Afghanistan’s supreme leader called again Friday for the international community to recognise the Taliban government, saying the world had become a “small village” and proper diplomatic relations would help solve the country’s problems.
No nation has formally recognised the regime installed by the Taliban after they seized power in August and reintroduced the hardline Islamist rule that is increasingly excluding women from public life.
In a written message ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada did not mention international sticking points — including reopening secondary schools for girls.
Instead, he said recognition should come first “so that we may address our problems formally and within diplomatic norms and principles”.
“Undoubtedly, the world has transformed into a small village,” said Akhundzada, who has not been seen in public for years and lives reclusively in Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual heartland.
“Afghanistan has its role in world peace and stability. According to this need, the world should recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
His Eid message comes as the country has been rocked by a series of bomb blasts — some claimed by the jihadist Islamic State group and targeting the minority Shiite Hazara community.
Akhundzada made no mention of insecurity, but said the country had been able to build “a strong Islamic and national army”, as well as “a strong intelligence organisation”.
Link aid to rights
Many in the international community want humanitarian aid and recognition to be linked to the restoration of women’s rights.
Tens of thousands of women lost their government jobs after the Taliban takeover, and they have also been barred from leaving the country — or even travelling between cities — unless accompanied by a male relative.
In March, the Taliban prompted global outrage by shutting all secondary schools for girls just hours after allowing them to reopen for the first time since they seized power.
Several Taliban officials said the ban was personally ordered by Akhundzada.
Akhundzada’s Eid message didn’t touch on girls’ schools, but he did say authorities were opening new centres and madrassas for both “religious and modern education”.
“We respect and are committed to all the sharia rights of men and women in Afghanistan… do not use this humanitarian and emotional issue as a tool for political ends,” he said.
But he said people should willingly embrace the Taliban ideals, and not be forced.
“The relevant authorities should invite people towards sharia with wisdom and avoid extremism in this regard,” he added.
He said also the government was committed to freedom of speech according to “Islamic values”, although hundreds of news outlets have closed, public broadcasts of music banned, and movies and TV dramas featuring women taken off air.
Akhundzada, believed to be in his 70s, has been the spiritual leader of the hardline Islamist movement since 2016 but has remained in the shadows despite the Taliban enjoying largely uncontested power.
His absence from public life has fed speculation he may be dead and his edicts the product of a committee.
Still, in October the Taliban released an audio recording they said was him addressing a madrassa in Kandahar.
A blast ripped through a mosque during Friday prayers in northern Afghanistan, killing 33 people and wounding 43 more, a Taliban spokesman said, just a day after the Islamic State group claimed two separate deadly attacks.
Since Taliban fighters seized control of Afghanistan last year after ousting the US-backed government, the number of bombings has fallen but the jihadist and Sunni IS has continued with attacks against targets they see as heretical.
A string of bombings rocked the country this week, with deadly attacks targeting a school and a mosque in Shiite neighbourhoods.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that children were among the 33 dead in the blast on Friday at a mosque in the northern province of Kunduz.
“We condemn this crime… and express our deepest sympathies to the bereaved,” he said, adding 43 more were wounded.
Images posted to social media — which could not be immediately verified — showed holes blown through the walls of the Mawlavi Sikandar mosque, popular with Sufis in the Imam Sahib district, north of Kunduz city.
Jihadist groups such as IS bear a deep hatred for Sufis who they view as heretics and accuse them of polytheism — the greatest sin in Islam — for seeking the intercession of dead saints.
“The sight at the mosque was horrifying. All those who were worshipping inside the mosque were either injured or killed,” Mohammad Esah, a shopkeeper who helped ferry victims to the district hospital, told AFP.
“I saw 20 to 30 bodies,” another local resident said.
Relatives of victims were arriving at hospital to look for their loved ones.
“My son is martyred,” screamed a man, while a woman accompanied by her four children searched for her husband.
A nurse told AFP over the phone that between 30 to 40 people had been admitted for treatment of wounds from the blast.
Kunduz police said they were investigating the type of explosion.
Multiple Bomb Blasts
Friday’s blast was one of the biggest attacks since the Taliban seized power in August last year.
