The Two Afghanistans

A Veiled Culture Adapts to Modernity

In Afghanistan, every time we start any new thing, we say Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim—in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate,” declared my twenty-eight-year-old friend Raz Muhammad. “In the Taliban time, there was one soldier here in Helmand who knew so little about religion he could not even learn to say the bismillah. And this person became a commander of the Taliban!”

Raz laughed at the absurdity of an Islamically illiterate gunman representing the zealous theocracy. “This was the Taliban’s problem, why they made mistakes. There is nothing bad in Islam; the bad thing was in the Taliban.”

Few of the people I met during my months of work and travel in Afghanistan had a good word to say about the Taliban—the authoritarian movement that governed much of the country between 1994 and 2001 and that still plays a major role in an ongoing insurgency. The violence, which killed more than four thousand people last year, was unpopular for obvious reasons. At the same time, most of the Afghans I knew were, like my friend Raz, devoutly religious and socially conservative. Almost all of them would have agreed that the Taliban were right about some things. The question was, Which things? Gender segregation? Oppression of religious minorities? Police enforcement of Islamic regulations?

Many of the illiberal values and practices associated with Taliban rule predated their rise to power and have survived their defeat and exile. Five years after the U.S. invasion, the full-body burqa remains nearly as common in Afghanistan as it was for the past century. Only in a few urban havens can women get away with wearing a headscarf instead. In the past two years, a Shi’a journalist and a convert to Christianity narrowly escaped execution at apostasy trials in Kabul. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate may be history, but a Western observer could be forgiven for wondering whether the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will end up any less repressive than its neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I spent the better part of a year in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005 working with a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). I helped to administer reconstruction projects throughout the country. My work took me from the irrigated deserts in the south to the remote mountain ravines of the northeast-and of course to Kabul, the boomtown and war ruin in the middle of it all. The Afghans I worked with most closely were young men and women in their twenties, “average” Afghans in a country where the median age is eighteen. Throughout the country, I found this generation of Afghans stretched uneasily across the gap between Taliban severity and Western permisiveness. Almost all rejected the two extremes: most spoke of the Taliban as the reductio ad absurdum of religious legalism, and those who were aware of American and European mores tended to find them fascinating but also sinful. The real tug of war was between the deeply ingrained Afghan modesty code and the more permissive but familiar culture of nearby India and Pakistan.

In Kabul, my Afghan friends tended toward the liberal, foreign-influenced end of the scale, though they, too, upheld fairly stiff standards of modesty. In the south, my Afghan friends tended to share the Taliban’s values but rejected its method of theocratic coercion. This generation of Afghans will not build a homogeneous Islamic society, either cosmopolitan or authoritarian. But they might manage to live together in relative tolerance.

“They say we young people have too many foreign ideas. But the Taliban got all their ideas from the Saudis,” Wase chuckled. A tall young man with a close-cropped goatee, black jeans, and a denim jacket, Wase would occasionally launch into wistful renditions of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” as he and I hiked the barren mountains around Kabul. “The Arabs do not even follow those ideas, you know. My cousin worked in Arabia for many years. He went to a festival where they played a Michael Jackson song, and all these young Arabs took off their robes—they were wearing shirts and jeans underneath—and they danced.” Wase laughed. “They send us mullahs to teach us Qur’an, and they teach themselves break dancing.”

Wase was partly right about the foreign origin of Taliban values. Saudi Arabia’s austere version of Islam was a major source of Talib doctrine, and Saudi-funded religious schools in Pakistan had been recruiting centers for the movement. Yet many of the severe Taliban rules, especially involving gender, stemmed from traditional Afghan ideas about modesty, ideas shared even by my emphatically liberal Afghan friends.

