As Afghan women remained cloistered at home in Kabul, fearful for their lives and their futures, a starkly different image played out on Tuesday on Tolo News, an Afghan television station: a female presenter interviewing a Taliban official.
Sitting several feet away from Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a member of the Taliban’s media team, the host, Beheshta Arghand, asked him about the situation in Kabul and the Taliban’s conducting house-to-house searches in the Afghan capital.
“The entire world now recognizes that the Taliban are the real rulers of the country,” he said, adding: “I am still astonished that people are afraid of Taliban.”
For many observers conditioned by the Taliban’s repressively patriarchal views, the optics were striking. Kabul residents have been tearing down advertisements showing women without head scarves in recent days for fear of antagonizing the Taliban, whose ideology disqualifies women from much of public life.
“Our female presenter is interviewing a Taliban media team member live in our studio” Tolo’s head of news, Miraqa Popal, wrote on Twitter.
Afghanistan observers said that while such interviews were rare, it was not the first time the Taliban had engaged publicly with female interviewers, even as the group preached a policy of exclusion that deprives women of rights and education.
Matthieu Aikins, a journalist who has reported widely on Afghanistan, described the interview as “remarkable, historic, heartening.” But he noted that during recent peace talks in Doha, the Taliban had given access to female journalists from Afghanistan and other countries.
The all-male Taliban delegation that participated in the peace talks also engaged with an the Afghan government’s team that included some female members.
In an apparent attempt to tame fears about what their takeover might mean for human rights, the insurgent group has also urged women to join its government.
But the notion that the Taliban will suddenly change their ways has been greeted with deep skepticism in recent days. “Please spare a thought for the people women and girls of Afghanistan,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “A tragedy unfolds in front of our eyes.”
When the Taliban governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school.
After the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban, women’s rights became a rallying cry. Over two decades, the United States invested more than $780 million to promote women’s rights. Girls and women have joined the military and police forces, held political office, and competed in the Olympics and on robotics teams, doing things that once seemed unimaginable.
Now, fears are growing that all those hard-won rights will disappear.
Tolo News has been an independent force in the Afghanistan news media landscape, showing soap operas and reality shows that run counter to the Taliban’s conservative ethos.
After their recent capture of Kabul, the Taliban entered Tolo’s news compound, collecting all state-issued weapons, and offering to help secure the compound.
Saad Mohseni, the chief executive of Moby Media Group, which oversees Tolo News, told the BBC that the Taliban had been professional and polite. But he said he suspected that his station’s content, especially entertainment, would face eventual censorship.
“The Taliban are scrambling to take control,” he said.