In October, a suicide attack at a Shiite mosque, also in Kunduz, killed at least 55 people and wounded scores — an attack also claimed by IS.
The regional IS branch has repeatedly targeted Shiites and minorities like Sufis in Afghanistan.
IS is a Sunni Islamist group like the Taliban, but the two are bitter rivals.
The biggest ideological difference between the two is that the Taliban sought only an Afghanistan free of foreign forces, whereas IS wants an Islamic caliphate stretching from Turkey to Pakistan and beyond.
Friday’s blast comes a day after IS claimed a bomb attack at a Shiite mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif that killed at least 12 worshippers and left 58 people injured.
They also claimed a separate attack in Kunduz city on Thursday, which killed four people and wounded 18.
No group has yet to claim twin blasts on a boys’ school in a Shiite neighbourhood of Kabul on Tuesday, which killed six and wounded more than 25.
Shiite Afghans, who are mostly from the Hazara community, make up between 10 and 20 percent of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million.
Sufis, also a minority in Sunni majority Afghanistan, have faced several attacks in the past. In November 2018, a suicide attack at a wedding in Kabul killed dozens, most of them Sufis.
Earlier on Friday, the Taliban authorities said they had arrested the IS “mastermind” of Thursday’s bombing at the mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Taliban officials insist their forces have defeated IS, but analysts say the jihadist group is a key security challenge.
Taliban authorities flogged seven men Wednesday for crimes including selling and consuming alcohol, an official said — the first such sentence to be handed out by Afghanistan’s courts since the hardline Islamists seized power.
The lashings were a grim reminder of the harsh punishments the Taliban delivered during their first regime between 1996 and 2001.
The seven accused had confessed to their crimes and were sentenced to 35 lashes each, the Supreme Court said in a statement.
“The punishment was carried out today” in the capital, Supreme Court official Abdul Basir Mashal told AFP.
“It is the first time that a court has issued such an order according to the sharia law since the Islamic Emirate was formed in Afghanistan,” he said.
Taliban fighters have reportedly carried out floggings without court orders since taking power, according to social media posts that could not be independently verified.
The seven men had been charged in separate cases for offences such as selling and consuming alcohol, as well as stealing cars, the court statement said.
Five were also sentenced to six months in jail.
During their first stint in power, the Taliban earned notoriety for their strict interpretation of sharia law that punished even petty crimes with public floggings and executions.
The rulings at that time were particularly harsh for women, with those who broke the rules suffering humiliation and public beatings by the regime’s feared religious police.
The Taliban had also carried out public executions, chopped off the hands and feet of thieves, and stoned women accused of adultery.
When they seized power last year they promised a softer version of their previous rule, but insisted it would still be guided by sharia law.
Over the past eight months, the Taliban have cracked down on several freedoms women enjoyed for 20 years under the previous Western-backed government.
Women have been effectively shut out of most government jobs, and ordered to dress according to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of the Koran.
They have also been ordered to stop boarding flights unless escorted by a “mahram”, or adult male relative, and are banned from solo inter-city travel.
The Taliban have ordered airlines in Afghanistan to stop women from flying unless accompanied by a male relative, in the latest crackdown on basic human rights by the country’s new rulers since seizing power.
The hardline Islamists have imposed sweeping restrictions on freedoms, mostly targeting Afghan girls and women, and on Sunday also ordered local television channels to stop broadcasting BBC news bulletins.
Over the weekend, they also decreed that men and women could not visit parks in the capital on the same days.
After returning to power in August the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh rule that characterised their first stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, but restrictions have crept back — often implemented regionally at the whim of local officials.
Women are increasingly being shut out of public life — barred from high schools and most government jobs, and ordered to dress according to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of the Koran.
In their latest crackdown, the Taliban ordered Afghanistan’s Ariana Afghan Airlines and Kam Air to stop women from boarding flights unless they were escorted by a “mahram”, or adult male relative.
The decision was taken after a meeting on Thursday between representatives of the Taliban, the two airlines, and Kabul airport immigration authorities, aviation officials told AFP.
“No women are allowed to fly on any domestic or international flights without a male relative,” said a letter by a senior Ariana official to his staff, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
A spokesman for the Taliban’s religious enforcers, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, denied ordering the flight ban, but two travel agents told AFP they had stopped issuing tickets to solo women travellers.
