Beauticians on September 9, 2021, painted over large photos of women on the doors of their beauty salons in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, after the Taliban regained control of the country. Photo: AFP / Stringer / Anadolu Agency

It’s official: Afghanistan is no country for women.

Over the weekend, Taliban militiamen took down a sign on a Kabul building that had housed the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with a scary, if not pithily named, billboard for the “Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.”

The former ministry had contained offices that oversaw a $100 million World Bank program to promote women’s and rural economic development. Last Friday, Taliban escorts ushered the staff out of the building.

The replacement ministry appears to be a revival of the morality police office that was notorious, during the 1996-2001 Taliban rule, for enforcing strict, supposedly religious codes on looks and entertainments – and in accord with which women who were deemed immodest were often whipped.

Since the hapless August 31 withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan, diplomats, aid organizations and political leaders in the West have fretted about the future fate of women at school, at work and in public life. During its previous reign, the Taliban curbed participation in all such fields of endeavor.

Taliban leaders insist that they have learned from past mistakes, although apparently subjugation of women is not an error to be rectified.

Middle and high school boys were told to return to class last week, but not girls. Male teachers appeared, but not women. College classes are to be segregated by sex. At some universities, female students have been turned away.

Afghan women airport workers are pictured at a security checkpoint of the airport in Kabul on September 12. Of the more than 80 women working at the airport before Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, just 12 have returned to their jobs. Photo: AFP / Karim Sahib

The Taliban-appointed mayor of the Afghan capital, Kabul, ordered women government workers to stay home, except those involved in technical design or engineering or in cleaning public toilets. Bank managers also sent home their female employees.

Protest processions of women have taken place in Kabul and other major cities, including at the new anti-vice ministry. Earlier in September, some marchers were whipped by armed Taliban militiamen who tried to break up the demonstrations.

Desperate social media appeals to be transported abroad highlight the fear of many urban women whose world has been made frighteningly insecure. They may simply be out of work – permanently. Or in grave danger. One judge told the Canadian Broadcasting Company that, along with Afghan army members, women judges expect to be hunted down by the Taliban.

Such women are on no one’s list for evacuation out of Afghanistan.

Progress toward women’s rights was held up as evidence of success — a kind of trophy of Westernization – over the two decades of US occupation of Afghanistan and the simultaneous American and allied efforts to mold Western-style democracy in Afghanistan.

But for decades, nationalists in the Middle East and Asia, along with fundamentalist Muslims, considered Westernization a virus introduced into the Islamic world to make it weak and submissive. The elevation of women was seen as a battering ram for foreign domination.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, center with shawl, speaks to the media at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the last US plane left. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

In Afghanistan, both Soviet and US occupiers promoted equality between the sexes. For the Taliban, ousting each represented a triumph over Westernization of either the communist or capitalist variety.

“For many Westerners, nothing demonstrates the essentially ‘backward’ or ‘medieval’ nature of Afghan society more than its treatment of women,” writes Scott Levi, a professor of Islamic Central Asian history at Ohio State University. “For many Afghans, nothing represents the perils of encroaching westernization more than the movement for women’s rights.”

Such feelings appear to be deeply embedded in Taliban ideology, especially as regards women’s rights. Note the immediate defacing of walls adorned with portraits of models advertising cosmetics, and the government’s announcement that no woman can aspire to high public office.

Taliban beliefs descend from Salafism, a Muslim sect that interprets religious law in accordance with practices they say characterized Islam’s early years.

Saudi Arabia follows a similar branch of Islam known as Wahhabism, which has heavily influenced the Taliban. Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11, 2001, suicide passenger jet attacks on New York and Washington, was a Wahhabi.

Al-Qaeda and a terrorist offshoot, the Islamic State, have inspired copycat groups in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia.

The US helped overthrow the Taliban on the grounds that they hosted bin Laden. Washington and its allies have expressed concern that al-Qaeda and other transnational terror groups will once again flourish in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration has said it will punish a terrorist revival with military force in the form of bombing from afar.

The Taliban says no terror attacks will emanate from its territory. Yet, the victorious insurgents remain friendly with al-Qaeda and insist the group had nothing to do with 9/11.

Afghan women look out from inside a car as they leave after participating in a women’s rights demonstration in front of the former Ministry of Women Affairs in Kabul on September 19. Photo: AFP / Bulent Kilic

The US invasion morphed into nation-building. With its rejection, Taliban human rights violations are to be handled from afar, by cajoling and the withholding of international recognition and aid.

Washington thinks the Taliban cares about such things and so will reject a repeat of past onerous policies, including abuse of women.

In any case, the Taliban is trying to make sounds pleasing to Western ears, like expressing dismay over reports of women demonstrators being whipped in the streets or insisting all girls will soon be back in school.

Be wary. When Taliban officials recently handed reporters an English-language list of ministries in its new government, the version didn’t include the Up-with-Virtue, Down-with-Vice ministry. Only the Afghan language version did.

It was a clumsy public relations ruse. Anyway, Afghan women aren’t fooled. They are already losing out.

Following a long career as a staff foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, and a spell as an investigator for Human Rights Watch, Daniel Williams currently analyzes global affairs from Rome.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.