It was a place that inspired The Beatles and started the Boho fashion you still see on Instagram today. Yes, we mean Afghanistan — as hard as that is to believe at the moment. In the ’60s, many Afghan gals looked a lot more like the rest of the modern world with heels and bob haircuts. When the Taliban took over, they were suddenly banned from working, learning anything, or showing their faces in public. Music itself was outlawed, in all forms. And that’s just the beginning! Let’s look at some fascinating vintage photos of Afghanistan to see what has truly been erased by extremists.
There Was a Time When Local Women Wore Short Skirts and Heels
Without a doubt, Afghanistan has long been a divided society. From the 1950s onward, things started to get westernized in the cosmopolitan pockets. Modernism was a rough ride for some, but there were major steps in big cities like Kabul. Because it was a country in the middle of Cold War America and the USSR, Afghans were actually influenced by both. Women wore miniskirts and heels, believe it or not!
This time was a brief, peaceful era. Along with new fashion, residents noticed the development of modern buildings in the capital, replacing traditional mud structures. There was prosperity and liberty in the central Asian nation. Would the cultural freedom last?
The Taliban Took Over and Mandated Burqas for Adult Women
Sadly, not at all. When the Taliban seized power in 1996, fashion went back a thousand years overnight. The group mandated a full burqa for all women, going beyond hijab traditions in other Islamic countries. The garment actually originated in India, not Afghanistan. The Taliban loved the idea, though. Under threat of beatings or death, females were covered from head to toe. Their faces were gone. And they could only see through a mesh screen in public.
The most commonly sold color was blue, and millions were bought. The average temperature in summer is always around 100° Fahrenheit, which makes this garment impractical. Even the evenings are uncomfortable during the hot months.
Afghanistan Used to Have Ancient Buddhist Relics, but Not Anymore
Today, we think of Afghanistan as a deeply religious Muslim majority nation. But was it always that way? Surely not, since Islam is even newer than Christianity. Afghanistan once had a major Buddhist presence: Thousands of monks would meditate in its caves, and this led to the construction of giant monuments. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were some of the most notable examples, built in the 6th-century. What were they like?
Experts say that the Buddhas were influenced by the Sasanian Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the country of Tokharistan. They were archeological wonders, by any definition. But they would not last long, once the Taliban seized control.
The Taliban Blew up This Giant Statue Because It Was an Idol
As soon as they could, the Taliban got to work removing what they called graven images. Any art that depicted other religions had to be erased, or in this case, exploded to smithereens. But this took many tries. Taliban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal explained, at the time: “This work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You can’t knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain”.
After trying anti-aircraft guns and artillery for a few days, a new strategy was needed. The Taliban tried dynamite, and that seemed to help. Eventually, the statues were completely removed. International opinion condemned this historical destruction. But, that was that.
Not All Afghans Were Modern, but That Was Changing by the ’60s
The West today probably only knows Afghanistan as a country ravaged by war. It’s true that invasion after invasion has impacted the landscape and aesthetics. But looking back before its difficult days, Afghanistan had a lot going on. A series of kings had taken steps to modernize roads and create banks and universities. Fashion from abroad started to become popular, and Afghans were a free people. Can you see it on these faces?
Looking at these gentlemen, you can see a few familiar fashion choices: Wool blazers and button-up shirts. But they also stuck with their unique Afghan hats, which perfectly symbolize the time. Traditions were mixing. And that’s something Taliban fighters would soon kill thousands to erase.
The Taliban Publicly Burned TV Sets and Film Reels for the Sake of Modesty
If you want to root out foreign influence from your culture, it’s no easy task. But is it impossible? The Taliban took an all-out approach, as this photo of a pile of burning televisions explains without words. One Taliban fighter did give a few, though, to a Westen journalist at the time: “We are destroying TVs because they aren’t good for Afghans and Afghanistan…It’s fine for you, but not for us.”
The group did not stop at TV sets, by any means. They also seized musical recordings, film reels, and pictures of women without burqas. This was all done because of the group’s strict interpretation of Islam. No more movie theaters for Afghans. All forms of music were banned. Really, all music!