The edict was not expected to affect foreigners, although aviation officials reported that an Afghan woman with a US passport was prevented from flying last week.
“Some women who were travelling without a male relative were not allowed to board a Kam Air flight from Kabul to Islamabad on Friday,” a passenger on the flight told AFP.
The Taliban have already banned inter-city road trips for women travelling alone.
The flight ban came as the vice ministry ordered that men and women should not visit parks in Kabul on the same days.
Women are now permitted to visit parks only on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, while the remaining days are reserved for men, a ministry notification said.
“It is not the Islamic Emirate’s order but our God’s order that men and women who are strangers to each other should not gather at one place,” Mohammad Yahya Aref, an official at the vice ministry, told AFP.
The new restriction on women follows Wednesday’s shutdown of all girls’ secondary schools just hours after they were allowed to reopen for the first time since August.
Tens of thousands of girls had flocked back to class, but officials ordered them home just hours into the day, triggering international outrage.
Taliban sources said that the decision was taken after a closed-door meeting of the movement’s leaders last week in Kandahar, the de facto power centre of the group.
Several Afghan women activists have warned of nationwide protests if the schools were not open within a week.
Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch associate director for women’s rights, said the latest restrictions were “scary”.
“We see the screws tightening on women and girls every day now,” she said.
“They have abandoned — at least for now — any effort to reach an accommodation with the international community, and that leaves them with nothing to lose.”
The Taliban appear to have also set their sights on local media networks, which flourished under the previous US-backed regimes.
On Monday, Taliban intelligence agents raided four radio stations in Kandahar and detained six journalists, sources said.
The raids come a day after the authorities ordered the BBC’s television partners in Afghanistan to stop broadcasting its news bulletins.
“Since the foreign TV channels are broadcast from abroad, the Islamic Emirate has no access to control their contents, especially when it comes to journalists’ uniforms and dresses,” government spokesman Inamullah Samangani told AFP.
The Taliban have already ordered women journalists working in Afghan television networks to wear hijabs, and stopped channels from broadcasting foreign dramas.
The Taliban said Thursday they had assured Beijing’s most senior diplomat about any concerns China thinks may “emerge from Afghan soil”, ahead of a key meeting with their neighbours next week.
China shares only a sliver of a border with Afghanistan, but Beijing has long feared its conflict-plagued neighbour could become a staging point for Muslim Uyghur separatists from Xinjiang.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Kabul Thursday on his first trip to Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power, meeting Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar and Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.
Without specifically mentioning the Uyghurs, Baradar’s office said in a statement that Wang had been assured over all concerns Beijing “thinks emerge from the soil of Afghanistan”.
Since returning to power in August, the Taliban have repeatedly pledged not to allow Afghan soil to be used as a base for foreign terror groups.
Their harbouring of Osama bin Laden and other senior Al-Qaeda figures in the wake of the 9/11 attacks prompted the US-led invasion that ended their first stint in power.
Even before the Taliban seized control of the country in August, they forged ties with China as US-led foreign forces withdrew.
Beijing is hosting a meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours next week on how to assist the hardline Islamist government.
“The Islamic Emirate wants to expand ties further” with China, Baradar’s statement said.
Wang and Muttaqi also spoke of expanding “economic and political ties” between the two countries, the foreign ministry said in a tweet.
They also discussed commencing work in Afghanistan’s mines sector.
Chinese mining groups are in talks with the Taliban on exploring Afghanistan’s mining sector, media reports say.
As Wang visited, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, also arrived in Kabul for talks with Taliban officials, the foreign ministry said.
Afghanistan has plunged into financial and humanitarian crises since the exit of US-led foreign forces.
The meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours next week will allow the Taliban to present their own assessment of the latest situation in the country.
Media reports say Chinese and Pakistani officials are expected to discuss new economic projects in Afghanistan.
Maintaining stability after decades of war in Afghanistan is Beijing’s main consideration as it seeks to secure its borders and strategic infrastructure investments in neighbouring Pakistan, home to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
For Beijing, a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would also pave the way for an expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan and through the Central Asian republics, analysts say.
The Taliban consider China a crucial source of investment and economic support, either directly or via Pakistan.
