This Was a Buzzing College Campus—Then the Taliban Came
Women make up most of the student body at the main university in Herat city. But the overwhelming feeling since the Taliban took over—one resident told The Daily Beast—is “horror.”
HERAT, Afghanistan—“It’s like being under siege” is how one medicine student, who The Daily Beast is referring to as Fatima, describes life under the Taliban in the city of Herat. “Most of my friends are still too afraid to leave their houses. And the Taliban are starting to search for people.” She worries that if The Daily Beast uses her real name, she will go on one of the Taliban’s much feared kill lists. “I’d have to delete my social media conversations after this, for my and my family’s safety,” she said.
Unlike the streets of central Kabul, dominated by their concrete walls and barbed wire, Herat’s wide avenues are filled with trees. The city is home to some of Afghanistan’s most historic buildings, such as its breathtaking blue mosque and an ancient citadel. Supposedly built by Alexander the Great, it was restored by a German-led construction effort. Herat has long been a center of culture and education for the region, producing many of the great Farsi poets. This year, women accounted for over half of Herat University’s 11,000 students. Now, the city—once famed for Sufi mysticism—is firmly under the Taliban’s rule, and its future as a cosmopolitan capital is extremely uncertain.
“The Taliban are the enemies of learning, of progress, of education,” one former lecturer at the university told The Daily Beast from his home in June. “They have not changed at all and will act just the same if they return.”
“Honestly, we wish the Russians would come back!” he added, referring to the period when a government backed by the Soviet Union controlled much of the country in the 1980s. “Things were better then than they have ever been since.”
Reports from Herat suggest that while the Taliban are trying to appear more progressive when it comes to the rights of women, they are reverting to the fundamentalism of their previous rule on other matters.
For now, the women and girls in Herat are still in school. But the terror inflicted by the Taliban is still clear; residents who spoke with The Daily Beast described accused thieves being paraded through the streets with their faces blackened and nooses around their necks. The next step, according to the barbaric law code practiced by the Taliban, is to have their hands cut off. As recently as 2017, Taliban members cut off the hand and foot of suspected thief Ghulam Farooq in the same province. Is this the Taliban’s vaunted progress?
Reports have also emerged that the Taliban executed an important military commander by firing squad in the middle of the city shortly after the surrender of the city. One former security official told The I paper that the group was searching for his colleagues, who were in hiding.
The humanitarian situation is becoming critical. Many locals remain afraid to leave their houses for fear of both the Taliban and local criminal elements. Many local medical clinics still remain closed, and the local branch of Médecins Sans Frontières said in a statement that they were seeing an upsurge in patients, including 47 children they were treating for acute malnutrition, and another 47 people who were in critical care with COVID-19.
One Herati resident, a teacher, described the mood as “horror… no one dares to go out, especially women. There is a decrease in food production and schools and universities are shut off. There are many refugees trying to get across the [Iranian] border illegally.” Another resident was more optimistic about the situation, saying “most civilians have not been harassed. They search your car if you enter the city center but it is rather quiet. The bigger problem is the economy and no one is working.”
The fall of Herat city just two weeks ago was the writing on the wall for the Afghan government. One day, its famed warlord Ismail Khan, the “Lion of Herat,” was claiming he would resist the Taliban until his death. The next, he went cap in hand to surrender. It was after this that cities such as Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and, eventually, Kabul fell like dominoes to the insurgents. The world’s attention is still on the chaos at Kabul airport as the U.S. and its allies scramble to evacuate citizens and at-risk Afghans alike. But the Taliban’s actions in provinces like Herat, where they have been in power for several weeks, give some clues as to how they could govern the whole country after western forces' ignominious departure.
In the 1990s, the Taliban enforced an extreme version of Sharia that prevented women from almost all forms of work or education. They could not leave home without a full burqa and in the company of a male relative. Now, the extremist group have claimed at their first press conference that women could work, but “in accordance with the principles of Islam,” claiming that the group’s 20-year insurgency had given it “experience, maturity and insight.”
At first, it seemed like the old order had returned. All the women who tried to enter the university were turned back, and were told that a Taliban council would be deciding whether they could return to their studies. The council reportedly circulated a decree mandating a burqa. But after the fall of Kabul, they appear to have softened their tone, giving the green light for the university to return to session this week, and allowing women to wear a hijab instead of the full burqa, according to Fatima.
Still, life in Herat has clearly been upended. Residents who spoke to The Daily Beast describe deserted streets, and that the Taliban, although almost completely absent during the day, have set up checkpoints throughout the city at night. They’ve also declared plans to prohibit coeducation. The mixing of the sexes in school, one Taliban official said with a straight face, was “the root of all evils in society.”
When The Daily Beast visited a mixed sex school in Hashimi district in rural Herat in June of this year, the Taliban were putting intense pressure on girls to stop their education. One 9-year-old girl said that the Taliban had threatened her family, saying she was of an age she should stop going to school. Another older girl said her close friend had lost a leg after standing on a landmine as they walked the hour-long trek from their village to the school and back.
Obaidullah Baheer, a local Afghan journalist, reported on Twitter that the Taliban “initially demanded that women can only be taught by other female teachers. Upon protests by the admin, stating the lack of females, the commission replied that it was the fault of the university for not having produced enough female lecturers through the years. The Taliban did not struggle for 20 years for a non-Islamic set up for education to be in place.”
But students The Daily Beast spoke to were worried that this was just the first step on the road to banning women’s education outright. They say that the Taliban is only pretending to be progressive while international media attention is on them, and foreign troops are still on Afghan soil.
“I think they are just trying to make us go to the university so they can get information on us,” Fatima says, “we don’t trust them… we are frightened this situation will not last for long.”
She added, “The Taliban haven’t changed one bit… once they get complete control, they will go back to their roots.”