Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the new Afghan Islamic Emirate was “committed to the rights of women within the framework of sharia”.
The temperate rhetoric suggests the Taliban are open to compromise. But the actions of some of their members over the past six months in the provinces reveal parts of the organisation remain committed to extremist principles.
In June in Takhar province, female midwives were banned from meeting with male doctors. In July, al-Jazeera reported that gunmen escorted female tellers from banks in conquered districts of Kandahar and Herat and told them they would be replaced by their male relatives.
Elsewhere, the prospect of reprisals means many women are staying home, unsure of the new regulations. Until the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, women were banned from attending secondary school. Under the new regime, girls’ schools remain open but female students at university in Kabul report being sent home. Twenty per cent of girls make it to the final years of schooling, but their attendance is threatened by religious and political upheaval.
“The real litmus test for girl’s education will be whether girls will also be allowed to attend high school and university and, if so, under what conditions,” said Martine van Bijlert, an analyst for the Afghan Analysts Network.
Much depends on how the new Taliban government will interpret sharia, rules of personal conduct derived from the Koran. In particular, those involving the Arabic word “qawwamun”, which can be interpreted as empowering men to be “maintainers” or “protectors” of women. There are also Koran verses which can be read as restricting women from showing their faces outside their homes or travelling without a “guardian”.
Sharia is a set of principles rather than a strictly defined code. It is up to the government and courts of an Islamic country to interpret how it can be applied. Egypt, Indonesia and Iran are among more than a dozen countries that have variations of sharia across their legal system.
Gailani said she had lost her faith in the promises of Afghan and foreign leaders long ago.
“I’m mature enough to believe talk when I see it happening,” she told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald from Doha. “As you say in English: walk the talk.
“The truth is that [the Taliban] have taken the country. They can do whatever they like. We have lost our leverage. But my hope is that they will put their steps forward.”
The 66-year-old said the Taliban faced a different Afghanistan from the one they last ruled two decades ago. “Never in the history of Afghanistan have we had so many well-educated well-informed, capable women,” she said. “It has to be accepted that this is an asset for this country, not a problem that they have to deal with.”
Gailani said she was still optimistic that she could negotiate with the Taliban and that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is expected to be named the new Afghan president, was a considerate leader.
“He is extremely polite, and I never felt for one second, in his presence, that I was ever sensitive about my gender,” she said. “But no one can drag a country alone.”
The Taliban have spent two decades in the wilderness learning, adapting and finessing their messaging. The guerrilla military outfit now communicate via WhatsApp and Twitter, operate a slick website, hold press conferences and said on Tuesday that they would continue to welcome international scrutiny.
But this comes with a caveat borrowed from the Chinese Communist Party’s style of media management.
“They can critique our work, so that we can improve,” said Mujahid. “[But] Islamic values should be taken into account. The media should not work against national unity. When it comes to ethnic differences, religious differences and hostilities, they should not be actually promoted by the media, they should work on the country for the unity of the nation.”
The same guarantees have been given to other minorities, former government employees or political activists now fearing for their lives or attempting to scramble onto the last flights out of Kabul.
“In your homes, nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors, nobody is going to interrogate you,” said Mujahid.
Jesuit priest Jerome Sequeira said from Kabul that he and his colleagues were in hiding after attempting to leave the country on Tuesday.
“They have the list of all organisations and profiles too. In some places, they have started door-to-door enquiries about the personnel of the organisation,” he said.
“While dragging my luggage in the midst of the chaotic crowd, the only thought that struck me was this: Did we, the international community, invest so much and establish so much in the last 20 years, to hand it over to the Taliban in a matter of days?”
Gailani said the reality was that Afghanistan’s economy would collapse without foreign aid.
“Unfortunately, Afghanistan cannot live one day without foreign aid. We will need it until a potentially rich Afghanistan will stand on its own,” she said. “Which means we have to secure a few universal rights from this future government.”
The Taliban have pledged to wean the country off the opium trade that has brought it millions of dollars in revenue, but its war-torn infrastructure will require major foreign investment for years to come.
To pull in the money, the Taliban will need to show the world that they are a genuine political force, not just a militia filled with religious zealots who found their way to the presidential palace.
with Marta Pascual Juanola