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Politics In Afghanistan: The Role Of Subjugation Of Women In Taliban Governance
Mariam Warda,ORF
2023-01-28
Region : South Asia, Afghanistan,
Issue : Security, Terrorism,
Following the withdrawal of the erstwhile Soviet troops and the collapse of the communist regime, the Taliban, an ultraconservative political and religious group emerged in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. The government’s inability to establish control outside of Kabul left the country open to harassment and violence from local militias and warlords. In 1994, a group of ex-fighters associated with a madrasah in Kandahar province defeated a local warlord and began stabilising the region. The group gained widespread support by promising security and religious fervour and quickly gained control of much of the country, including the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban, “student” in the Pashto language, was a blend of ultra-conservative Pashtun culture and a Pakistani Deobandi Hanafi interpretation of Islam. It is undeniable that the Taliban is an Afghan movement, but it is important to note that it is heavily influenced by Pakistani Deobandi Hanafi interpretation of Islam. Although the Pakistani Deobani Hanafi interpretation itself has a very wide spectrum of interpretations, the Taliban have adopted the hardline Pakistani Deobandi Hanafi stances and mixed them with very conservative Pashtun cultural views. This modification in practice and interpretation is both visible historically and found in the difference in rhetoric and interpretation of other traditional Afghan Islamic scholars.
Furthermore, the fact that traditionally rural Afghans and those of Pashtun ethnicity tend to be more conservative, further adds to their conservativeness. When the Taliban took over, their interpretation of Islamic law was applied in a rigid and inflexible manner, lacking nuance and judicial interpretation. Additionally, the Taliban’s disregard for human rights and their support of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, were significant sources of concern for many countries.
Taliban 2.0.
In 2018, the United States (US) initiated negotiations with the Taliban, with the assistance of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The main topic of discussion was the withdrawal of US troops and the US also sought to bring the Taliban and the central government to a reconciliation. Talks with the government continued in 2019, which resulted in an agreement on the principles for further negotiations in July. However, the Taliban’s representatives prioritised reaching a deal with the US; the talks were halted after a Taliban attack resulted in the death of a US service member.
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021, there were discussions about the Taliban having undergone changes. Due to negotiations with Qatar, prolonged engagement with international diplomacy, and exposure to many advisors, they were even referred to as “Taliban 2.0.” Despite hopes for a more conciliatory regime, early indications showed little willingness for change. This was reflected in the policies adopted by Taliban 2.0., for example, they reopened secondary schools for only boys from grades 7-12 and they reinstituted strict practices such as extreme gender segregation and other punishments
The Taliban leadership faced difficulties in maintaining unified control over the organisation, which had previously functioned under a decentralised command structure. This lack of unity made it challenging to implement policies consistently and hold local forces accountable, leading to inconsistencies between the Taliban’s public statements and actions on the ground. For instance, in a BBC interview with YaldaHakim, the Taliban’s Health Minister claimed that men and women have equal rights to education, yet girls are not permitted to attend secondary school or university.
Taliban’s approach to governance
The Taliban’s political platform and approach to governance are heavily influenced by their policies towards women, which they often justify as being in line with Islamic principles. While their policies may seem extreme, they have positioned themselves as hardliners similar to those of their diplomatic allies, such as China and Russia.
Historically, in traditional Pashtun areas, women have been systematically excluded from public life, but in the 20th century, women began to play a more active role as Afghanistan became more secularised and modernised. Under leaders such as Amir Habibullah Khan, King Amanullah, and King Zahir Shah, the position of women dramatically improves especially in urban areas like Kabul. These improvements continued under the leftist government of Mohammad Daoud. Women in cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif had more freedom than ever, with many attending university, serving in paramilitary units, working in professional sectors, and holding high-ranking government positions. Though, a majority of Afghan women lived in rural areas and many were forced into exile as part of the world’s largest refugee population from 1981-1996.
Currently, the Taliban is internally divided into various factions and groups. Many of its soldiers are impoverished with limited exposure to the world beyond a madrasah. Some experts suggest that some Taliban government officials want to soften their stance on women, but fear losing support among the more hardline members of the group. Other such as Larry Goodson suggest that the leadership are worried that exposure to women could corrupt their young followers who have led sheltered lives until now. As noted by Louis Dupree in 1973, the leaders rely on their young militia as a source of power, but they have doubts about their ability to control them.