During the chaotic takeover of power by the hardline Islamists, Beijing kept its embassy open in Kabul even as it evacuated many citizens from the country.
The Taliban ordered girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan to shut Wednesday just hours after they reopened, an official confirmed, sparking confusion and heartbreak over the policy reversal by the hardline Islamist group.
“Yes, it’s true,” Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani told AFP when asked to confirm reports that girls had been ordered home.
He would not immediately explain the reasoning, while education ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmad Rayan said: “We are not allowed to comment on this”.
An AFP team was filming at Zarghona High School in the capital, Kabul, when a teacher entered and said the class was over.
Crestfallen students, back at school for the first time since the Taliban seized power in August last year, tearfully packed up their belongings and filed out.
“I see my students crying and reluctant to leave classes,” said Palwasha, a teacher at Omra Khan girls’ school in Kabul.
“It is very painful to see your students crying.”
United Nations envoy Deborah Lyons called reports of the closure “disturbing”.
“If true, what could possibly be the reason?” she tweeted.
When the Taliban took over last August, schools were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but only boys and younger girls were allowed to resume classes two months later.
There were fears the Taliban would shut down all formal education for girls, as they did during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
The international community has made the right to education for all a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the new Taliban regime, with several nations and organisations offering to pay teachers.
On Wednesday, the order for girls’ secondary schools to resume appeared to only be patchily observed, with reports emerging from some parts of the country — including the Taliban’s spiritual heartland of Kandahar — that classes would restart next month instead.
But several did reopen in the capital and elsewhere, including Herat and Panjshir — temporarily at least.
“All the students that we are seeing today are very happy, and they are here with open eyes,” Latifa Hamdard, principal of Gawharshad Begum High School in Herat, told AFP.
– Barriers –
The education ministry said reopening the schools was always a government objective and the Taliban were not bowing to international pressure.
“We are doing it as part of our responsibility to provide education and other facilities to our students,” ministry spokesman Rayan told AFP Tuesday.
The Taliban had insisted they wanted to ensure schools for girls aged 12 to 19 were segregated and would operate according to Islamic principles.
The Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on women, effectively banning them from many government jobs, policing what they wear and preventing them from travelling outside of their cities alone.
They have also detained several women’s rights activists.
Even if schools do reopen fully, barriers to girls returning to education remain, with many families suspicious of the Taliban and reluctant to allow their daughters outside.
Others see little point in girls learning at all.
“Those girls who have finished their education have ended up sitting at home and their future is uncertain,” said Heela Haya, 20, from Kandahar, who has decided to quit school.
“What will be our future?”
It is common for Afghan pupils to miss chunks of the school year as a result of poverty or conflict, and some continue lessons well into their late teens or early twenties.
Human Rights Watch also raised the issue of the few avenues girls are given to apply their education.
“Why would you and your family make huge sacrifices for you to study if you can never have the career you dreamed of?” said Sahar Fetrat, an assistant researcher with the group.
The education ministry acknowledged authorities faced a shortage of teachers — with many among the tens of thousands of people who fled the country as the Taliban swept to power.
“We need thousands of teachers and to solve this problem we are trying to hire new teachers on a temporary basis,” the spokesman said.
The World Bank on Tuesday announced more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, stating the money will go to UN agencies and international NGOs while remaining “outside the control” of the country’s Taliban rulers.
The reallocation from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) follows the $280 million in ARTF funds disbursed last December and is aimed at supporting the humanitarian response over the critical winter months.
The funds, to be delivered in the form of grants, aim “to support the delivery of essential basic services, protect vulnerable Afghans, help preserve human capital and key economic and social services and reduce the need for humanitarian assistance in the future,” the Washington-based lender said in a statement.
The bank suspended its aid to Kabul late last August after the hardline Islamist Taliban swept back into power.
ARTF is a multi-donor fund that coordinates international aid to improve the lives of millions of Afghans. It is administered by the World Bank on behalf of donor partners.
Until the Taliban took over, the ARTF was the largest source of development funding for Afghanistan, financing up to 30 percent of the government’s budget.
Because the World Bank is unable to provide money directly to the Taliban regime — which is not recognized by the international community — it has redirected the funds to organizations like the UN children’s agency UNICEF in response to the humanitarian crisis.
