By: Somaya Mandgar
Sabira was in a car on her way to Band-e-Amir, the most popular of Afghanistan’s national parks, when she was told the news by the driver: women are no longer allowed to enter the park.
The Taliban decree announced on August 26 left the 20-year-old reeling.
“When we weren’t allowed to enter through the gate of Band-e-Amir after one and a half hours of driving, I thought the world had collapsed on me. My mental state was not good at all. I was asking what we are being humiliated like this for?” She said.
As a Bamyan resident, Sabira frequented the park a few times a year. But the Taliban ban on women entering the park ended even this small freedom she enjoyed.
Band-e-Amir in Bamyan province was the first official national park declared in Afghanistan in 2009 and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Tens of thousands of visitors enter it every year, including foreigners.
It is known for its sweeping natural vistas and naturally formed striking blue lakes. Unesco describes it as having “unique beauty.”
The beauty of the park is what has drawn Razia, 27, to visit several times a year. During her time there, Razia photographs and videos the scenery. She only shares these among her friends, but she never tires of the same scenes.
“The lake with its special beauty and pleasantness captures the eyes of the passers-by. It takes the passer-by to another world,” she says. “Every time I go back to Band-e-Amir, I feel that I have left a piece of my being there. All these are the reasons to go there again and again.”
Razia says the ban issued on August 26 was devastating. “Hearing this news was really hard for me,” she says. “Band-e-Amir is not just a place of entertainment for me, but a place where when I go there, my sorrows are forgotten, and I feel calm.”
She says she is still trying to come to terms with the ban and the Taliban removing even this shred of happiness from women. She still cannot quite believe it.
The Taliban have previously said that visits to the park are booming, with sales from entrance tickets in the past year reaching 5.5 million afghanis (US$70,000). That’s the highest it’s been in four years. In the 1400 solar year (2021) before the fall of the previous government when insecurity was high, revenue from park tickets was 3 million afghanis.
But the Taliban has put a stop to ticket sales at the empty Buddha-shaped caves nearby. The Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha rock carvings in 2001 with explosives, leaving only the outline of the original statues. The Taliban says any income obtained from this site forbidden. The booth that issued tickets has been removed.
A reliable source, who talked on condition of anonymity, said this was done under the verbal order of Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban supreme leader of the Taliban, to the Ministry of Information and Culture.
Why are women forbidden from visiting the national park?
Mohammad Zahir*, 18, is one of those who attended the August 26 speech of Mohammad Khalid Hanafi, the Taliban’s acting Minister of the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, at the Grand Mosque of the Hajj and Endowment Directorate of the Taliban. Zahir says some religious scholars had complained about the state of women’s clothing in their speeches before Mr Hanafi spoke and issued the ban. One of those who was particularly strident in his anger about women’s clothing was Mawlawi Mohammad Asif Burhani.
According to Zahir, Mr Burhani had said that women’s clothing in Bamyan had not changed since the Republic era [the previous government under Ashraf Ghani], suggesting that it was immodest. Mr Burhani also commented that women’s visits to the market have not decreased either.
The Sunni cleric called on Mr Hanafi to“seriously” deal with enforcing the Taliban’s interpretation of the hijab. Zahir says that Mr Burhani is known to be one of the most extreme clerics who is not satisfied with the Taliban’s restrictions against women and insists on still stricter measures.
Zahir said that Sayed Nasrullah Waezi, the head of the Shiite Ulema Council of Bamyan Center, delivered his speech defending the women of Bamyan, and blamed women who are not from Bamyan as the ones who weren’t wearing the Taliban-prescribed hijab.
But Zahir says Mr Waezi’s attempt to perhaps soften the decree failed. Soon after, Mr Hanafi announced, “We will close Band-e-Amir Lake on women and sisters to prevent the lack of adherence to the clothing order or hijab.”
The ban on women visiting the national park has sparked widespread reaction. Heather Barr, Associate director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with AFP that the decision to ban women from the park was “intentional and extremely cruel.”
Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, demanded an explanation from the Taliban. In a tweet on X, formerly called Twitter, he asked, What does this ban have to do with Sharia and Afghan culture?
The ban is particularly painful to those who live nearby and who rely on the tourism industry.
Gulpari Azimi*, 28, was a student of tourism at Bamyan University. She says the ban “takes bread from the poor” people in Bamyan. “More than 100,000 tourists visit this natural landscape every year and the influx of this number of tourists makes the economy of the people of Bamyan grow and for many people of this province create jobs,” she says.
For others, it’s another shocking restriction in two years of a Taliban focus on shutting down women’s rights, mostly recently with the banning of women’s beauty salons and hairdressers. “The Taliban are practically imprisoning women with such decisions,” Bamyan resident Zahra, 25, said.
The Taliban have previously deprived women from visiting most other recreational spaces. Last year, they banned women from going to fun parks in Kabul and in a number of other cities. They have banned women from eating at garden restaurants and visiting some public parks.
*Names have been changed to protect identities