Strolling Around Town Was a Perfectly Normal Activity for Women
Kabul is the 3,500-year-old capital of Afghanistan, and it was always the place to be for politics, education, and culture. But one more thing made it famous: Its world-class bazaars! Vistors could always count on fascinating sights, smells, and sounds. Pul-e Khishti Bazaar was one of the oldest and most beautiful outdoor markets anywhere. From vibrant clothing and traditional rugs to freshly slaughtered meat, there was something for everyone. Even women!
Yes, even women. In the market, it was common to see them strolling around, enjoying the atmosphere. Here, one Afghan woman in a sleeveless dress and a modern haircut negotiates prices with merchants. This was normal in the ’60s. But as we know now, it’s a sight that disappeared under Taliban rule.
Women Could No Longer Leave Their House Without a Male Guardian
It’s not just that clothing changed, which it did. The social customs imposed on women at all levels of society were drastic. As a new rule, burqa-clad women were not allowed to leave the house alone anymore. They had to have a male escort, which could even mean their minor son. For those without a husband, a brother, or a son, there was no way to walk around without fear of violent punishment.
This affected adult women, teens, and girls alike. In a notable example, Kabul’s largest state-run orphanage was filled with girls. The female workers were all fired, and the girls were locked inside the building for a year. No outside time for recreation was allowed since the orphans lacked a male relative.
Afghan Women Were Once Allowed To Work and Serve As Political Council Members
Long before the Soviets, Americans, or the Taliban, Afghanistan was ruled by kings. Over the decades of its monarchs, the country had a series of constitutions. Afghanistan was developing politically, and rights were increasing for both women and men in society. More than half a century ago, women were allowed to work, learn, vote, and even be a candidate for a political post. Indeed, women served on local tribal councils all over the country.
Women were actually very integrated into the workforce before the Taliban took over in 1996. At that time, stats say that they were 75 percent of health professionals and 60 percent of the civil service. They worked in tech at the radio stations, and in the fields as farmers. It was jarring to become home-bound, for millions.
Under New Taliban Laws, Work Was Completely Banned for Women
The Taliban decreed that a mixed-sex workplace was a breach of Muslim law. But truthfully, they didn’t want women in any office, even single-gendered. All females lost their jobs, in a single day. A lot of that work was in education, and rich, modern families had no interest in sticking around under these conditions. Many fled for Pakistan, where there would still be enough teachers for their daughters and sons.
To supplement the lost income, the Taliban gave salaries to thousands of women who now sat at home. They also encouraged extended families to offer more financial aid. But this was imperfect, to say the least. Many families struggled to support their own kids, let alone extra cousins or sisters.
Modern Reforms Mandated That Girls Under 16 Could Not Be Married Off
King Amanullah Khan was one Afghan king around the turn of the century. In 1919, he announced a series of reforms to modernize the country. His updated constitution guaranteed rights for both sexes, and that extended to many traditional areas of life. Child marriage was banned, to both the delight and the dismay of many in the country. In practice, this meant 16 and up for girls, and 18 and up for boys.
The new rules were not always followed and were rarely enforced. Rival clans would still exchange child brides to settle disputes, and engaged in traditional practices. But the idea was symbolically on the books. How would the Taliban approach this issue when they took power in 1996?
Now that the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan once again, many locals fear for child brides. The practice has been going on for centuries, resisting reform. Taliban ideology does not oppose the concept, and reports have surfaced of fighters making demands on local villages to hand over their daughters. Guaranteeing men a young wife is a practice that helped recruit fighters. What will happen if a family does not comply?
Based on past experience, few Afghans will want to find out. The Taliban once used sports stadiums for executions and mutilations on a daily basis, in front of local crowds. After the takeover in 2021, all girls over the age of 15 were ordered to be given to the group.
Afghan Designs Were Once a Must-Have for Fashionistas
It’s hard to imagine now, but Afghanistan was once a destination for hippie backpackers and rockstars. It was considered to have uncharted natural beauty, and something that became increasingly popular in the 1960s. The Beatles famously made a visit and came back with Afghan-inspired fashion. The country’s signature coat became an export, and the fad meant they could double their prices. Westerners couldn’t get enough of that inside-out sheepskin, tanned yellow and embroidered with flowers.
