Ahmad Dawood has barely left his house on a quiet backstreet in Kabul’s Khairkhana neighborhood since Taliban militants marched triumphantly into the Afghan capital on August 15, the same day that President Ashraf Ghani fled abroad.
Just two days later, a gun-wielding militant ordered the 24-year-old tailor to close his dress shop on Lycee-Maryam street, a normally bustling retail area.
“He said men aren’t allowed to make dresses for women,” Dawood says.
It effectively spells the end of his popular business, as most of its clients are women.
Dawood must now look for another job. His aging parents and younger siblings depend on his job, which he first took up as an apprentice at the age of 15 to support his impoverished family.
“We’re now cutting down on food. We have just enough money to see us through a month or so,” Dawood tells RFE/RL. “My brother, a policeman, lost his job, too, and my two sisters are at home because their universities are closed. So many changes in just a matter of days.”
Bazaars and bakeries remain open in the sprawling city of more than 4.4 million, although food prices have jumped and there are considerably fewer customers than before.
Many local media outlets continue their work, and some office workers -- mostly men -- are returning to their workplaces. Some public transport has resumed, albeit with a severely reduced number of vehicles.
But despite those signs of normality, life in Kabul “has come to a halt” to residents like Dawood and his siblings, who are waiting to see what direction the hard-line group intends to take their battle-scarred country.
“Our school is still closed, and we don’t have any official instruction yet about when to reopen it or what kind of changes the education sector will see,” says 25-year-old teacher Bashir Forogh.
Forogh’s school, in central Kabul, closed abruptly the day the UN-backed government collapsed and the Taliban reentered the city, nearly two decades after they were ousted by U.S.-led international forces in a response to the 9/11 attacks, planned and coordinated by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden from Afghan territory.
Students Eager To Return To School
Forogh recalls classes being halted midday as Taliban fighters took over this month, parents rushing to school in panic to collect their children and everyone dialing frantically to check on family members. But the phone lines “were dead,” he says, and the school building was deserted within an hour.
“Nobody has told us what happens to the school curriculum, students’ uniforms, or the future of mixed girls and boys classes once we reopen,” Forogh says.
He says he often gets phone calls from the parents of female students who “are eager to go back to school, even with a new, stricter dress code.”
The Taliban has said it doesn’t oppose girls’ education and women returning to work as long as they wear Islamic clothing, although eyewitness accounts from around the country appear to belie the pledge.
A senior Taliban official even gave an interview to a female television presenter in Kabul as the ultraconservative Islamist group seeks to rebrand itself as a more moderate force than it was two decades ago.
Taliban officials insist they will respect women’s rights within the norms of Islam, but they don’t elaborate.
Multiple female journalists and office workers say they were sent home by Taliban militants.
“Nothing is clear. The Taliban doesn’t say anything clearly, and it worries young people,” says Razma Saad, a university student from Kabul’s Macroyan 3 neighborhood.
Less than two months ago, Saad was more optimistic about the prospect of living under Taliban rule, saying the group “might have changed.”
Speaking to RFE/RL in mid-July, Saad said she hoped she could continue her studies and that “the situation won’t be as bad as many people fear.”
Saad now says she is worried by the Taliban’s “vague language” and worries that it is not providing “open and honest” assurances to the public.
She says many of her close friends have left Afghanistan in recent weeks.
Saad is staying in Kabul. She still hopes the Taliban softens some of its hard-line views and respects people’s wishes if it hopes to govern them effectively.
Many Afghans are skeptical the Taliban has changed its oppressive policies from when it ruled most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, imposing a strict form of Islamic law.
A young generation of Afghans grew up under the UN-backed government accustomed to relative freedoms, such as attending secular schools, listening to music, wearing modern clothes, and sporting trendy hairstyles.
Fearful of their future, tens of thousands of Afghans have flocked to the capital's international airport since August 15, desperately seeking to get out of the country.
Facing the prospect of a brain drain, the Taliban is urging Afghans to stay in the country and serve their own nation.
But Afghanistan's most acute crisis of human capital might be artificially created by the Taliban itself, if it confines working women -- millions of teachers, medics, police officers, and other specialists -- to their homes.
“The Taliban cannot develop the country if half of the population -- the women -- disappear from public life,” says Mahjabin Ramz, a Kabul university graduate.
With a degree in journalism, Ramz got a job offer from a local media outlet just days before the fall of Kabul.
This week, Ramz got a phone call from the same publication saying it has indefinitely suspended hiring.
Money Isn’t Everything
It looks more like business as usual for Shapoor, who runs two successful pharmacies in Kabul and lives a comfortable life with his young family in a newly built house in an affluent quarter of the Khairkhana neighborhood.
Both his shops remain open.
Although there are fewer customers these days, Shapoor is confident that business will take off again soon.
But, Shapoor says, money isn’t everything.
He doesn’t want his family to lose what he describes as the “small details” of their freedom: eating out with his wife, buying her flowers for Valentine’s Day, or his wife’s opportunity to go to a beauty salon.
Shapoor also worries about his younger brother, who served as a policeman until last month.
The Taliban has ostensibly offered an “amnesty” for all former soldiers, police officers, and government workers.
But multiple reports suggest that Taliban militants have been searching door-to-door for those who worked for police forces or government agencies.
“We’re living in constant fear and worry,” Shapoor says.
On the opposite end of Khairkhana, Dawood is reluctantly adapting to Kabul’s new realities.
Once a self-described fan of Bollywood-style haircuts, tight black jeans, and crisp white shirts, Dawood now wears traditional Afghan clothes. He has shaved his head and is growing a beard.
“I had to work hard since childhood. There were many nights that I went hungry to bed. But I’ve never felt so hopeless before,” Dawood says. “What an utterly misfortunate nation we are.”