Life is shifting to a ‘new normal’ as the Taliban consolidates power

Gone are Western clothes favoured by the fashion conscious in the Afghan capital with men on the streets now wearing traditional shalwar kameez. And there are hardly any women to be seen. “The fear is there,” said a shopkeeper, asking not to be named, after he opened his neighbourhood provisions store.

Life was returning to a ‘new normal’ in Kabul as cautious residents ventured out of their homes to see what living would be like under the Taliban, a week or so following its astonishing return to power in mid-August.

For some, it’s as if the last 20 years never happened.

There are signs that people are changing the way they live to accommodate the return of the new hardline Islamist regime — if not by direct order, then at least for the sake of self-preservation.

During its first stint in power — from 1996 until 2001 when it was ousted by the US-led invasion in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — the Taliban ruled with a strict interpretation of the Koran and sharia law.

A swift whipping across the back of the legs by cadres from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was common for those guilty of tardiness at prayer times. Public floggings, amputations of limbs of thieves and even executions were scheduled for Fridays — sometimes held at the national stadium.

A ban on mixed schools meant most girls could not receive an education and women were barred from working in scenarios where they may have contact with men. However, there’s no sign as yet that such strict measures have been or even would be reintroduced — but people are taking no chances. “People are scared of the unknown,” another shopkeeper said, adding: “The Taliban is patrolling the city in small convoys. They don’t harass people; but of course, the people are scared.”

A sign of the new times was seen on the TV stations that proliferated during the Taliban’s absence.

State TV was showing mostly prerecorded Islamic programmes or announcements from Maulvi Ishaq Nizami — a man introduced as the head of Voice of Sharia, the Taliban media outlet.

Tolo TV – the private channel that thrived over the past two decades on a mix of Western style game shows, soap operas and talent contests – stopped most routine programming and has been airing repeats of a Turkish drama about the Ottoman Empire. It did however, have a newscast with a female presenter interviewing a Taliban official.

On 17 August, the Taliban announced a ‘general amnesty’ for all government officials and urged them to return to work.

“You should start your routine life with full confidence,” the announcement said — and some appeared to take the advice to heart, with white capped traffic police reappearing on the streets for the first time in days although it was not as busy as usual.

Suhail Shaheen, one of the Taliban’s official spokesmen, repeated that women will not face any threat in the future. “Their right to education is also protected,” he said. But the Taliban has generally been vague in pronouncements on how it would rule Afghanistan, apart from saying this would be in accordance with Islamic principles.

In one remarkable act of defiance, a handful of women protested briefly outside an entrance to the Green Zone, demanding the right to return to their jobs as cooks or cleaners for the affluent within.

A truck full of Taliban fighters approached them and tried to shoo them away but they stayed put until ordinary civilians persuaded them to leave.

Interaction with individual Taliban fighters on the streets has been mixed, however. “Some have been friendly and cause no trouble,” said a man trying to get to his office past a Taliban checkpoint, adding: “But others are tough… they push you around and shout at you for no reason.”

At the time of going to press, some 30,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul with the US accounting for around 20,000 of this number.

– Edited extracts from AFP reports