Global Economy

Women in burqa, Men in salwar kameez, and artistes in hiding in 2 months of Taliban 'rule'

Mansoor Haidry, a doctor from Kabul, has been living in India for six years and runs a general store in Bhogal in the national capital. Most members of his joint family are, however, not so fortunate. They continue to live in the Afghan capital, and with the dreaded Taliban now in power, life is certainly no bed of roses for them.

“I often feel I was born in the wrong place,” Haidry tells ET.

He makes it a point to talk to his female cousins, Amida and Zeenat, in Afghanistan every day, as the country has gone back to a past it dreaded. After the Taliban overran the country two months ago, it has been a frightening transition for women and for those who had worked in the previous government or its military.

“There is no way to get them here immediately, so they are slowly accepting the new reality. They had finished university with distinction and were applying for work. They would talk to me about taxes and savings, but their dreams have come crashing down with the Taliban coming back,” Haidry says. “They don’t even leave the house now, and whenever they do, they have to wear the burqa – covering even their faces – which they have never been used to.”

Amina, a post-graduate in history, told ET over phone from Kabul that the few times she left the house in the last two months, there had been a constant feeling of being watched.

“My brother, who is an experienced health worker, is sitting at home. He has not been paid salaries for the last six months despite working both shifts during Covid-19. The Taliban want men to re-join, but they don’t have the money to pay them. Every teacher who has taught me is getting papers prepared to leave this country,” the 23-year-old says.

Fear is all-prevalent, especially among ethnic minorities like the Hazaras and Tajiks, as also journalists, teachers, health workers, musicians, students, YouTubers, tattoo and makeup artists, and others.

There is a cash squeeze and prices of essential commodities have spiralled, worsening the already dire situation.

According to Amina, there are conspicuous changes on the streets of Kabul.

“Men are the only ones stepping out regularly, but they have also switched to traditional salwar kameez. There are no shirts and trousers or jeans, or musical evenings in cafes. We would earlier go to fancy restaurants or bakeries to hang out, not anymore,” she says.

Haidry says many YouTubers from Afghanistan – who used to post content on Afghan food, fashion and travel – have disappeared.

“Some put out a formal goodbye saying they won’t be posting content anymore and would not reveal their whereabouts. It was heart-breaking because I used to follow them regularly to keep in touch with my roots,” he says.

Essential items are fast becoming scarce. Chicken and meat are not easy to find, while medicines are in short supply, says Ahmad Hosseini, a dry fruit merchant from Kabul during a meeting with this correspondent at old Delhi’s Khari Baoli, a wholesale grocery centre.

“There are more displaced people in Afghanistan than ever before. The cash crunch and rising prices of essentials have made the situation worse. Every other day, I see artists selling fine stuff on pavements because there are no buyers. Even electronics has become cheaper than essentials,” he says. Many hoping to flee have been affected by the unavailability of direct flights from Kabul. On the other hand, some have been stuck here for months.

Ahmad Orani and wife Mehbooba have been living in a rented apartment in Delhi’s Saket area for over eight months now.

“I had a heart surgery a few months ago, but we are stuck here, and expenses are rising. There are many medical tourists like us who depend on India to get well, but we want to go home too. Right now, the only option is to go through Iran, which can get expensive and tiring for patients,” Mehbooba says.

Many Afghans who had worked in the army or government have destroyed evidence of their work and are afraid to leave their homes.

“We are waiting instead for an opportunity to leave the country. Finances are a problem, as a lot of it has been frozen, so the funds are not easily available. People are only allowed to take out $200 every week,” Mohamed Sadiq told ET over phone from Mazar-e-Sharif, a major economic hub in the north that is close to the Uzbekistan border.

Long before their takeover, the Taliban were already governing, often through their own court system, he says. “Poverty is more widespread now as the rich have gone into hiding. The Taliban are known to also track vehicles of former officials,” he says.

Afghan journalist Salman Hossaini, who managed to escape to the United States following the Taliban takeover, told ET that the reduction in international funds has made worse the economic and human rights situation.

“The intervention of foreign NGOs and aid over the years helped activists, politicians, researchers, artists, journalists, actors, business leaders, and sportspeople. Now, every day, I hear of them moving from one place to another in panic. Their social media profiles have been removed; many have become inaccessible,” Hossaini says.

More than 150 media outlets have shut down due to fear of the Taliban, he says, after the regime issued new directives to the media, asking them do their work without “insulting national figures or Islam, and in coordination with the government”.

In the first few days after the takeover, celebratory firings in Kabul were a constant affair, social activist Asma Fareed says, and Taliban are now patrolling the streets. “Even the internet is very patchy. In rural areas, the fighting and clashes have reduced, but in many places, the economic distress is driving people to desperation,” she says.

Women have had to bear the brunt of the regime’s restrictions.

On Thursday, a group of Afghan women led by former politician Fawzia Koofi and former diplomat Naheed Fareed urged the United Nations to block the Taliban from gaining a seat at the world body, saying the group had broken its promise to treat women “equally.”

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, had said recently that women need to be accompanied by a ‘mahram’ or a male guardian only for travels longer than three days, not for daily activities such as taking children to school, shopping, or for medical appointments. Taliban officials have not been following that though, Fareed pointed out.


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