I noticed that in their litanies of Taliban excesses, my male and female friends tended to emphasize different things. Young Kabuli men complained of the Taliban bans on cinemas, kite-flying, and games, and of the compulsory Islamic dress code. They had been required to don turbans and let their beards grow long enough to extend below a mullah’s closed fist. Men who failed the fist test were beaten, jailed, or both. My friend Hashem told me of a Talib commander who also enforced the rule that all devout men ought to shave their underarms at least once a month. “After he checked your beard, he would look under your arms. If your hair was long enough, he would take a stick and—” Hashem picked up a pencil, pretended to wind hair around it, and yanked his wrist sharply downward. The young women, like my colleague Nargis, spoke of being forced to stay in their homes with no music or television, and with their windows blacked out. If women did need to venture outside their compound walls, they had to go in the company of a male relative and wear the burqa, which hides even their eyes behind an embroidered grillwork. Women who laughed, spoke audibly, or even stepped too loudly in public could be beaten for immorality by the ever-present religious police. Women found guilty of adultery were stoned or sentenced to a hundred blows. Cosmetics and “colorful clothes” were banned, and female gathering places like hairdressing salons and the women’s baths were closed.

I rarely heard young men speak about these Taliban restrictions for women, perhaps because similar restrictions still exist throughout Afghanistan, even in cosmopolitan Kabul. Women are still prone to be punished, sometimes lethally, by their families and ostracized by their neighbors if they “behave immodestly”—and that means doing anything that might attract male attention. Women can work in the same offices as men, but many people still consider it shameful, an invitation to immorality. Women are expected to take care of the children and to have lots of them. Half of the women I saw on the street still wore the burqa, even in the capital.

In general, most Afghan families continue to live by an exacting modesty code that separates men from women, the street from the household, and public from private life, with a few carefully controlled points of passage and interaction. Afghans from the Pashtun ethnic group tend to build higher walls between public and private domains. This is true both literally and metaphorically. The Pashtun-dominated Taliban tried to control every glimpse and whisper across these boundaries, but nearly all Afghans, whatever their ethnicity, support the principle of segregation in one form or another. It is part of the prevailing interpretation of Islam: Religion requires sexual virtue, and sexual virtue requires strong boundaries between unrelated women and men.

Religion alone, however, wouldn’t explain why Afghans took the principle of physical separation so much further than their neighbors in Iran or Pakistan. The code of walls grew partly out of Afghanistan’s turbulent history and its parched, rugged terrain, which was hard for any government to control and offered little land for cultivation. Walled households were all-important in a country where unchecked tribes resorted to raiding, feuding, and land grabbing. Many Afghan homes resembled grand adobe castles. If an Afghan man could not control his home and his women, if other men could disregard his walls, most Afghans would agree that he had lost honor. And in a time of war and banditry, he would likely lose his life. The burqa was a wall: a physical way to extend protection, invisibility, and control over women when they left the household. In the wake of a long war, most Afghans were reluctant to let their walls come down.

Yet in much of the country, and especially in Kabul, the power of the modesty code is being undermined by a potent cultural influence: foreign fashion and entertainment. After years of isolation under the Taliban, the youth of Kabul are immersed in a delightful, unnerving torrent of novel possibilities from abroad. The mullahs call it Western, but the cultural deluge comes mostly from the East: from Mumbai’s prolific movie studios, the pop songs of Bollywood, and the pretty celebrities associated with both. India and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan provide new models of fashion, with floppy hairstyles and tight jeans for men, lots of makeup and exposed elbows and ankles for women, and big sunglasses all around. Their films offer a different vision of youth: urban lovers dancing, carrying on romances via cell phone, and eventually finding happiness in a “love marriage” (as opposed to the usual arranged marriage).

Television stations across the country have begun broadcasting subtitled Hindi soap operas, which Kabulis of all ages watch obsessively. A music video call-in show on Kabul TV, Hop, is hosted by slender young women in headscarfs who inspire infatuation and vituperation of almost equal intensity. The Taliban’s Radio Shari’a, with its nonstop stream of diatribes and sermons, has been replaced by Radio Arman, a commercial station that plays the pop hits of Iran and India along with Afghan singers the Taliban had condemned. The station’s most popular program, Young People and Their Problems, encourages Kabul’s youth to write in with their stories of heartbreak. Illicit romances that before would never have been mentioned outside the family compound—young men frantically trying to arrange a second glimpse of their beloved, young women forced to marry an older cousin instead of the beautiful boy next door—are now read on the air to millions of listeners.

