As she and a friend shopped in the Macroyan area of Kabul on a Sunday, Arooza was furious and fearful, keeping a watchful eye out for the Taliban on patrol.
The math instructor feared that her huge shawl, wrapped tightly around her head and flowing pale brown coat, did not comply with the latest directive of the religiously motivated Taliban leadership. After all, she revealed more than just her eyes, and her face could be seen.
Arooza, who requested anonymity to avoid attracting attention, was not wearing the full-body burqa demanded by the Taliban. They announced a new clothing rule for women appearing in public on Saturday, and the decree said that just a woman's eyes might be exposed.
The Taliban's hardline leader, Hibaitullah Akhunzada, issued a rule suggesting that women should not leave their houses unless essential and outlining sanctions for male relatives of women who violate the code.
It was a tremendous setback for Afghan women's rights, who had enjoyed relative independence for two decades before the Taliban takeover in August — when the U.S. and other foreign forces retreated in the chaotic aftermath of a 20-year war.
Akhunzada, a reclusive leader, rarely leaves southern Kandahar, the traditional Taliban bastion. During the group's previous period in power in the 1990s, when girls and women were mainly prohibited from school, work, and public life, he supported the group's draconian policies.
As did the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, Akhunzada imposes a rigorous form of Islam that fuses religion with traditional tribal traditions, frequently blurring the distinction between the two.
Analysts claim that Akhunzada has interpreted tribal village traditions in which girls frequently marry at puberty and rarely leave their homes as a religious duty.
As they strive to move from an insurgency to a governing body, the Taliban have been divided between pragmatists and hardliners. Their government has been grappling with a rising economic crisis in the meantime. And the Taliban's efforts to get recognition and aid from Western nations have mainly failed due to their failure to build a more representative administration and their restriction of girls' and women's rights.
Up until now, movement hardliners and pragmatics have avoided confrontation.
On the eve of the new school year in March, when Akhunzada delivered a last-minute decision that girls should not be permitted to attend school after completing the sixth grade, divides were exacerbated. In the weeks preceding the beginning of the school year, senior Taliban officials promised journalists that all girls would be left to return to school. Allowing older girls to return to school, according to Akhunzada, violates Islamic teachings.
A prominent Afghan who often interacts with the leadership and is familiar with their internal disputes reported that a top Cabinet minister voiced his fury over Akhunzada's opinions during a recent leadership meeting. He spoke anonymously to speak freely.
Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser, believes that Taliban commanders have chosen not to engage in public conflict because any perception of splits could threaten their power.
"The leadership disagrees on a number of issues, but they are all aware that if they do not maintain unity, everything could fall apart," Farhadi said. In that situation, they may engage in conflict with one another.
"Because of this, the elders have decided to tolerate each other, even when it comes to non-agreeable decisions that are causing a great deal of controversy in Afghanistan and abroad," Farhadi explained.
Some more pragmatic leaders appear to be searching for hidden alternatives that will soften the strict rules. Even among the most senior Taliban officials, there has been a growing chorus to return older females to school while silently rejecting other harsh edicts.
This month, Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, who leads the formidable Haqqani network, told a conference in the eastern city of Khost that girls have a right to education and will soon return to school, but he did not specify when. He also stated that women played a role in nation-building.
This issue will be fixed in the following days, Haqqani stated.
Sunday in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, women wore the traditionally conservative Muslim garb. As instructed by the Taliban leader a day earlier, most women donned a traditional hijab consisting of a headscarf and a long robe or coat, but few concealed their faces. Those who wore a burqa, a full-body garment covering the front and hiding the eyes with netting, were in the minority.
"Women in Afghanistan wear the hijab, and many wear the burqa, but this isn't about the hijab; this is about the Taliban's desire to make all women disappear," said Shabana, who wore brilliant gold bangles beneath her long black coat and disguised her hair behind a headscarf with sequins. This is due to the Taliban's desire to render us invisible.
Arooza stated that the Taliban's reign forced Afghans to flee their nation. "Why should I stay if they refuse to grant us our human rights? We are human, she declared.
Several women paused to converse. They all contested the most recent decree.
"We don't want to live in prison," said Parveen, who, like the other women, only wanted to be identified by her first name.
"These edicts seek to erase an entire gender and generation of Afghans who grew up dreaming of a better world," said Obaidullah Baheer, a visiting scholar at New York's New School and former professor at the American University of Afghanistan.
It compels families to leave the nation by whatever means possible. It also stokes resentments that will inevitably lead to massive mobilization against the Taliban," he warned.
Baheer stated that after decades of war, it would not have taken much for the Taliban to make Afghans satisfied with their rule, "an opportunity that they are wasting quickly."