At the 500-year-old Bagh-e-Babur, the grand garden designed by the founder of the Mughal dynasty and also the site of his final resting place, there is a flutter at the ticket counter. A man buying a ticket has just learnt that men and women must enter the garden through separate gates.
After some questions and telling the ticket seller that it is a “rubbish rule”, the family separates – women to the right, men to the left. They cannot reunite inside the garden either. The 11 hectare-terraced garden has been partitioned with green baize and ropes into separate sections for men and women after a Taliban decree from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue.
The rule took effect within three months of the Taliban takeover in August last year, said an official at the garden, a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site. Since the park was restored in the first decade of this century, every year, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the 16th century garden where Babur lies buried.
For Kabul residents, the garden, with its chinar and walnut trees and flower beds, is one of the few open spaces in the city, a green oasis that has provided a sense of peace and solace through the violence, turmoil and uncertainty that has constantly battered their country.
But even months after the rule was implemented, many members of the public seem still unaware of the restriction, and are taken aback when they learn about it as they arrive.
This Friday too, as families arrived with picnic baskets, groups of women with small children in tow streamed into the women’s section.
The sudden sight of so many women together comes as a sharp realisation of their near total absence from the streets of Kabul, with restrictions decreed and enforced by the Vice and Virtue Ministry now preventing them from working, studying or participating in national life in any meaningful way other than as home-makers.
Here in the park, the women spread out sheets to sit on the lawn. With no fear of the Taliban policing them in this space, some had even let their hijab slip. They took selfies, snacked out of small picnic plates and chattered, as children played around them.
Babur’s grave and the Shahjahan-built mosque next to it are on the men’s side. Husbands and fathers separated from their families lounged on the lawns or under the chinar trees. Young children ferried trays of food to them from the women’s side.
Dozens of Taliban too roamed the men’s side of the garden on the public holiday before the first anniversary of their victory, enjoying the views of Kabul from the garden’s top terraces, with the more senior ones sitting around in absorbed in discussions its terraces, but not before depositing their guns at the gate.
Park officials said the number of visitors to the park had dropped dramatically over the last one year. The Friday rush, he said, was not as much as it used to be before the regime change, he said.
“Some people get angry, and they even go away when they learn about the separate entrances. They come to spend time together, not separately,” said one official, adding that it had hit revenues, and led to a series of cost-cutting measures including cutting down on the staff. It was all affecting the maintenance of the garden, one official confided.
The high visibility of the Taliban in the park, especially on Fridays, was also affecting the footfall, the official said. However, they are not allowed to carry their weapons inside the park. The official said every Taliban entering the park has to deposit his arms at the gate.
Bagh-e-Babur was all but destroyed in the civil war that broke out between various groups of mujahideen in the 1990s.
In 2001, after US forces drove out the Taliban from Kabul, the Aga Khan Trust took up the restoration of the garden, including the planting of trees. Mohammed Shaheer, the late Indian landscape designer who was a consultant in the restoration for Humayun’s Tomb and Sundar Nursery garden in Delhi, played a principal role in the restoration of the Bagh-e-Babur.