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Has The Taliban Changed? Afghans Living Under Militant Group Say It Still Rules Using Fear, Brutality

A Taliban militant attacks a civilian in Kabul in 1996. (file photo)

The Taliban claims it is not the same brutal group that first ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, when its regime was an international pariah notorious for oppressing women and massacring ethnic and religious minorities.

The extremist Islamist group has attempted to project a more conciliatory image amid international efforts to broker a peace settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

But Afghans who currently live under Taliban control say the militant group remains rooted in its extremist interpretation of Islam and rules using fear and barbarity.

They also say the Taliban imposes many of the repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its 1996-2001 rule. Women are still banned from working outside the home, for example; free speech is forbidden in areas it controls, and public beatings and executions are commonplace.

‘Taliban Forbade Her To Attend School’

The Taliban severely curtailed girls’ education during its rule, forcibly shutting down girls’ schools. In those that remained open, education was limited only to prepubescent girls.

Even within those schools, the curriculum was restricted mainly to learning the Koran. The same applied to boys’ schools in Taliban-controlled areas.

Afghan girls read the Koran at a madrasah. (file photo)
Afghan girls read the Koran at a madrasah. (file photo)

In rare cases, the Taliban agreed to reopen girls’ schools after petitions from locals, but the group's policy was not uniform and largely shaped by the local Taliban commander.

In recent years, the Taliban has said it is committed to granting women their rights and allowing them to work and go to school if they do not violate Islam or Afghan values. But it also suggested that it wants to curtail the recent freedoms gained by women that it said promote “immorality” and “indecency.”

But a large number of Afghans who currently live under Taliban rule told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the militant group’s policies on girls’ education has not changed in more than two decades.

In some Taliban-controlled areas, girls’ schools are completely banned. In other regions, there are restrictions.

"My daughter was 10 years old when the Taliban forbade her from attending school,” says Shigufa, a native of Chora, a Taliban-ruled district in the southern Uruzgan Province.

“We wanted our daughter to study and become a doctor or an engineer,” adds the mother of 13 who did not want to use her real name for fear of retribution. “But my daughters weren’t allowed to go to school.”

Shigufa’s family relocated to the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt, which is controlled by the central government. There, she says, her daughters attend school.

"There are girls' schools only up to the sixth grade here,” says Nisar, a resident of Dangam, a district partly controlled by the Taliban in the eastern province of Kunar.

He says the militant group’s restrictions on girls’ education corresponds with local conservative beliefs.

“It’s a tradition here that they don't allow girls to study beyond the sixth grade,” says Nisar, who also did not want his real name to be used for security reasons. “And the Taliban don't want girls to go to school beyond the sixth grade, either."

The Taliban’s adherence to ultraconservative Islam and the Pashtun tribal code has struck a chord with some currently living under the group’s thumb in rural Afghanistan, which has borne the brunt of the war and where life has improved little.

But those ideas are largely alien in the major urban centers in Afghanistan that have witnessed major social, economic, and democratic gains over the past 19 years since the Taliban was ousted from power.

Millions of girls have gone back to school in major cities and most rural areas under government control, particularly in northern and central Afghanistan.

But the Taliban controls or contests around half of the country, more than at any time since 2001. The Afghan government controls the capital, Kabul, provincial capitals, major population centers, and most district centers. The Taliban rules large swaths of the countryside, especially the predominately Pashtun south and east.

Women ‘Banned From Leaving Home’

When it ruled large parts of the country, the Taliban forced women to cover themselves from head to toe, banned them from working outside the home, and required them to be accompanied by a male relative when they left their homes.

Those policies remain in place in Taliban-controlled areas.

“Basically, women are banned from leaving home,” says Abdul Mohammad, a resident of Giro, a district long controlled by the Taliban in the southeastern province of Ghazni.

“If they leave home they have to be accompanied by a male family member,” adds Mohammad, who spoke on condition that his real name not be used. “Some of the women who run the household can work on their land, but they are not allowed to go to the market or to another village alone.”

A burqa-clad woman takes photos with her mobile phone. (file photo)
A burqa-clad woman takes photos with her mobile phone. (file photo)

Since 2001, women in government-controlled areas have earned seats in both national and regional legislatures, and women have entered the work force in both the government and private sectors.