Afghanistan’s population has faced food shortages and mounting poverty since the Taliban took over.
The objective of the new aid is to “protect vulnerable Afghans (and) help preserve human capital and key economic and social services,” the World Bank said.
The Taliban are creating a “grand army” for Afghanistan that will include officers and troops who served the old regime, the official tasked with overseeing the military’s transformation said Monday.
Latifullah Hakimi, head of the Taliban’s Ranks Clearance Commission, also told a news conference they had repaired half the 81 helicopters and planes supposedly rendered unserviceable by US-led forces during last year’s chaotic withdrawal.
He said Taliban forces took control of more than 300,000 light arms, 26,000 heavy weapons, and around 61,000 military vehicles during their lightning takeover of the country.
Afghanistan’s armed forces disintegrated last summer in the face of a Taliban onslaught ahead of the August 31 US-led force withdrawal — often abandoning their bases and leaving behind all their weapons and vehicles.
The Taliban have promised a general amnesty for everyone linked to the old regime, but almost all senior government and military officials were among the more than 120,000 people who evacuated by air in the final days.
Many of the rank and file remained, however, melting back into civilian life and keeping a low profile for fear of reprisals.
The United Nations said in January more than 100 people linked to the old armed forces have been killed since August.
Hakimi insisted, however, that the Taliban amnesty had worked well.
“If it hadn’t been issued, we would have witnessed a very bad situation,” he said.
“The suicide bombers who were chasing a person to target him, are now the same suicide bombers protecting him,” he added.
There has been little evidence the Taliban have absorbed former troops into their ranks, but over the weekend they named two senior ex-Afghan National Army officers to top posts in the defence ministry.
Both are specialist surgeons attached to the country’s main military hospital.
“Our work on the formation of an army is going on,” Hakimi said.
“Professionals including pilots and engineers, service persons, logistical and administrative staff (from the previous regime) are in their places in the security sector.”
Hakimi said they would form “a grand army… according to the country’s needs and the national interests”, although he did not specify a size.
He said the army would only be one that the country could afford.
Afghanistan is, however, effectively bankrupt, with the country’s $7 billion in overseas assets seized by the United States.
Washington said half will be reserved for a fund to compensate victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and half gradually released as part of a carefully monitored humanitarian aid fund.
Hakimi told the news conference the Taliban had purged nearly 4,500 “unwanted people” from its ranks — mostly new recruits who joined in the aftermath of their takeover and were blamed for a spate of crime.
One after the other, quickly, carefully, keeping their heads down, a group of Afghan women step into a small Kabul apartment block — risking their lives as a nascent resistance against the Taliban.
They come together to plan their next stand against the hardline Islamist regime, which took back power in Afghanistan in August and stripped them of their dreams.
At first, there were no more than 15 activists in this group, mostly women in their 20s who already knew each other.
Now there is a network of dozens of women –- once students, teachers or NGO workers, as well as housewives — that have worked in secret to organise protests over the past six months.
“I asked myself why not join them instead of staying at home, depressed, thinking of all that we lost,” a 20-year-old protester, who asked not to be named, tells AFP.
They know such a challenge to the new authorities may cost them everything.
Four of their colleagues were recently seized for weeks until the UN confirmed their release on Sunday.
When the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they became notorious for human rights abuses, with women mostly confined to their homes.
Now back in government and despite promising a softer rule, they are cracking down on women’s freedoms once again.
There is enforced segregation in most workplaces, leading many employers to fire female staff, and women are barred from key public sector jobs.
Many girls’ secondary schools have closed, and university curriculums are being revised to reflect their hardline interpretation of Islam.
Haunted by memories of the last Taliban regime, some Afghan women are too frightened to venture out or are pressured by their families to remain at home.
For mother-of-four Shala, who asked AFP to only use her first name, a return to such female confinement is her biggest fear.
A former government employee, her job has already been taken from her, so now she helps organise the resistance and sometimes sneaks out at night to paint graffiti slogans such as “Long Live Equality” across the walls of the nation’s capital.
“I just want to be an example for young women, to show them that I will not give up the fight,” she explains.
