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Taliban hardliners enforce more restrictions on women and girls

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Two weeks ago in Afghanistan, the Taliban promised girls that they could return to high school. Just as they arrived, the girls were sent home. As NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, the mixed signals suggest that Taliban hardliners are flexing their power. Here's NPR's Diaa Hadid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In this video shared by an Afghan feminist, about a dozen girls demand to go to school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst with the Crisis Group, says the Taliban's about-face on this promise came after senior officials held a meeting with the group's leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, the night before the girls were meant to return.

IBRAHEEM BAHISS: A very small minority within the leadership council of the Taliban decided to oppose this decision.

HADID: Bahiss says Akhundzada agreed, perhaps to avoid fomenting dissent within the group.

Ashley Jackson is a researcher on the Taliban and co-director for the Centre of the Study of Armed Groups.

ASHLEY JACKSON: The floodgates have opened. Whatever was holding these more aggressively retrograde Taliban clerics at bay is no longer holding them back.

HADID: In the days after the girls were sent home, a crop of other rules governing women were announced. Entry to Kabul's parks was divided by gender - men get four days a week; women get three. The Associated Press reported some women were taken off planes because they did not have a male guardian. Local language programming for a German channel, the BBC and Voice of America were pulled off air. Two Afghan radio stations were shut down.

UNIDENTIFIED PHYSICIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And this doctor, who works at a public hospital, explains another new rule.

UNIDENTIFIED PHYSICIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says men were ordered to grow beards and wear traditional Afghan clothes - no Western suits. He requested anonymity because he doesn't want to anger his new bosses.

UNIDENTIFIED PHYSICIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He tells NPR's Kabul producer Fazelminallah Qazizai that some beardless doctors who turned up weren't allowed to sign in, which means they can't get paid.

UNIDENTIFIED PHYSICIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says others weren't allowed to enter.

Jackson, the researcher, thinks this trend will escalate.

JACKSON: I think it's going to be an incredibly difficult few months. It's kind of a battle for the future of the Taliban and the future of Afghanistan.

HADID: For many, it comes as no surprise that the Taliban would start implementing harsh rules akin to those it had when they were last in power in the '90s. But it contradicts what Taliban officials promised before the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. The deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, even wrote that his movement believed in equal rights for an editorial in The New York Times. Some worry these new hardline rules might dissuade donors from providing more aid, which is desperately needed. The U.N. says few Afghans get enough to eat. Nearly a quarter face starvation.

Heather Barr focuses on Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch.

HEATHER BARR: There's no easy way for governments to explain to voters that even though the Taliban are denying girls access to education, it's urgently important that we should give money to Afghanistan.

HADID: So far, the U.N. has only raised $2.4 billion for its operations this year, just over half the amount it requested. And for one feminist who stayed on in Kabul, this only heightens the urgency.

NAWIDA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Nawida tells me she has to resist the Taliban, because if they continue governing like this...

NAWIDA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: ...Afghans are going to starve.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.