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Taliban's 'New' Governing Style Includes Beatings For Beard Shaving

An Afghan barber cuts a customer's hair at a Kabul barbershop prior to the Taliban takeover.

TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan -- The Taliban has tried to portray itself as a more tolerant version of the hard-line Islamist group that last ruled Afghanistan two decades ago, but young men are finding that facial hair speaks volumes about the extremist group's purportedly new style of leadership.

"We cannot shorten our beards or trim our hair," Hekmatullah, a resident of the southern province of Uruzgan, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "If we cut our beards the Taliban catch us and say: 'You’re a member of the former government,' and they beat us."

The 20-something described the grim realities of Afghanistan’s transition to Taliban rule following the withdrawal of foreign forces and the fall of the Western-backed government in Kabul in August.

Violations of a Taliban decree handed down in late September banning the shaving of beards can result in severe punishment, while barbers who were directly ordered to halt the practice are struggling to make ends meet.

One young man from Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital, told Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity that he was beaten and detained for a day after shaving his beard.

Meanwhile, barbers who have plied their trade for years with no restrictions say business has fallen off dramatically.

"Our jobs are vanishing, our economy is weak, and we have no flour at home," said Momin, a barber in the city, where the official population of 70,000 has swelled in recent years with the arrival of people fleeing fighting in the province.

People used to be lined up outside barbershops in Tarin Kowt, but Momin estimates he has lost 90 percent of his business since the Taliban overran it on August 13 in a blistering advance that culminated with the fall of the government in Kabul two days later.

"I have ill relatives at home; we are in debt," said Momin, who described himself as a wanderer who is originally from Maidan Wardak Province, which lies just west of the Afghan capital. Leaving is not an option.

"God knows we don't have any money at all. We are not allowed to go to Iran. We cannot go to Pakistan," he said. "We are stuck in our Afghanistan, so what can we do?"

A barber shaves a customer who decided to get rid of his beard -- something forbidden under the Taliban regime -- in the Afghan town of Taloqan in November 2001.
A barber shaves a customer who decided to get rid of his beard -- something forbidden under the Taliban regime -- in the Afghan town of Taloqan in November 2001.

The crackdown on Momin's livelihood came after the Taliban issued the decree banning the shaving of beards in neighboring Helmand Province, one of the extremist group's traditional strongholds.

According to the order, barbershops in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah were warned of consequences if it was proven they had shaved or trimmed someone's beard because the acts were considered a violation of their interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law.

"If anyone violates the rule, they will be punished, and no one has a right to complain,” the edict read.

The Taliban's director of information and culture, Hafiz Rashed Helmand, told the daily Etilaat-e Roz newspaper that the decree was made by the ruling group's religious police.

A roadside barber trims a customer's beard at a street shop in Kabul in 2010.
A roadside barber trims a customer's beard at a street shop in Kabul in 2010.

Copies of the decree circulated widely on social media showed that it bore official Taliban seals, and Helmand was quoted as saying the ban stood throughout Afghanistan.

But other officials within the Taliban, which has pledged to employ a milder form of rule than it did when it was last in power from 1996 to 2001, attempted to walk back the decree.

As news of the edict broke, Ahmadullah Wasiq, the deputy head of the Taliban's caretaker cultural commission who has recently said that women's sport was unnecessary, published an official letter on his Twitter account on September 26 saying that those who issued the decree were not authorized to do so.

But the accounts that the decree was indeed being enforced, which followed reports that the bodies of alleged kidnappers had been hung in public squares in the western province of Herat, have raised concerns that the Taliban has no intention of dropping its old ways.

The Taliban was infamous in the late 1990s for its brutal punishments, including amputations and public lashings and execution by stoning or shooting.

In late September, Mullah Noooruddin Turabi -- one of the Taliban's founders and the main enforcer of its brand of Islamic law -- said that executions and amputations would once again be carried out, albeit possibly not as publicly.

Turning back the clock 20 years is difficult to fathom for those who grew up heavily influenced by the West following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Fashion might be cyclical, but this is not what Afghan men who became accustomed to modern hairstyles and cleanly trimmed beards had in mind.

"In the past, we used to go to the hairdresser without fear. It felt good to be stylish," said Hekmatullah. "But now we cannot enjoy anything under the new government."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Michael Scollon in Prague. Based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan whose names are being withheld for their safety.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.