - for going shopping without a man, for example, or committing adultery, she said. A "sense of ownership" by Taliban members, who could pick out any young girl from any house.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, schools opened to girls. Jalil remembers dancing. "We had the chance to go to school - and to go to school without the fear," she said.

In the years since, foreign funding poured into Afghanistan for projects to empower women and girls. U.S. politicians often cited the need to protect women's rights as a justification for continuing to fight, even as the war came under criticism as a costly quagmire.

Though women continued to face discrimination and violence in the war-torn country, freedoms multiplied after 2001. By 2020, about a quarter of Afghan members of parliament were women. Roughly 40 percent of students in Afghanistan were female in 2020, according to USAID figures.

Jalil attended the American University of Afghanistan, and went on to become a deputy minister of interior affairs and a deputy minister of women's affairs. She was the first woman elevated to a senior Interior Ministry post.

Especially for urban women such as Jalil, who were the main recipients of newfound freedoms, the future is uncertain.

"We worked, not for ourselves because we believe that our next generations, our little girls - they would have a better childhood," she said. "But that's gone."

While the Taliban has struck a new tone, it has shown little appetite for political freedoms. And a gulf between the pledges of its spokesmen and the actions of fighters on the ground has been on stark display.

In areas under Taliban rule late last year, public beatings and executions remained routine - and women were largely absent from public life. Some provinces in Taliban territory lacked even a single school for girls.

Early Tuesday, Friba, who asked to be identified by her first name out of fear for her safety, stopped sending messages to The Post, saying she had been advised to scrub her phone of English communications in case fighters seized it.

One Afghan women's rights activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over safety concerns, said she and others who had been encouraged by the United States to speak their minds were now in danger. "We were the ones who raised our voices for years," she said.

Some in the capital are uncertain of what the Taliban's return will mean. On some Kabul streets on Monday, little appeared to have changed, and women walked through the streets in colorful, fashionable clothing. Videos circulated online of a handful of women reportedly protesting, holding up signs on copy paper, for a share in the government.

But Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, founder and chief executive of the International Civil Society Action Network, which has partner organizations in Afghanistan, said she had received reports in recent days that women who tried to go to work at public-facing jobs in the western city of Herat were told to return home.

Reports have emerged in recent days of families being forced to hand over their daughters to marry Taliban fighters in areas controlled by the militant group. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, called the allegations false, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told the BBC's Yalda Hakim on Sunday that the group had been allowing women and girls to pursue education in areas they had taken over. Pressed about reports from Herat that Taliban fighters turned away women who tried to enter the university there over the weekend, Shaheen insisted that such behavior violated Taliban policy and individual allegations would be investigated.

In a tweet on Monday, Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban's political office, posted a video he said depicted a Taliban-aligned scholar telling a hospital's medical staff, including women, to continue working as usual.

Jalil warned observers around the world not to trust the group's "reassuring messages."

Aware of the vulnerability of women under Taliban rule, international rights organizations have been pressing the U.S. government to help evacuate Afghan activists and allies.

"Thousands of women put their lives at risk over the last two decades to advance the rights of women and girls across Afghanistan, many of whom helped the U.S. mission," said Gayatri Patel, vice president for external relations at the Women's Refugee Commission, in a Sunday statement. "The Biden administration has a moral obligation to ensure they are evacuated and safely resettled."

Evacuation efforts so far have been a chaotic muddle.

A bipartisan group of 40 senators has asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to form a humanitarian parole category for women activists, journalists and leaders, among others.

On Monday, Biden defended his decision to withdraw from the country and said that the United States would continue to speak out for the "basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls, just as we speak out all over the world."

Jalil said international pressure is the main force holding the Taliban to its word.

"Once Afghanistan becomes irrelevant and it's dropped from the headlines," she said, "like it was before 2001," the Taliban, she predicted, "will start targeting every single individual who has been a vocal voice in the past or whoever has the intention to raise a voice on behalf of herself."

Published : August 18, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Sammy Westfall, Claire Parker