Kabul — Several months ago, Taliban insurgents in western Faryab province stopped a young woman driving back to college, where she was a pharmacy student. They ordered her to go home and not resume her studies, or they would burn down her family’s house. The frightened student and her companions complied.
Around the same time, a medical student traveling elsewhere in Faryab was accosted at a Taliban checkpoint. She stood her ground, suggesting that the Islamist enforcers would surely want their wives and daughters to be treated by a female doctor. After thinking it over, the gunmen waved her on.
These two stories, related by a staff member at the Afghan Women’s Skill Development Center in Kabul, suggest that the Taliban, which controls more than half of all Afghan districts, is not always as rigid as when it held power in the late 1990s and routinely used cruel physical punishments to enforce extreme rules for women as well as men.
While reports have surfaced of the Taliban lashing and stoning women for illicit sex in remote provinces, other accounts describe insurgents compromising on female access to school or health care and promoting sensible reforms such as banning extravagant dowries.
Roshanak Wardak, 56, a physician and former member of parliament, operates a private women’s clinic in Wardak province, about 50 miles south of Kabul, which has been largely under insurgent sway for a decade. She regularly treats the wives or daughters of local Taliban members at no cost; in return, they allow her to travel freely and take her views seriously.
“We have friendly relations,” Wardak said in an interview in Kabul. “They are happy with my services, and I am safe at work and on the highway.” She said she had taken several property cases to local Taliban courts and praised their efficiency. She also said she had quietly ignored Taliban demands not to admit female patients without a male relative at their side. “So many men have been killed in fighting that women may have no one to bring them,” she said.
As peace talks continue between U.S. and Taliban representatives, women’s groups have warned that a Taliban return to power, or a hasty deal that grants the insurgents undue influence, could mean a return to the days when women were whipped by religious vigilantes for exposing their hair or ankles, forbidden to work and forced to study in secret.
Activists have demanded that women be included in the peace negotiations, which so far has not happened. Taliban leaders have said they will ensure women’s rights within Islamic law, but they have not clarified what that means and have refused to talk with any Afghans until the U.S. government agrees to withdraw its troops.
“We had a very bad experience with Taliban in the past, so we can’t believe them now,” said Robina Hamdard, 30, of the nonprofit Afghan Women’s Network. As a girl, she recalled hiding her notebooks on the way to a private class and running in terror from Taliban police at a forbidden picnic. “We are not the same women of 20 years ago,” she said. “We know our rights, and we will fight not to lose them.”
Fears of a reversion to the past have been stoked by incidents in 2015 and 2016 in northwest Ghowr province, when cellphone videos showed black-robed Taliban lashing or stoning women for adultery.
But recent telephone interviews with officials and community leaders in four provinces painted a more varied and nuanced portrait of life under Taliban control. The insurgents’ behavior, they said, differed according to region, urban or rural setting, and whether the Taliban forces were local or from other regions.
Many described practices that echoed Taliban rule: schools for girls being shut down; women being forbidden to shop, travel or visit a doctor alone. But others described being able to negotiate with local insurgents and relying on them to settle disputes. In districts plagued by the more extreme Islamic State, known to Afghans as Daesh, leaders said the local populace was less fearful and more welcoming of the Taliban.
“People are fed up with Daesh. They harassed women and sometimes took them as booty,” said Muhammad Hijrat, a former official in the Pachiragam district of Nangahar province. The Taliban, he said, tells people not to work for the government or foreign groups, but “many people here have open sympathy for them, and each family offers them one son” to help keep the area secure.
In Khogiani, another part of Nangahar, a former district chief named Shams ul Haq said Taliban fighters do not allow women in his area to work or shop alone, but he predicted that their leaders would act more humanely if returned to power. “They have seen the world and interacted with foreigners,” he said. “We don’t think they will behave as harshly as they did before.”
Leaders in several provinces said the Taliban had revived a policy of putting limits on expenses for dowries and weddings, an effort to combat heavy debts often incurred by poor families as a result of social pressure.
The Taliban’s impact on girls’ education was said to range from a total shutdown of schools for girls to negotiated agreements on which subjects they could be taught. In one district in Faryab, the insurgents were reported to allow Afghan Dari language and math instruction, but not English.
In some conservative rural areas, women’s activities were already curtailed, and the return of Taliban authority has caused relatively little disruption in daily life. In some cases, punishments of women for moral offenses have been carried out by local Islamic law judges.
In Ghowr, one video showed a veiled woman being stoned on orders from a Taliban “desert court” for having sex with her fiance, but another recorded lashing of a woman was reportedly ordered by Afghan sharia judges and condoned by provincial authorities.
In some rural areas, conservative men share Taliban antipathy to outside efforts to organize or inform women of their rights. Saida Moradi, who works for a women’s group in Kabul, said she arranged a meeting with women in Faryab but that some local men viewed her suspiciously because she spoke English. They informed the Taliban, and she fled the meeting just before several armed insurgents reached it on motorbikes.
Wardak, the physician, said that in her area, entrenched poverty and illiteracy remain greater threats to women than Taliban rules or restrictions. She expressed disdain for some urban women’s fears that a Taliban comeback would constrict their social freedoms and choices of dress.
“What does is matter if a woman has to cover her head on a TV screen?” she said. “I see women every day who cannot count the fingers on one hand. We should be raising our voices for them.”