Yet it should be entirely clear what the Taliban has planned. During its previous stint in power, it stunned the world with the harshness of its regime. Floggings, public executions and repression of women were its hallmarks. And during the intervening two decades, it has given numerous examples of the same tendencies. Let us be under no illusion. This is a disaster for women in the region.
Mujahid’s statements ring hollow to many Afghan women who are hunting for burqas while wondering how long they can survive a Taliban regime. One Afghan woman’s plea for protection against the pending violence went viral on social media. “The Taliban forcibly marry women like me to their fighters,” she told me in an interview. “We have many Michelle Obamas in Afghanistan. We have women as strong as [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel. Now they will be forced to bow down to Sharia law.” (The woman, whose real name I have kept confidential for security reasons, is currently a refugee outside Afghanistan.)
Women understand Islamist groups better than most because they suffer the harshest consequences. The Islamist war is first and foremost directed against women. Mujahid’s statements bear an eerie resemblance to the assurances given by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, to the Western press before he came to power in Iran.
In December 1978, before his return from exile, Khomeini said: “Women can choose any kind of attire they like so long as it covers them properly and they have hijab.” A few weeks later, on Jan. 23, 1979, he declared: “We will give women every kind of freedom, but we will prevent moral corruption and, where this is concerned, there is no difference between men and women.” Aside from mollifying Western observers, Khomeini was probably trying to reassure his liberal allies in the revolution against the shah, which included a vast number of active and vocal women.
Yet once the Islamists took over for good, the new reality set in. Female judges, including Shirin Ebadi, who later went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, were fired. Female singers were banned, and the authorities forbade a number of athletic activities for women. Most important, compulsory hijab was introduced. Women or girls who refused the forced hijab found themselves deprived of access to education. They were not allowed to hold jobs and faced arrest. According to the Iranian interpretation of Shariah law, women who resist the compulsory hijab in public are punished with up to 74 lashes. Several women’s rights activists have been sentenced to long prison terms for simply saying no to forced hijab.
And yes, of course, Iranian Islamists are Shiites, while the Taliban is Sunni; there are many differences between them. It just so happens, however, that their contempt for women is one of the core ideological tenets they share. Since the Taliban takeover, I have received many eyewitness accounts from Afghan women suggesting that the rights won by them in the past two decades are in danger of being swept away. Many female professionals have been told to stay at home.
On Wednesday, one of the most popular Afghan pop singers, Aryana Sayeed, was seen crammed into a military airplane leaving Kabul. She has divided her time in recent years between Kabul and Istanbul — but now she fears that she will never be able to return to her true home in the Afghan capital. She told me she was devastated about the uncertainty of her future. She incarnated the hopes of many Afghans. She broke so many taboos: perhaps most famously in September 2015, when she sang in a stadium in Kabul filled with men. Back when the Taliban was in power, it banned women from even entering stadiums — much less singing in them, proudly unveiled.
Yes, the Taliban has indeed changed: It has become more sophisticated at using Western media to advance its agenda. The reality in the streets of Kabul tells a different story. The Taliban is already covering up pictures of women from billboards and posters. Soon, women will be erased from the public sphere. We saw the start of this movie in Iran 42 years ago, and it’s still going on.
On March 8, 1979, on International Women’s Day, more than 100,000 Iranian women marched against Khomeini’s decree imposing compulsory hijab. The new regime put down this massive protest with force. Unfortunately, Afghan women may be facing a fate that is even worse.