Many Afghan women fear their rights enshrined under the constitution will be given away as part of a peace settlement with the Taliban. The constitution guarantees equal rights to men and women, although in practice women still face discrimination and violence.

‘Publicly Flogged’

During its rule, the Taliban courts used extreme interpretations of Shari'a law, which prescribes punishments such as stoning and execution.

The group amputated the hands of thieves, publicly flogged people for drinking alcohol, and shot or stoned to death those who were found guilty of engaging in adultery. Executions were common.

Kabul's national Ghazi Stadium became an infamous symbol of the Taliban's brutality as punishments were carried out on the soccer field in front of large crowds.

The Taliban still employs its cruel form of justice in areas under its control.

“We have seen people publicly flogged and beaten,” says Afzal, a resident of Kajaki, a district largely controlled by the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand. “Every decision is made according to Shari’a.”

Afzal says the Taliban recently arrested a thief who had stolen a motorcycle at the local bazaar. The Taliban court, he says, ruled that the thief’s face should be blackened and he should be paraded around the bazaar as a lesson to others.

"So the Taliban blackened the thief’s face with car oil,” he says. “They drove him around the whole bazaar standing on the back of the car. Then he was flogged and released."

Anwarullah, a resident of Zurmat, a district largely controlled by the Taliban in the southeastern province of Paktia, says the militant group employs “mobile courts” that travel from village to village to settle cases.

“Some people are happy because they make quick decisions, and they don’t demand bribes from people involved in the case,” he says.

Some people turn to Taliban courts to settle disputes, as many view government bodies as corrupt or unreliable.

Although a few praise the Taliban’s heavy-handed form of justice, others say it is biased against women.

“Many times, women are tried by the Taliban courts simply because of an accusation or because someone has a suspicion,” says Anwarullah. “They are beaten or face other Shari’a punishments. It’s unfair to women.”

The Taliban was blamed for stoning to death a young woman who was accused of having premarital sex with her fiance in the western province of Ghor in 2015.

Death by stoning for convicted adulterers is banned under Afghan law, although offenders face long prison terms for adultery. The penal code, established in 1976, makes no provision for stoning for any crime.

The Afghan Constitution prescribes that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam" and sometimes appears at odds with more liberal and democratic elements within it.

Social Media Banned

The Taliban banned all fighters from using smartphones in 2016 for security and religious reasons.

Since then, the militants have enforced the ban on civilians in many areas under their control, though the phones are tolerated in many of those same locations because they lack fixed-line telephones.

One of the main reasons the Taliban banned smartphones was because of the growing threat of U.S. drone strikes and surveillance.

The Taliban also fears smartphones being used among civilians because people can access independent news, take photos and videos, and might give away the militants’ activities and locations.

Under the Taliban, all forms of independent news were banned. The Taliban printed its own newspaper and ran the state-owned radio, the Taliban’s Voice of Shari’a, which was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.

Listening to music and watching TV were also banned.

Although it originally shunned technology, the Taliban is now quite media-savvy. It employs all forms of traditional and social media -- including multilingual websites and high-definition videos -- to disseminate propaganda and issue public statements.

But the Taliban prohibits the use of social media by locals under their control. The militants also do not tolerate any form of dissent.

The Taliban has threatened and killed dozens of journalists and targeted independent media outlets that report critically about the militant group in recent years.

Amanullah, a resident of Shahid Hasas, a Taliban-controlled district in Uruzgan Province, says the militant group was outraged after he made several critical posts on Facebook.

"The Taliban first threatened me, but I didn’t budge,” says the 23-year-old. “Then they arrested me and beat me up for posting about them on Facebook. I told them that they were harassing people, taking illegal taxes from them, and forcing people to provide food for their fighters."

Fearing further retribution, Amanullah fled to Tarin Kowt.

Another man named Samiullah worked for a civil society organization in Nadir Shah Kot, a Taliban-held district in the southeastern province of Khost. He and his team posted photos of his community work on social media.

“I was summoned by the local Taliban leaders,” says the activist. “They warned me that if we continued such civil society activities on social media we would face dire consequences.”

Samiullah promptly disbanded the group and his community work.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ajmal Aand contributed to this report.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.