The Taliban have held their first official news conference in Kabul since the shock seizure of the city, declaring they wanted peaceful relations with other countries and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.
The movement’s main spokesman, Zabihulla Mujahid, said the insurgents seek no revenge and that “everyone is forgiven”.
“We don’t want any internal or external enemies,” Mr Mujahid said.
He said women would be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam”.
“The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women under the laws of sharia,” he said.
“We are going to allow women to work and study within frameworks”.
Some women have already been ordered from their jobs during the chaos of Taliban advances across the country in recent days.
Others are fearful that whatever the militants say, the reality may be different.
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‘Times have changed’
The Taliban’s vague reassurances to women and girls have done little to quell concerns and female leaders have put forward promises of their own: that they will not be silenced.
“The Taliban are aware they can’t silence us, and if they shut down the internet the world will know in less than five minutes,” said Khadija, who runs a religious school for girls in Afghanistan.
“They will have to accept who we are and what we have become.”
That defiance reflects a generation of women, mainly in urban centres, who have grown up being able to attend school and university and to find jobs.
When the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, their strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law – sometimes brutally enforced – dictated that women could not work and girls were not allowed to attend school.
Women had to cover their face and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to venture out of their homes. Those who broke the rules sometimes suffered humiliation and public beatings by the Taliban’s religious police.
In the past two years, when it became clear that foreign troops were planning to withdraw from Afghanistan, Taliban leaders made assurances to the West that women would enjoy equal rights in accordance with Islam, including access to employment and education.
But Afghan girls’ education activist Pashtana Durrani, 23, is wary of Taliban promises.
“They have to walk the talk. Right now they’re not doing that,” she told Reuters, referring to assurances that girls would be allowed to attend schools.
“If they limit the curriculum, I am going to upload more books to (an) online library. If they limit the internet … I will send books to homes. If they limit teachers I will start an underground school, so I have an answer for their solutions.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head by a Pakistani gunman in 2012 after she campaigned for girls’ rights to education, said she was deeply concerned about the situation in Afghanistan.
“I had the opportunity to talk to a few activists in Afghanistan, including women’s rights activists, and they are sharing their concern that they are not sure what their life is going to be like,” Ms Yousafzai told the BBC.
The Taliban also said it would not seek retribution against former soldiers and members of the Western-backed government.
The group’s spokesman said the movement was granting an amnesty for former Afghan government soldiers as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.
“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” Mr Mujahid said.
He said the Taliban “want the world to trust us”.
“I would like to assure all our compatriots, whether translators or those in military activities or civilians, all of them have been pardoned, nobody is going to be treated with revenge,” Mr Mujahid said.
He said private media could continue to be free and independent in Afghanistan, adding the Taliban was committed to the media within its cultural framework.
Mr Mujahid’s conciliatory tone contrasted sharply with comments by Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the “legitimate caretaker president” and vowed that he would not bow to Kabul’s new rulers.
The Taliban news conference came as the US and Western allies evacuated diplomats and civilians the day after scenes of chaos at Kabul airport as Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban thronged to the terminal.
The Biden administration confirmed it had secured an agreement with the Taliban to allow evacuees a safe passage to the Kabul airport.
As they rush to evacuate diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan, foreign powers are assessing how to respond to changed situation on the ground.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Taliban should allow all those who wanted to leave the country to depart, adding that NATO’s aim was to help build a viable state in Afghanistan.
There has been widespread criticism of the US withdrawal amid the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “the images of despair at Kabul airport shame the political West”.
Under a US troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.