The Taliban could harm her family, but Shala says her husband supports what she is doing and her children are learning from her defiance — at home, they practise chants demanding education.
‘Fear can’t control me’
AFP journalists attended two of the group’s gatherings in January.
Despite the risk of being arrested and taken by the Taliban, or shunned by their families and society more than 40 women came to one event.
At another meeting, a few women were fervently preparing for their next protest.
One activist designed a banner demanding justice, a cellphone in one hand and her pen in the other.
“These are our only weapons,” she says.
A 24-year-old, who asked not to be named, helped brainstorm ideas for attracting the world’s attention.
“It’s dangerous but we have no other way. We have to accept that our path is fraught with challenges,” she insists.
Like others, she stood up to her conservative family, including an uncle who threw away her books to keep her from learning.
“I don’t want to let fear control me and prevent me from speaking and telling the truth,” she insists.
Allowing people to join their ranks is a meticulous process.
Hoda Khamosh, a published poet and former NGO worker who organised workshops to help empower women, is tasked with ensuring newcomers can be trusted.
One test she sets is to ask them to prepare banners or slogans at short notice — she can sense the passion for the cause from women who deliver quickly.
Other tests yield even clearer results.
Hoda recounts the time they gave a potential activist a fake date and time for a demonstration.
The Taliban turned up ahead of the supposed protest, and all contact was cut with the woman suspected of tipping off officials.
A core group of activists use a dedicated phone number to coordinate on the day of a protest. That number is later disconnected to ensure it is not being tracked.
“We usually carry an extra scarf or an extra dress. When the demonstration is over, we change our clothes so we cannot be recognised,” Hoda explains.
She has changed her phone number several times and her husband has received threats.
“We could still be harmed, it’s exhausting. But all we can do is persevere,” she adds.
The activist was one of a few women flown to Norway to meet face to face with the Taliban’s leadership last month, alongside other civil society members, when the first talks on European soil were held between the West and Afghanistan’s new government.
Crackdown on dissent
In the 20 years since the Taliban last held power, a generation of women — largely in major cities — became business owners, studied PHDs, and held government positions.
The battle to defend those gains requires defiance.
On protest days, women turn up in twos or threes, waiting outside shops as if they are ordinary shoppers, then at the last minute rush together: some 20 people chanting as they unfurl their banners.
Swiftly, and inevitably, the Taliban’s armed fighters surround them — sometimes holding them back, other times screaming and pointing guns to scare the women away.
One activist recalls slapping a fighter in the face, while another led protest chants despite a masked gunman pointing his weapon at her.
But it is becoming increasingly dangerous to protest as authorities crackdown on dissent.
A few days after the planning meeting attended by AFP, Taliban fighters used pepper spray on the resistance demonstrators for the first time, angry as the group had painted a white burqa red to reject wearing the all-covering dress.
Two of the women who took part in the protests — Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhel — were later rounded up in a series of night raids on January 19.
Shortly before she was taken, footage of Paryani was shared on social media showing her in distress, warning of Taliban fighters at her door.
In the video, Tamana calls out: “Kindly help! Taliban have come to our home in Parwan 2. My sisters are at home.”
It shows her telling the men behind the door: “If you want to talk, we’ll talk tomorrow. I cannot meet you in the night with these girls. I don’t want to (open the door)… Please! Help, help!”
Several women interviewed by AFP before the raids, who spoke of “non-stop threats”, later went into hiding.
The UN also demanded information about two more female activists allegedly detained two weeks ago, named by rights advocates Zahra Mohammadi and Mursal Ayar.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied any women were being held but said authorities had the right “to arrest and detain dissidents or those who break the law”, after the government banned unsanctioned protests soon after coming to power.
On Sunday the UN said all four women were released after being held by the “de facto authorities” of Afghanistan.
Starting from scratch
The women are learning to adapt quickly.
When they began the movement last September, demonstrations would end as soon as one of the participants was pushed or threatened by the Taliban.
Hoda says they have now developed a system where two activists take care of the victim, allowing the others — and the protest — to continue.
As the Taliban prevents media coverage of protests, many of the female activists use their phones to take photos and videos to post on social media.
The content, often featuring them defiantly showing their faces, can then reach an international audience.
