Taliban divisions deepen as women rage over the veil edict

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Angry and scared, Arooza kept an eye out for Taliban on patrol as she and a friend went shopping in Kabul’s Macroyan neighborhood on Sunday.

The math teacher was concerned that her large scarf, wrapped tightly around her head, and bulky tan coat would not comply with the latest decree from the country’s sectarian Taliban government. After all, there was more than just her eyes. Her face was visible.

Arooza, who asked to be identified by a name only so as not to attract attention, was not wearing the all-encompassing burqa favored by the Taliban, who on Saturday issued a new dress code for women appearing in public. The edict stated that only a woman’s eyes should be visible.

The decree by hard-line Taliban leader Hibaitullah Akhunzada even suggested that women should not leave their homes unless necessary and outlined a range of penalties for male relatives of women violating the code.

It was a blow to the rights of women in Afghanistan, who had lived in relative freedom for two decades prior to the Taliban takeover last August – when the US and other foreign forces withdrew at the chaotic end of a 20-year war.

A reclusive leader, Akhunzada rarely travels outside of southern Kandahar, the traditional heartland of the Taliban. He favors the harsh elements of the group’s earlier reign 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 Islam that blends the religion with ancient tribal traditions, often blurring the two.

Akhunzada has adopted tribal village traditions, where girls often marry in puberty and rarely leave their homes, and called it a religious requirement, analysts say.

The Taliban are divided between pragmatists and hardliners as they struggle to transform from an insurgency into a government agency. Meanwhile, her government is grappling with a deepening economic crisis. And the Taliban’s efforts to gain recognition and help from Western nations have failed, largely because they have failed to form a more representative government and curtailed the rights of girls and women.

So far, hardliners and pragmatists in the movement have avoided open confrontation.

But divisions deepened in March, on the eve of the new school year, when Akhunzada made a last-minute decision that girls would be barred from school after completing sixth grade. In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, senior Taliban officials had told journalists that all girls would be allowed back to school. Akhunzada claimed that returning the older girls to school violated Islamic principles.

A prominent Afghan who meets with the leadership and is familiar with their internal strife said that at a recent leadership meeting, a senior cabinet minister expressed outrage at Akhunzada’s views. He spoke on condition of anonymity, free to speak.

Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser, said he believes the Taliban leaders chose not to train publicly because they fear any perception of division could undermine their rule.

“The leadership disagrees 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, there could be clashes.”

“For this reason, the elders have decided to put up with each other even when it comes to non-consensual decisions that cost them much uproar inside Afghanistan and internationally,” Farhadi added.

Some of the more pragmatic leaders seem to be looking for silent workarounds that soften the harsh decrees. Since March, there has been a growing chorus among even 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 runs the powerful Haqqani network, told a conference in the eastern city of Khost that girls are entitled to education and that they would be back in school soon – although he wasn’t said if. He also said that women played a role in nation building.

“You will receive very good news that will make everyone very happy…this issue will be resolved in the next few days,” Haqqani said at the time.

In the Afghan capital Kabul, women wore the usual conservative Muslim dress on Sunday. Most wore a traditional hijab consisting of a headscarf and a long robe or coat, but few covered their faces as the Taliban leader ordered a day earlier. Wearers of a burqa, a head-to-toe garment that covers the face and hides the eyes behind a mesh, were in the minority.

“Women in Afghanistan wear the hijab and many wear the burqa, but this isn’t about the hijab, this is about the Taliban wanting to make all women disappear,” said Shabana, who wore bright gold bangles beneath her flowing black coat wore hair hidden behind a black headscarf with sequins. “The point here is that the Taliban want to make us invisible.”

Arooza said the Taliban rulers pushed Afghans to leave their country. “Why should I stay here if they don’t want to give us our human rights? We are human,” she said.

Several women stopped to chat. They all questioned the latest edict.

“We don’t want to live in a prison,” said Parveen, who, like the other women, only wanted to give a name.

“These edicts seek to wipe out an entire race and generation of Afghans who grew up dreaming of a better world,” said Obaidullah Baheer, a visiting scholar at New York’s New School and a former associate professor at American University in Afghanistan.

“It is urging families to leave the country by any means necessary. It also fuels grievances that would eventually lead to a large-scale mobilization against the Taliban,” he said.

After decades of war, Baheer said it didn’t take much on the Taliban’s part to please Afghans with their rule, “an opportunity the Taliban are quick to squander.”

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