A women’s activist who stayed home for days in fear of the Taliban ventured out for the first time Tuesday in Afghanistan. She and her sister — their hair covered by loosely draped scarves — were the only women in the market, where they drew some hostile stares but no outright harassment.
Elsewhere in the country's third-largest city, Herat, girls joined boys in returning to school, against expectations, but Taliban fighters handed out hijabs and headscarves at the door. In the capital Kabul, a female news anchor interviewed a Taliban official in a TV studio — a sight once thought unimaginable.
Days after taking over the country following a lightning offensive, the Taliban made an effort to portray a more moderate stance, promising to respect women’s rights and inviting them to join the government. Some Afghan women, deeply distrustful of the Islamic militants, sought to carefully test their limits.
But across much of the country, many remained home, too terrified to venture into a new world where an extremist group that once stoned women and restricted their every move is now in power. The group’s charm offensive contradicted reports on the ground, including door-to-door visits by militants looking for journalists, people who worked for the opposition and other targets.
A Western female lecturer in Kabul, who wished to remain anonymous due to ongoing security threats, said fear grips the capital.
“They have been starting to go door to door, checking people’ houses, sometimes forcing in. They are saying they are leaving the population alone, but that’s an indication that this is not true,” she said. The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the claims.
The Taliban have blamed scattered acts of looting and theft on criminals or people posing as the Taliban, not their fighters. The Taliban freed thousands of prisoners, including at the country’s biggest prison, as part of a general amnesty.
The reports, if confirmed, would stand in stark contrast to the promises made by the group Tuesday.
Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, said the group was ready to “provide women with environment to work and study, and the presence of women in different (government) structures.” Another official vowed to honor women’s rights “according to Islamic law." The Taliban hold hard-line interpretations of Islamic scripture.
“I do not believe the Taliban,” said a senior female broadcaster in Kabul, who said she remained in hiding Tuesday at a relative’s house.
She said she was too frightened to return home much less to work following reports the Taliban had a list of journalists and had knocked on some of their doors after entering Kabul on Sunday.
Her father told her to stay in hiding until the security situation becomes clearer. Speaking to the AP by phone, the 29-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the situation is unclear for women in Afghanistan.
Earlier, in a sign of the Taliban’s efforts to portray a new image, a female television anchor on the private broadcaster Tolo interviewed a Taliban official on camera Tuesday in a studio.
“Unthinkable two decades ago when they were last in charge,” tweeted Saad Mohseni, the station’s owner.
In the western province of Herat, Zahra, a 26-year-old advocate of women’s rights, said most residents, particularly women, remained at home Tuesday, five days after the Taliban arrived in the city. The woman, known for her work with nonprofit organizations for the past five years, asked not to be identified by her full name.
She hoped to get on a plane out of Afghanistan in the coming days, and on Tuesday headed to the market to buy things ahead of her possible departure.
Wearing a long dress and loose headscarf, she said she was met by menacing stares by some of the armed Taliban fighters, while disregarded by others. At the market, most shops were closed. New stalls selling the Taliban’s white flags emblazoned with an Islamic proclamation of faith had sprouted up.
“We were the only females at the bazar," she said of herself and her sister. "Almost all the shops were closed.”
She said children went back to school Monday to resume their exams, including adolescent girls who were handed long scarves and hijabs by Taliban fighters at the door who asked that they put them on.
So far there were no signs the group was forcing women to wear a burqa, the all-encompassing blue robe women were forced to wear under Taliban rule.
But these were early days, said Zahra, and she was certain the group had not changed at all.
For now, most women were waiting for clearer signs from the Taliban. In the meantime, they were preoccupied with immediate concerns such as whether they could go out on their own, whether they still had jobs or could ever pursue careers, or whether they should leave the country.
The senior TV broadcaster in Kabul said Afghan women have made great gains over the years, but she does not think the Taliban accepts those strides.
She said a friend of hers who is a presenter on Afghanistan’s national broadcaster, Mili TV, called her crying after she was told Tuesday by the station to stay home and not return to work until further notice.
“I want to come back home, but my family — maybe, I don’t know what I should do,” she said.