This new media culture has thrown the capital into a low-level upheaval that periodically turns ugly. A female host of Hop was forced off the air by conservative pressure, and later murdered. The Supreme Court, headed by religious scholars, threatened to shut down offending stations. Traditionalists grouse that the young people of Kabul are forgetting what it means to be Afghan.

A few of my Kabuli friends did embrace what they took to be the Western moral standard: Love justifies all. Hashem, for example, preached the virtues of “love marriage” and once refused to relinquish his gold wedding band at a Taliban checkpoint; he was whipped with knotted cords for wearing an un-Islamic adornment. After recounting this story with pride, he earnestly asked me how many girlfriends I thought he could ethically have in addition to his wife, as long as he was in love with them all.

But most of my young friends tried to balance the new cultural trends with faithfulness to traditional ideas of modesty. Even as they tentatively flirted with one another by text message, they were conscious that powerful issues of honor and shame were at stake. “I would not marry a woman who had kissed another man. Nor would any of my friends,” my friend Raheem said with conviction. He paused for a moment, and then added: “But I do not think she should be killed. That is the difference between us Kabulis and the Taliban.”

"The people of Kabul, they like to say everything bad about the Taliban,” my friend Raz Muhammad said dismissively. He had never once heard of underarm-hair inspections in Kandahar, where he had lived at the height of the theocracy. Raz conceded that the mostly Pashtun Taliban had gotten along particularly badly with the mostly Persian population of Kabul. He added, “You know, the people of Kabul, every time, most of the time, they want the regime of democracy. They need to be so free, whatever they do. The Taliban were the opposite of that. Right now in Kabul, you will see hundreds of women without any burqa. In these areas, Kandahar and Helmand, you will see one woman in a thousand. And she will be a bad woman.”

Raz’s illiberal convictions could be mistaken for Taliban sympathies, especially by someone familiar only with the broad strokes of his biography. He was born in Helmand, a conservative southern province, and spent his adolescence in Pakistan, where he attended a Saudi-funded school with extensive religious instruction. He is a proud ethnic Pashtun, with a passion for the Pashto language and culture. His views on gender, he said, were defined by “the rules of Islam”: women should work only when it is necessary to support their families; in public they ought to veil everything except their feet (below the ankles), their hands (below the wrists), and their faces, from hairline to chin (hiding the neck and hair). When I told him that I had just gotten engaged, Raz asked with some concern whether my fiancée was in love with me. I told him I surely hoped so. He shook his head gravely. “Most Pashtuns would not want their wives to be in love with them. If a woman falls in love once, she can fall in love again.”

Despite these convictions, Raz loathes the Taliban. When I met him, he looked like a Hindi film hero, with fashionable clothes, floppy hair, and a beard trimmed to just beyond stubble length. (He later repented of his un-Islamic appearance and let his beard grow out). Raz loves Pashto popular music and poetry, and has founded an online magazine for aspiring poets like himself. He enjoys the pirated Indian DVDs widely available in the bazaars of Helmand. While life under the Taliban was hardly a reign of terror for young Pashtun men like Raz, he found their strictures deadening. “We could not even go for a picnic without being searched two or three times for a cassette on the way,” Raz recalled.

Raz’s family left Helmand during the early 1990s, when warlords had reduced the country to chaos. They were living in Pakistan when the Taliban swept through southern Afghanistan to restore order. Raz returned to Afghanistan in 1999 to study medicine at the all-male Kandahar University—an experience that turned him permanently against the Taliban. The university appointed three monitors to gauge the students’ hair and beard lengths and check their attendance at prayers. Raz’s best teacher, a physics professor, resigned after a public scolding from the university director for letting students attend class without a turban.