The fashion has come back periodically, at Western stores. It is a Bohemian staple on Instagram to this day. But the unique styles that inspired spreads in Vogue magazine would completely disappear in 1996. The Taliban were the fashion police, literally.
Taliban Life Meant Full Shops Stocked Full of Burkas
Taliban fashion no-nos in 1996 shocked the world. According to the ruling group’s spokesman, “the face of a woman is a source of corruption”. This meant that the burqa was a great solution since it completely covered the human face. Women were able to buy as many burqas as they desired, but a few other items were outlawed explicitly. High-heeled shoes were banned, since female footsteps excited men. Then, there was the issue of nail polish.
Colored nails were totally banned. Once, a woman was caught violating the rule, and it didn’t turn out well: Her fingertip was cut off, so she could learn. In 2021, many fear these rules and practices will be back.
Looking at these two, it’s easy to relate to their love. As Westerners, we see a tall, dark, and handsome man. His arm is around the shoulders of his beautiful wife, who sports a bob with bangs. They look well dressed and seem to be enjoying each other’s company in the great outdoors of Afghanistan. How very natural, isn’t it? In the 1960s, this was not an unusual sight to see.
It’s hard to believe, lost in this moment. But the Taliban would radically change what it meant to spend time with one’s love in public. In 1996, a new reality was created. What do husbands and wives look like, in the Taliban’s perfect world?
Couplehood Under the Taliban Certainly Looks Different
This couple has decided to hang out in public together. It’s after 1996: The Taliban have a lot of thoughts on public behavior, and now that these two have left the home, many additional rules apply. The woman’s face must be covered, and she must speak in a voice that is so quiet, a stranger cannot hear it. The hushed tone would also apply in a private group of women. Audible voices are banned.
The consequences for disobeying are severe. As a woman, showing your face or talking loudly would get you beaten in the streets, at the very least. Violence was key to maintain social order, back in the 1990s.
In the ’60s, the Afghanistan Airport Wasn’t So Busy
As the country tried to modernize, international flights became a necessity. Modern travelers were not willing to take a train that far. And since the country is landlocked, there was no sea option, either. Thus, the development of Ariana Afghan Airlines took place, which today is still the nation’s largest airline. Founded in 1955, the company made its main base at Kabul International Airport. Would this industry be the step Afghans needed to become part of the world, for real?
Sadly, no. When the Taliban took over, the airline was banned from Europe. Osama Bin Laden used Ariana with their blessing to ferry around weapons, cash, and live terrorists. Yikes!
Thousands Screamed for Flights After the Taliban Returned in 2021
After the Taliban took over a major airport and surrounded Kabul, people were stranded on the way to the remaining airport. Would the Taliban let them in? According to President Biden: “As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban: If they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the US presence will be swift and the response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.”
It may take time to see the final outcome, but for now, we have this aerial shot. Planes are arriving, and people are leaving. Will the flights come soon enough? Only time will tell.
When the Taliban Took Over Again in 2021, This Reporter Was on the Ground
Afghanistan is now entering a new phase, yet an old phase. When the situation began deteriorating in 2021, international media was on-site to document it all. The final 24 hours before U.S. evacuation produced some interesting content on CNN. Reporter Clarissa Ward realized the new reality in real time. She later recalled: “It certainly felt like we had a front-row seat to history and it’s an extraordinary moment to witness.”
Most viewers at home didn’t tune in until the last moments. They probably assumed Afghanistan was under the status quo of the previous 20 years. But after the president flew away and the Taliban surrounded the capital, thousands began flooding the airports.
Within 24 Hours, You Could See the Extreme Change for Afghans in Her Outfit
Within the day, Clarissa had dramatically changed her appearance. She was still breaking news to CNN viewers and seemed unharmed. But her uniform was decidedly more conservative. In full hijab and robes, she tried to interview the Taliban on camera about why they were holding sticks. Also, what did they plan to do with women? Killings had begun in retaliation for years of Taliban exile, and journalists were nearby.