“These women… had to create something from scratch,” says Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch.
“There are a lot of very experienced women activists who have been working in Afghanistan for many years… but almost all of them left after August 15,” she adds.
“(The Taliban) don’t tolerate dissent. They have beaten other protesters, they have beaten journalists who cover the protests, very brutally. They’ve gone and looked for protesters and protest organisers afterwards.”
Barr believes it is “almost certain” those involved with this new resistance will experience harm.
A separate, smaller women’s group is now trying to focus on the protest that avoids direct confrontation with the Taliban.
“When I am out on the streets my heart and body shake,” said Wahida Amiri.
The 33-year-old used to work as a librarian. Sharp and articulate, she is used to fighting for justice having previously campaigned against corruption in the previous government.
Now that is no longer possible, she sometimes meets a small circle of friends in the safety of their homes, where they film themselves holding candlelit vigils and raising banners demanding the right to education and work.
They write articles and attend debates on audio apps Clubhouse or Twitter, hoping social media will show the world their story.
“I have never worked as hard as I have in the past five months,” she says.
Hoda’s biggest dream was to be Afghanistan’s president, and it is difficult for her to accept that her political work is now limited.
“If we do not fight for our future today, Afghan history will repeat itself,” the 26-year-old told AFP from her home.
“If we do not get our rights we will end up stuck at home, between four walls. This is something we cannot tolerate,” she said.
Kabul’s resistance is not alone. There have been small, scattered protests by women in other Afghan cities, including Bamiyan, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.
“(The Taliban) have erased us from society and politics,” Amiri says.
“We may not succeed. All we want is to keep the voice of justice raised high, and instead of five women, we want thousands to join us.”
Strolling through the town of Maymana, the new mayor appears to inspire goodwill from war-weary constituents in the Afghan provincial capital.
But Damullah Mohibullah Mowaffaq has a reputation as one of the top snipers in the ranks of the Taliban, until last summer waging war to take control of the country.
Mowaffaq was made mayor of Maymana, capital of Faryab province in the far reaches of northwest Afghanistan, in November, three months after the Taliban ousted the Western-backed government and seized power.
He rose to prominence as a fighter, but now his schedule is packed with the daily tasks of local government — unblocking sewers, planning roads, and smoothing over neighbourhood quarrels.
His switch reflects the broader transformation that the Taliban are undergoing, as the insurgents grapple with administering the territory.
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“When I was fighting my objectives were very specific: to end the foreign occupation, discrimination and injustice,” the 25-year-old told AFP.
“Now my goals are also clear: to fight corruption and make the country prosper.”
‘Ups and downs’
On a walk through the streets of Maymana, the new mayor talks with municipal workers clearing roadside gutters.
Residents of the city of 100,000 approaches with complaints and suggestions, which are dutifully added to an ever-growing to-do list.
“The new mayor is young, well-educated and, very importantly, from the city,” says his non-Taliban deputy, Sayed Ahmad Shah Gheyasi.
“He knows how to deal with people.”
Unlike the poor, madrassa-educated rural men who make up the Taliban rank and file, Mowaffaq comes from a family of wealthy traders and grew up in Maymana, where he excelled at school and in sport.
Memorabilia from his youth decorates his office including a certificate from a martial arts competition as well as his high school diploma.
After joining the insurgency at 19, he was promoted to command a small unit deployed in Faryab province.
Others describe him as one of the Taliban’s most talented snipers, although he appears reluctant to be drawn into telling war stories.
But on walkabout with AFP he pauses in front of a house blemished with munition marks near the village of Doraye Khoija Qoshre, where his unit once held sway.
Here he used to hide himself away, scoping American troops with his rifle and honing a reputation as a crack shot.
“He killed an American with his rifle from this house, then a plane came and bombed him,” said Saifaddin, a local farmer, who like many in Afghanistan goes by one name.
Although it cannot be confirmed Mowaffaq was responsible, in mid-2019 the United States announced a member of their special forces had been killed in fighting in Faryab.
A year earlier, the Afghan Analysts Network said Maymana was “practically under siege” owing to “an astonishingly widespread Taliban presence”.
Mowaffaq witnessed several comrades killed in the fighting but remains evasive about the horrors he both inflicted and suffered.
