As Taliban Promises More Rights and Peace, Experts Warn of a 'PR Machine' in 'Overdrive'

A Taliban spokesman told The New York Times that women won't need a male guardian to leave their homes — unless they're out for three days or more

Afghan women take part in a gathering at a hall in Kabul on August 2, 2021 against the claimed human rights violations on women by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Afghan women take part in a gathering at a hall in Kabul on Aug. 2 against the claimed human rights violations on women by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty

Life in Afghanistan under renewed Taliban rule 20 years after the religious militants were ousted from power will be different, the group's leaders insist, although advocates say there is still plenty of cause for concern.

Recent statements by Taliban spokesmen have promised a push for peace, that women's rights will be protected and American allies will be given "amnesty." Leaders have talked of an "inclusive Islamic government."

But details are still lacking and skepticism abounds.

What's more, reports of fighters attacking, harassing and pursuing perceived dissidents and U.S. allies show that not all of the Taliban may follow these guidelines.

In a series of press conferences and interviews, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said women will have more freedom than the last time the group ran the country, when they enforced draconian restrictions.

But those freedoms will have to fit within Sharia (or Islamic) law, Mujahid said.

"We are going to allow women to work and study," he said earlier this month. "There's not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have. Our women are Muslim. They will also be happy to be living within our frameworks of Sharia."

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

He told The New York Times this week that women won't need a male guardian to leave their homes — unless they're out for three days or more.

"We want to build the future, and forget what happened in the past," Mujahid said.

But he added that for now, it's safer for women to stay home "until more rank-and-file Taliban fighters have been trained in how not to mistreat them."

Such mistreatment includes reports of forced marriages between Taliban soldiers and women, which surfaced soon after the group overtook the country as the U.S. withdrew troops.

Witnesses also reported beatings and killings by the Taliban of Afghan citizens.

In an interview with NBC News, Mujahid said the reports of forced marriages were "propaganda from the old regime. We have no evidence of a single case."

Asked what he would say to women concerned about their lives under the Taliban, Mujahid said: "They are our sisters. We must show them respect, they should not be frightened. The Taliban are humans and from this country."

With the area around the Kabul airport still a scene of desperation and chaos — and death from Thursday's bombings — the Taliban has yet to announce the shape of a formal government to succeed fleeing President Ashraf Ghani's administration.

However, they have reportedly been in talks with other prominent past leaders, including Hamid Kharzi, who was the president before Ghani.

"There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country," senior commander Waheedullah Hashimi told Reuters last week. "We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is Sharia law and that is it."

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Afghan evacuees

At a press conference last week, Mujahid assured women their rights would be respected "within the framework of Islamic law," adding that women would have the right to education and work.

Women and girls have been able to return to school — though one woman in Jalalabad, a 24-year-old university student, said she and her younger sisters feared that could change. She also said they had heard the rumors of forced marriages.

"We think that we can't continue our education anymore," she told PEOPLE.

Razia Jan, an Afghan native who opened a school for girls in 2008, told PEOPLE she was going to keep it open under the new regime.

"Instead of me crying that the Taliban has come, I'm thinking of how I'm going to work with them to get education to these girls," she said. "People get panicky. I told my teachers: Anyone who wants not to come to school, I have nothing against them. And all of them showed up yesterday. The girls will have to wear burkas. We don't care. We'll do everything we need to so that no harm is done to them."

While the Taliban claims its soldiers will treat women better this time around, advocates warn that the efforts to paint the group in a friendlier light — while under scrutiny from the international community — are misleading and dangerous.

"The Taliban PR machine went into overdrive when they got to Kabul and initial promises were made around women's and human rights more broadly," says Mark Malloch-Brown, president of Open Society Foundations. "But the Taliban's behavior before and since raises real doubts about their sincerity."

While the Taliban hasn't released details of how it will govern, in at least one area the group is turning the clock back to its former decrees on behavior: No music in public.

Mujahid said he hopes that force will not be needed to convince Afghans to comply.

"Music is forbidden in Islam," he told the Times, "but we're hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring."

* With reporting by AMY ESKIND and DIANE HERBST

f you would like to support those in need during the upheaval in Afghanistan, consider:

* Donating to UNICEF to aid Afghans in the country or

* Donating to the International Refugee Assistance Project to help those fleeing.

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