People were shocked by the before and after images on TV. Things had turned so fast, while most of us weren’t watching. As a nearby group chanted “death to America”, Clarissa reported: “They seem friendly at the same time. It’s utterly bizarre.”
Afghan Men Actually Used to Shave Their Beard and Mustaches
The truth is, men in ’60s Afghanistan did not always follow Islam to the letter of the law. When it came to facial hair, for example, there were a wide variety of styles seen on the street. The issue of beards in Islam goes right back to Muhammad. The religion’s prophet was described as bearded, and many scholars prescribe the same for followers today. It seems that not everyone knew that, here. Or maybe, they didn’t care.
We can’t say know their motivation, for sure. But it remains an issue throughout the Muslim world today. Some adherents quote scripture on the subject, saying that shaving defies the natural order in the world, between male and female. Did the Taliban agree?
The Taliban Beat Men Whose Beards Were Not Long Enough
They certainly did. Reports indicate that men started growing out their beards in advance of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. Maybe that’s because they remember what happened last time around, in 1996. Men were regularly beaten in the street if their beards were too short. Osama Bin Laden’s beard was an ideal, according to these enforcers. That wasn’t the only thing imposed on men, whether or not they were devout in their hearts.
Those who did not attend Friday prayers were beaten, and it got much worse if you openly criticized the religion. Blasphemy was punished by death, and the group made good on this promise. It was a regular occurrence in the 1990s, and many fear a return to those norms in 2020s.
The Taliban Showed up in the Palace in 2021 and We Knew It Was Over
The entire world was shocked to see the leaders of the Taliban in the Afghan presidential palace in August 2021. Seeing them in this room meant one thing: The war was over, as the Afghan troops had run away when the American military left. According to President Joe Biden: “One more year, or five more years, of US military presence, would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.”
Plenty of disagreement erupted over the handling of the withdrawal. Sure, most Americans believed that they couldn’t stay forever. Perhaps even now was a good time to leave. But for whatever reason, the president had removed the military before the civilians. Now, chaos was on full display.
Thousands Flooded Into Planes in Terror to Escape Them
Without so much as a suitcase, thousands of people tried to get on a lone American plane taking off. It didn’t much matter where it was going, as long as it was far away from the Taliban. The world witnessed a U.S. Air Force C-17 evacuate more than 600 people after Kabul fell, with stragglers hanging off the plane in the air. Quickly, they fell to their deaths. The footage went viral.
Criticism and horror erupted over the handling of the withdrawal, from the moment it began. The response? According to President Biden: “Conducting our drawdown differently would have certainly come with an increased risk of safety to our personnel.”
The world sees Afghanistan as a country involved with Osama bin Laden, somehow. Is that the whole story? Not even close. Once upon a time, many Afghans were anything but fundamentalist. In the 1960s, students attended Kabul University, went to the cinema, and marched in political demonstrations. This was true for both men and women. Here, one protest has been preserved in color to help us remember a different era.
The freedoms young people took for granted would not last forever, as we now know. One day, a group would come to power, and they would explain their my-way-or-the-highway philosophy through violence. 1990s Afghanistan had none of these events, anymore.
The Taliban Allowed Absolutely Zero Free Speech, But That’s Not All
In 1996, the Quran became the law, according to the Taliban. The group instituted severe punishment for all sorts of violations of Islamic law. Capital offenses included homosexuality, adultery sometimes defined as having been raped, and blasphemy. This was public and commonplace during the ’90s, before the American invasion for 9-11. Now that the group is back on the throne, what will they do, in this regard? According to gay Afghan author Nemat Sadat, now in America, he has a few ideas.
He explains: “They will appoint informants to lure gay and bisexual men online and in public spaces and take them to a secluded spot and kill them and dispose of their bodies…that is what undercover Taliban elements within Afghan government during the Karzai and Ghani era did and those who escaped shared their story with me.”
Afghanistan Was Developing, and Traffic Jams Weren’t Really All That Common
Afghanistan was a highly rural place for thousands of years. In the middle of the last century, that started to change. The nation saw a network of roads built in the 1960s for residents who now had vehicles. Unfortunately, the wars in the ’80s and ’90s resulted in damage and disrepair. But that’s decades down the line, in terms of this photo. For a moment, here, let’s look back at a few vintage cars.