Raz himself quit the university after he was slapped by the director for wearing his shoes into the dining hall, which happened to be part of a mosque. “I was not angry that he slapped me because I went into the mosque with my footwear. It is wrong. He must slap me.” Raz struggled to express the source of his indignation. “But I would have taken off my shoes in a moment. A hundred other students only took off their footwear once they were inside the dining hall. I was a hundred and one. He could give me a warning; he could teach me with love. He could tell me to take off my footwear, and that would have been acceptable for me.”

After leaving the university, Raz helped support his family with odd jobs—from short stints with aid agencies to smuggling bicycle parts to Iran. In 2000 he returned from a trip to Iran with a trimmed beard to attend his brother’s wedding in Helmand. During the celebrations, the Taliban religious police arrested him and jailed him for a night. The warden interrogated Raz to make sure he was a devout Muslim. In the morning Raz had to put his thumbprint on an affidavit that promised he would keep his beard long. He gave his signature and promptly moved back to Pakistan.

Raz, who has grown his beard long again, sounded rueful as he discussed his past indiscretions. “For sure, I was too young at that time. I liked to have long hair, a cut beard, smart-fit design clothes, no turban. That’s why I had trouble.” He didn’t want me to think he was trying to justify those youthful departures from the personal hygiene code. “Actually, these things were not the law of the Taliban, but the way of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

I asked him where he thought the Taliban had departed from Islam. He immediately answered that the Taliban wear their turbans too long, preventing them from touching their heads to the ground properly during prayer. Something deeper seemed to be bothering him, though. After a moment, he offered another answer. “If you catch someone who has very long hair, Islam doesn’t tell you to beat him, or abuse him, or put him in a metal container in the summer heat for ten days. Islam tells you to follow the way of love. You should tell him, ‘Please, do not do that. This thing is not good for you.’”

Raz was the most eloquent of the conservative young Afghans I worked with in the south, but I heard other Pashtun youth express the same basic reactions to the Taliban. The first was bloody-minded resistance to being told what to do; the second was a rejection of the Taliban’s violence in favor of local persuasion. Raz didn’t believe in too much freedom—that was for Kabulis—and, in practice, enforcing modesty through his “way of love” would surely involve much that Westerners would deem coercive. But it was impossible to imagine Raz invading a cosmopolitan enclave like Kabul to impose virtue by armed force.

Today, southern and eastern Afghanistan are unnervingly reminiscent of the anarchic landscape that preceded the rise of the Taliban. Insurgents are fighting a jihad against the government from sanctuaries in Pakistan. The “police” are barely domesticated bandits and militias. The Afghan government may soon make matters worse by authorizing new local militias to fight the insurgency. For most Afghans, Taliban oppression is a secondary worry—they are more likely to be threatened by violent commanders, unchecked tribal feuds, ethnic rivalry, and general lawlessness throughout the country. It was in a similar situation, a decade ago, that Pashtuns across the south and east welcomed the Taliban as authoritarian saviors.

Yet the Taliban remain unpopular. In a December 2006 survey, 89 percent of Afghans around the country viewed the Taliban unfavorably, including 76 percent who viewed them “very” unfavorably. In Kandahar and Helmand, Taliban home turf, their approval rating was hardly any better. Ninety-three percent of Afghans doubt the Taliban can provide security; 84 percent have no confidence in them at all.

The Taliban promise—security through isolation from the outside world and violent imposition of conservative Islamic values—has been tried and found wanting. The next generation of Afghans are defining themselves, in different ways, against it. The insurgency may continue as long as Pakistan supports it, but it will not enjoy the welcome it did in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will continue its awkward infancy, with its loyal cosmopolitan and conservative elements in tension with one another, but not at war.

Funding for this article was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Read more of our Afghanistan coverage here.

About the Author

Joel Hafvenstein is a development worker in Afghanistan and author of Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier (The Lyons Press).