The math teacher was fearful her large shawl, wrapped tight around her head, and sweeping pale brown coat would not satisfy the latest decree by the country’s religiously driven Taliban government. After all, more than just her eyes were showing. Her face was visible.
Arooza, who asked to be identified by just one name to avoid attracting attention, wasn’t wearing the all-encompassing burqa preferred by the Taliban, who on Saturday issued a new dress code for women appearing in public. The edict said only a woman’s eyes should be visible.
The decree by the Taliban’s hard-line leader, Hibaitullah Akhunzada, even suggested women shouldn’t leave their homes unless necessary and outlines a series of punishments for male relatives of women violating the code.
It was a major blow to the rights of women in Afghanistan, who for two decades had been living with relative freedom before the Taliban takeover last August — when US and other foreign forces withdrew in the chaotic end to a 20-year war.
A reclusive leader, Akhunzada rarely travels outside Kandahar, the traditional southern heartland. He favors the harsh elements of the group’s previous time in power, in the 1990s, when girls and women were largely barred from school, work and public life.
Like Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, Akhunzada imposes a strict brand of Islam that marries religion with ancient tribal traditions, often blurring the two.
Akhunzada has taken tribal village traditions by which girls often marry at puberty and rarely leave their homes, and called these religious demands, analysts say.
The Taliban have been divided between pragmatists and hard-liners as they struggled to transition from an insurgency to a governing body. Meanwhile, their government has been dealing with a worsening economic crisis. And Taliban efforts to win recognition and aid from Western nations have floundered, largely because they have not formed a more representative government and have restricted the rights of girls and women.
Until now, hard-liners and pragmatists in the movement have avoided open confrontation.
Yet divisions were deepened in March, on the eve of the new school year, when Akhunzada issued a last-minute decision that girls should not be allowed to go to school after completing the sixth grade. In the weeks ahead of the start of the school year, senior Taliban officials had told all girls would be allowed back in school. Akhunzada asserted that allowing the older girls back to school violated Islamic principles.
A prominent Afghan who meets the leadership and is familiar with their internal squabbles said that a senior Cabinet minister expressed his outrage over Akhunzada’s views at a recent leadership meeting. He spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser, said he believes believers leaders have opted not to spar in public because they fear any perception of divisions could rule their rule.