Not only are there shiny town cars, but a bright red jeep has made an appearance. Not that many citizens actually owned any of these rides, back then. That meant smooth drives, and beautiful views. The Americans built a whole lot of infrastructure, recently. More roads mean more choices, right?
Afghans Jam All the Roads Trying to Flee After the President Fled
When it came to the recent fall of the Afghan national government, there really didn’t seem to be enough roadway. Perhaps it was enough to reach the nation’s dozens of airports on a normal day. But during the sudden 2021 crisis, everyone needed the same path. Here is an aerial view of the chaos on all sides of Kabul airport as Afghans try to escape the Taliban. Did everyone make it to their preferred flights?
No way, no how. The traffic jams pictured here were just the beginning of a human jam once you left your car. Thousands of people in line stood in front of the gates with papers in hand. Most were rejected. Undoubtedly there were not enough seats or floor space.
Girls Used to Study at the University Alongside Guys Their Age
According to one researcher: “In 1960 there were 175,600 pupils in 1,110 elementary schools of whom 19,000 were girls some 11,300 students, of whom 2,500 were girls, attended seventeen middle schools and eighteen secondary schools [The middle schools being grades seventh to ninth] there were thirty vocational schools with some 5,000 students, most of whom were young men some 193,000 students were enrolled in schools in Afghanistan and abroad, a figure double that of a decade  earlier.”
Over time, many societies have seen changes in the number of women in the home and the office. Afghanistan was undoubtedly seeing a bit of that in the ’60s. But when the Taliban came, female progress from these stats was erased.
The Taliban governed about 75% of the country until 2001 when the Americans invaded. During that time, there were many violent attacks on students, teachers, and school buildings. Many educators were executed, and schools were burned down. Universities were bombed, too. Hundreds of attacks a year resulted in fear, and for good reason. Many schools were closed in entire provinces, and that kept people safe. After the Taliban were kicked out in 2001, learning resumed.
The Taliban began burning down schools immediately when they seized power in August 2021. It seems they haven’t changed their view on secular studies, and they are willing to do a lot about it.
The 60s, Boys Could Learn Secular Subjects and Wear Western Clothes
The secular studies that once took place under a free Afghanistan were severely curtailed when the Taliban took over in 1996. We all know the sad story now. But long ago, there was a system of schools, some with influence from France and Germany. Before the ’70s, less than 20% of the adult population could read. Over time, that more than doubled. Not everyone received an education in the country right away. But undoubtedly, access was increasing.
Math, science, and reading were supplemented with classes on music and art. There was something for everyone, in that sense. But again, the Taliban disdain influence that they view as non-Islamic. As it turns out, music is not part of Islam. Or is it?
The Taliban Banned Non-Islamic Subjects for Boys, Including Music
After the takeover, only religious studies in madrassas were allowed for boys. For girls, all study was out of the question. The new textbooks for boys only allowed pictures of people and animals, and music study was completely banned. Listening or playing music was also banned nationwide, so what would be the need? According to the group, music was non-Islamic. Could that really be true? Muslims all over the world enjoyed music, didn’t they?
According to the strict interpretation of the group, it was forbidden. They decided it would be violently enforced, and erased. Now that the most ardent Taliban are back, will silence be the norm again?
Girls Enjoyed A European-Influenced School System in the ’60s
Every country starts in a different place, and has different needs. Over the decades, education specialists developed an interesting system of education tailored to the needs of the Afghans. European ideas helped form curriculums, and many children excelled. Girls were certainly a part of that story, and some wanted to study at an even higher level later on. For advanced learning, young Afghans were regularly sent abroad. Where were the most popular choices?
It seems that Germany, France, and Egypt were top destinations in the ’60s. Some went to Turkey, as well. Afghanistan was beginning to have an educated class of people with international experience. Did the Taliban approve of making any women international and sophisticated?