“I have had many ups and downs,” he says.
The United Nations and rights groups have accused the Taliban of gross human rights abuses since they seized power in August.
The deaths of more than 100 members of the former government or security forces have been blamed on the country’s new rulers, while women activists have been detained and journalists were beaten for covering their protests.
The Taliban ideal of a thick beard and black turban may frame Mowaffaq’s face, but in many ways he is an unconventional totem of their austere ideology.
Nationwide the Islamists have effectively evicted women from the public sphere, shutting older girls out of education and largely barring the opposite sex from the workplace.
But in Mowaffaq’s office, female employees have been allowed to keep working, and a public garden in the city is reserved for them.
Under the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, the all-covering burqa was mandatory for women.
This time religious police have stopped short of making the same diktat — although they have issued orders for women in the capital to cover their faces.
In the Maymana mayor’s office, “nobody tells us how to dress,” said Qahera, his 26-year-old female director of human resources, who wears a hijab in line with current dress requirements.
The Taliban’s lightning takeover of Afghanistan took even the movement’s members by surprise.
Their efforts to run the country are hamstrung by sheer inexperience, brain drain, a humanitarian crisis, and pressure from Western powers which have frozen assets.
After seizing control of Afghanistan in August 2021 the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh rule that characterised their first stint in power when women were stripped of most of their rights.
This time around the movement has largely refrained from issuing rigid national edicts, but authorities at a provincial level have introduced rules and guidelines dictating how women should live.
Here are some areas of women’s lives impacted by the Taliban’s return:
The Taliban say they allow women to work as long as they are segregated from men.
In practice, however, women are effectively barred from employment — particularly for the government — apart from in specialised sectors such as health care and education.
Even women working in the private sector complain of being harassed going to and from their offices, while Taliban intelligence operatives frequently visit commercial enterprises to make sure strict segregation is enforced.
In some places, however, small women-only cooperatives have been able to continue — such as a jasmine processing facility in the ancient western city of Herat, long considered liberal by Afghan standards.
Still, tens of thousands of Afghan women have been made jobless by the Taliban’s return, overturning two decades of progress in diversifying all aspects of their employment — from the police to courts.
The Taliban say all girls are entitled to an education, but the majority of secondary schools at least — for those aged from 13 to 18 — have not reopened since August.
Officials now say education for all will resume by the end of March, but an exodus of teachers and a ban on men leading classes for girls means it will be difficult for them to meet that target.
Most private universities have resumed, also while suffering a teacher shortage. But classes must be segregated by sex and there can be no mingling of men and women between lessons.
Some government universities resumed under similar constraints last week, but there was only a trickle of attendance by women at most facilities.
During their first stint in power, the Taliban made it compulsory for women to wear an all-covering burqa in public, and agents of the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice would lash anyone caught without.
The ministry put up posters across Kabul last month “suggesting” women should at least wear the less restrictive hijab or headscarf — but the message was accompanied by pictures of the burqa.
An order was also issued saying women could not travel between cities and towns unless accompanied by a male relative, and taxi drivers were told not to pick up female passengers unless they wore head coverings.
Beauty parlours and fashion boutiques were booming before the Taliban’s return, but they have largely disappeared.
Meanwhile, shop mannequins have been beheaded in Herat and billboards featuring the human form taken down because they are deemed un-Islamic.
Sport And Culture
Television channels have been ordered to stop showing dramas and soap operas featuring women actors, while female journalists must wear a hijab in front of cameras.
A senior Taliban official has said it is “unnecessary” for women to play sport, but they have been wary of formalising that philosophy because funding from the organisations that govern world sport — including football and cricket — depends on allowing all sexes to play.
Many of the country’s leading singers, musicians, artists, and photographers have fled since the Taliban’s return, while those who couldn’t escape have gone into hiding or are keeping a very low profile.
The United Nations has demanded the Taliban provide information on two more women activists allegedly detained by the group this week — bringing to four the number missing this year.
Since returning to power in August the Taliban have cracked down on dissent by forcefully dispersing women’s rallies, detaining critics, and beating local journalists covering protests.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said late on Thursday it had sought “urgent information” on the reported detentions of two more women activists by the Taliban in Kabul this week.