Afghan women and girls take part in a protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul on March 26 2022, demanding that high schools be reopened for girls
Afghan women and girls taking part in a protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul last weekend, demanding that high schools be reopened for girls © Ahmed Sahel Arman/AFP/Getty Images

By refusing to reopen girls’ secondary schools, banning women from travelling alone on planes and forcing officials to grow beards, hardline Taliban clerics are demonstrating their tightening grip on Afghanistan’s government.

The reintroduction of repressive policies has also graphically exposed the limited influence foreign governments have over the Taliban authorities, said analysts.

Even as the country staggers under a humanitarian crisis caused by the withdrawal of overseas financial support, the “Taliban care less than we in the international community have assumed”, said Asfandyar Mir, a south Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace.

“Once the benefits of engaging with the international community have become less clear . . . we see the Taliban leadership reneging on some of the commitments that they’ve made.” 

In the past two weeks, the Taliban have segregated parks, banned foreign media such as the BBC and introduced traditional dress codes for government workers.

The crackdown was instituted ahead of an international donor conference this week. Western countries and bodies have insisted that women’s rights should be upheld before they pledge foreign aid to the struggling government, including a $600mn World Bank package that would be partly used to pay teachers’ salaries.

Three girls studying at home with their mother in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 24 2022
Three girls study at home with their mother in Kabul, Afghanistan. Western countries insist that women’s rights, including girls’ schooling, should be upheld © Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP/Getty Images

“The west made girls’ education the first and foremost concern,” said Dipali Mukhopadhyay, associate professor of global policy at the University of Minnesota. But with 9mn Afghans at risk of “famine-like” hunger, according to the UN’s food agency, “we don’t want to jeopardise humanitarian assistance . . . so the leverage just gets smaller and smaller”.

Farid, a 27-year-old Kabul resident, said that when the Taliban took power he was “optimistic to a degree; they said they had changed, and their treatment of people was good”. But as freedoms disappeared, “every day I lose more hope”.

The Taliban were not homogenous, said analysts, and some officials were more interested in gaining international legitimacy. “We know that there are tensions within the Taliban leadership,” said Mukhopadhyay.

Andrew Watkins, a USIP Afghanistan expert, said the latest rulings showed the group’s conservative theological wing was asserting more authority over the cabinet in Kabul and “sending a message to those doing the day-to-day business of trying to administer this government”.

A government spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Analysts said the restrictive policies were announced after a high-level meeting in Kandahar, home of the Islamist movement’s most senior clerics including Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban leader.

Akhundzada “has very much asserted himself in Afghan politics over the course of one week”, said Graeme Smith, a senior consultant at International Crisis Group, a think-tank.

Today, “those that have the authority in every office are the Ministry for the Promotion of Vice and Virtue”, said a 27-year-old government worker, referring to the Taliban’s feared enforcement authority. “Whatever they say, we have to do, or get fired.”

He added that he had been forced to grow a beard and was recently sent home from work for not wearing a skullcap.

Women, already barred from working in government offices and travelling between Afghan cities by road alone, are fast losing other cherished freedoms, such as independent air travel.

“We are not selling tickets to women,” said an Ariana Afghan Airlines employee, who works in the now gender-segregated Kabul airport. She said one female customer, who travelled from Europe for a relative’s wedding, was now stranded in Afghanistan because she did not have a male guardian to fly back with her.

Other Afghans said they were worried that female aid workers, students with international scholarships, women due to be evacuated by foreign countries and even medics could be grounded.

For Afghanistan’s struggling airlines, beset with rising fuel costs and insurance problems, stopping women from flying alone was “a terrible decision from a commercial perspective”, said Alem Shah Ibrahimi, a former chief executive at Ariana and deputy finance minister in the previous Afghan government.

The ban on broadcasters BBC, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America is a big blow to Afghans who are trying to remain connected to the outside world.

“Since the arrival of the Taliban, [domestic] TV stations don’t have proper programmes,” said a 22-year-old woman in Kabul. “We have to watch international TV broadcasts to know what is going on. On the domestic channels, people see only what the Taliban want them to.”

While some Afghans may have hoped the Taliban would rule differently after two decades of insurgency, for others the crackdown came as no surprise.

“They are the same fundamentalist radical group that they were,” said Mohammad Qasim Wafayezada, former head of Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority. “It shows the Afghan people have been taken hostage.”

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