Declared Infidels, Acid Was Thrown in the Faces of Schoolgirls
Indeed, they did not. Anyone familiar with them by now could have guessed that answer. Sermons popularized their ideology, which had and still has support in the country. They are not a small group in today’s Afghanistan. In the ’90s international readers started to hear reports about the brutality towards young schoolgirls. A common method of attack was acid, and it was thrown into the faces of unsuspecting students on their way to class, every day.
You could count on locals to participate, willingly. Many Afghans had not modernized whatsoever. Their views on banning girls from attending secular classes were serious, and they threw the chemicals to prove it. Today, many fear these tactics will soon be back.
Afghanistan Used to Be Much More Religiously Diverse and Tolerant
Afghanistan is located in a region that has historically had many religions pass through. All sorts of people stayed in the area, and made it their home. At the intersection of ancient civilizations and the trade of the silk road, diversity was the norm. Afghanistan used to have Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Shiites, and Sunnis. Historically, there were even more ideas floating around. Before the arrival of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Paganism, and Surya worship, also made their appearances.
Older Afghans who fled the country often have stories about knowing neighbors with different religions. The Taliban were not the most open folks when it came to freedom of religion. Many minorities fled, rather than convert.
Under the Taliban, Just Two Jews Lived in Afghanistan
It is often surprising for folks to hear that there are any Jews in the country at all. But indeed, up until recently, there were two. Famously, they didn’t get along! Most Jews fled the country after the state of Israel was established for a freer life. But two stayed all these years: The rabbi of a synagogue, and his one congregant. The rabbi has since passed away, and only one jew remains. His name is Zablon Simintov, pictured here.
No one quite knows why extremists have let him stay, unharmed. He seems to be committed to his post guarding the synagogue, even though he is the only one left in it. He refuses to leave, even hearing the Taliban are coming back. A rare fellow!
Girls Used to Do Art for Fun, but That Would One Day Disappear
We tend to forget there was a time before wars made Afghanistan so grey. Once upon a time, there was a vibrant artistic side to Afghan culture. According to Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini: “The Taliban’s acts of cultural vandalism — the most infamous being the destruction of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas — had a devastating effect on Afghan culture and the artistic scene. The Taliban burned countless films, VCRs, music tapes, books, and paintings. They jailed filmmakers, musicians, painters, and sculptors.”
Here, a young girl displays her art project for school. She was encouraged to explore her talents, back in the ’60s. Under Taliban rule, this was all strictly prohibited. Will the new generation of young artists see the same policies, in 2021?
Sports Were Allowed as Recreation Under the Taliban, but Only for Men
Men were not allowed to play music or become artsy under Taliban rule. What seemed to be allowed, was sports. But not all sports were equally Islamic, according to the group. They banned kite-flying and dogfighting while allowing cricket, volleyball, and boxing to become popular. It’s not clear if they will allow other sports in addition to these, after a few decades of Americanization. Surely, youngsters have been introduced to more.
Here, a group of guys enjoys an afternoon of volleyball. Soccer also became popular under Taliban rule, as long as the men were dressed properly. No woman can play soccer, however.
Various Afghan Feminist Movements Existed in the ’60s
Here, we see a feminist march in Kabul in the 1980s. At this time, the Taliban had not yet taken over the country. Women probably thought that they had bright futures ahead of them, and pursued education and love outside traditional strictures. In this picture, it is clear that none of them are afraid to show their faces, standing up for their cause. In just 2 decades, this activity would become all but impossible.
Waving their flags, they demand even more freedom than they already enjoy. But soon, their head and faces would be covered, Their arms and legs would disappear in layers of blue. And the world would watch a backward transformation like nothing they had ever seen.
When the Taliban took over, there were no more protests. Women who tried would simply be beaten. Belts, ropes, chains, and sticks were all employed. They were required to walk this way in public, and walking is the operative word. Bikes were no longer allowed. Riding became the sole enjoyment of men, as viewers can see here. What was the issue with wheels, in the eyes of the Taliban?
It seems to be a general ban on athletic participation. During the 20 year American occupation, many women became world-class cycling competitors. In 2021, they fear for their lives. Will they be evacuated to a safer country as refugees?