I was in Kabul when the Taliban entered the city. I came out of the class where I taught English and saw that people were running, cars were honking at each other, and some women were covering their faces with veils. A couple of minutes passed and my colleagues shouted to stop a taxi so that we could leave the building. After the fall of the government on August 15, 2021, on our way to the centre of the city, I noticed that military officers were taking off their clothes, women covering their faces, and police leaving their Ford Rangers on the street. This marked the beginning of a new era of modesty.
After the fall of the government on August 15, 2021, on our way to the centre of the city, I noticed that military officers were taking off their clothes, women covering their faces, and police leaving their Ford Rangers on the street. This marked the beginning of a new era of modesty.
After the 2020 Doha peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban, Afghanis believed that the Taliban had changed. On the contrary, the Taliban showed their true identity almost immediately. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was phased out and instead the Ministry of Vice and Virtue was introduced. Soon it became clear that the top priority of the new ministry was the appearance of women, as they announced a series of orders giving specific instructions on women’s clothing. The Taliban believe that women’s modesty can only be expressed through the chadari or ‘black Burqa’, a long, thick dress.
But with a national government in transition, the threat of widespread famine, and their promise to eliminate corruption, why are the Taliban so concerned with the seemingly superficial issue of controlling women’s clothing? The answer lies in the Taliban’s interpretation of the Islamic principle of modesty, and in the long history of state efforts to control women’s clothing in Afghanistan. The Taliban believe that wearing the chadari is a necessary part of modesty for women. Under this view, traditional dress and hijabs are required to preserve one’s family honour.
Yet the Taliban’s conception of modesty is by no means widespread in my region in northern Afghanistan, Balkh. When I speak to the women in my life about what modesty means to them, the overwhelming pattern that emerges is a belief that modesty is a necessity, but that a specific expression of modesty such as the hijab should be a matter of choice. Men or women may choose to express modesty through their clothing, and doing so can, in its own way, be liberating. But it is this choice, rather than adherence to any strictly prescribed rules, which preserves their honour, and that of their families. It is only with the freedom to choose that expressing modesty through clothing can be meaningful.
It is this choice, rather than adherence to any strictly prescribed rules, which preserves their honour, and that of their families.
These different interpretations of modesty translate into different views on clothing. However, the Taliban’s rigid definition of modesty and, hence, insistence on traditional dress does not just come from their religious beliefs. The traditional chadari has also gained a lot of importance for the Taliban as a statement about Afghanistan’s history, position in the world and future direction. In Afghanistan women’s clothing has unfortunately often become a symbolic marker for the reforming or orthodox credentials of different ruling groups in the twentieth century. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is Amanullah Khan and his Queen Soraya Tarzi.
Amanullah was a complex figure, going to war in 1919 to win independence from the British Empire, but at the same time implementing westernising reforms, including reserving certain streets in Kabul for those in western dress. Yet Soraya Tarzi, daughter of the influential, Atatürk-inspired reformer Mahmud Tarzi, was the real driving force behind much change in women’s lives. Her cultural influence on the lives of Afghani women perhaps culminated in 1929, when she dramatically removed her veil in public, with governmental staff following suit.
The royal couple were popular in Europe, but for many, particularly in rural Afghanistan, the pace of reform was too fast, and this was one cause of the Khost rebellion. The reactionary Muhammad Nadir Shah took power in 1929 but was in turn assassinated in 1933 and replaced by the cautious reformer Muhammad Zahir Shah. This pattern of reform followed by periods of greater conservatism has been repeated under different ruling groups to this day, and female modesty, most visible in clothing, has always been a significant symbolic issue. Rulers have taken the opportunity to display either their modernising or conservative credentials by enforcing their ideals of female dress.
This is the context in which we must understand the Taliban’s policy 1996-2001. Instituting clothing requirements was a political tool long before the Taliban came to power. Enforcing the traditional chadari, with all that it symbolised, was consequently central to the Taliban’s image-making, as a historical and cultural, not just religious statement. Thus the Taliban’s first takeover saw strict enforcement of the Taliban’s style of modesty, a dark period in the history of hijab in Afghanistan.
In the long history of rulers seeking to control women’s clothing, the freedom for many women to define one’s own conception of modesty in the last 20 years has been something of a golden period. After the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, chadari started to disappear. Loose pants, tight jeans, colourful veils, T-shirts, and short dresses became the new style for women. In my birthplace, Balkh, blue and red dresses alongside a pink and white veil used to be the fashion on hot summer days. After the return of immigrants from neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan as well as western countries like the USA and Europe, women’s taste in clothing had changed. Women who worked in the government and school teachers were loyal wearers of corti-daman, a women's suit. Women who worked in higher ranks in government used to wear wrangler jeans and a dark or occasionally a bright shirt with colourful manteaux and short scarfs.
These were clothes from different brands, stylish but Islamic and modest at the same time.
Some might view this as no more than the importing of western culture into Afghanistan. For many, however, this period was something new – an exciting third way between merely copying western dress like Amanullah Khan and the patriarchal orthodoxy of the Taliban. Diverse and creative expressions of modesty in clothing had more meaning, since they were freely chosen.
The ‘Talibanisation’ of Afghanistan has destroyed this period of creative adaptation and invention through regulations which are designed to reverse the cultural change we have seen. They are enforced through the threat and realisation of extreme violence. Now the Taliban categorise women into two groups depending on their expression of modesty. There are those who wear the Taliban’s desired hijab – viewed as true Islamic individuals, who hold up their families’ honour, and are therefore loved by God and the people. Women who choose modesty on their own terms – those who consider the Islamic hijab as one of many clothing options – are branded individuals who are supported by western countries to spread antagonism and immorality among Muslims in Afghanistan. This leaves the women in my life with an impossible choice between their family’s honour and their own freedom of expression, with the threat of violence ever-present.