Another significant reason why the Taliban’s policies towards women are crucial to their approach to governance and politics is that they have limited policies in other areas. They lack experienced administrators, have a small budget, have no industrial sector, and have a single-crop agricultural economy. Due to these limitations, the Taliban’s only policies they can implement are related to the political influence of their Islamic interpretation in all sectors of Afghan life and governance. Given their limited resources and expertise, the Taliban is unable to implement programmes in areas of social policy such as public health, infrastructure reconstruction, and education.
The Taliban has made the enforcement of their strict policies towards women a priority in their governance, despite facing resistance both domestically and internationally. This is due to a combination of factors such as maintaining unity within their ranks, avoiding corruption within their forces and aligning with their ideologically driven, isolated and misogynistic madrasah-shaped worldview—which is based on fear and the lack of capacity to implement more comprehensive policies.
Additionally, their approach is mainly driven by the rejection of mainstream Islamic scholarly interpretation and thought. Many Islamic councils in Afghanistan, including the head rector of Darul Ulum madrasa in Herat, international councils such as Al Azhar, the Council of Scholars in Saudi Arabia and the Organization of the Islamic Council (OIC) and dozens of Islamic scholars both inside and outside Afghanistan have rejected the Taliban’s actions as “unIslamic” and explicitly called it “forbidden”.
The Taliban has established the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice as the primary agency responsible for enforcing their religious policies. This organisation is responsible for enforcing regulations on clothing, beards, entertainment, interactions with foreigners, and women’s societal roles by patrolling the streets. The religious police within this agency, modeled after similar institutions in Iran and Saudi Arabia, reflects the Taliban’s ideological influence from these countries.
Despite claims that their policies towards women are based on Islamic law or cultural practices or that they are temporary measures due to war, it is clear that the foundation of the Taliban governance is centered on the subjugation of women. This is achieved through a wide range of specific policies, and any slight policy relaxations should not detract from this reality.
It’s important to understand that the interpretation of Islam, like any religion, can vary among individuals and groups. The Taliban’s policies towards women do not reflect the diversity of Islamic beliefs and practices. Many Muslim scholars and leaders have spoken out against the Taliban’s treatment of women, stating that it misrepresents Islamic teachings and values and have argued that the Taliban’s policies distort the religion and its teachings by implementing a culturally infringed interpretation that seeks to disregard the majority of Islamic scholarship. Such hardline views in fact are at odds with the objectives of Islam, known as Maqasid Al Shariah, and the universal Islamic declaration of human rights. The Quran emphasises on equality and autonomyamong individuals and calls for treating all people with kindness and justice. It’s essential to consider the context and motivations behind the Taliban’s policies rather than assuming they are based on a proper interpretation of Islam.
The Quran also emphasises on the rights of women and calls for their education and participation in society. The Taliban’s use of religion as a justification for their oppressive policies towards women is a clear example of how they misrepresent and misuse the teachings of Islam for their political agenda.
Global intervention
To bring about change and progress in women’s rights in Afghanistan, it’s crucial to address the external support and resources the Taliban receives, in addition to understanding the underlying issues and cultural practices that contribute to their oppressive policies.
The Taliban’s oppressive policies towards women can only be changed through significant pressure on the organisation. The main source of their power is Pakistan’s support in the form of materials, recruits, safe havens, and funding. To wither the Taliban, it is crucial to cut their ties with Pakistan and to pressure countries such as China and Russia to stop supporting them. Even if the group were to achieve a comprehensive victory and gain international recognition as a legitimate government, it is unlikely that their stance towards women and other marginalised groups would change quickly. The plight women would continue to be dire, all while the international community waits for a resolve.
To conclude, the key to bringing about change is to encourage moderation through actual governance. It is also vital for the US to support religious discourses among Muslim-majority countries with Afghanistan on more progressive methods of including women in society. To subject this initiation with an economic or aid programme that could only be distributed by the Afghan women. There is a need for an Islamic intervention by progressive Islamic countries for Afghanistan to evolve. By providing incentives for religious capacity building, this endeavour can become a comprehensive plan with measurable goals. This should be a priority for the US as they have played a significant role in bringing Afghanistan to its current state.
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References
Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Goodson, Larry P. ‘. 2002. Bently College.
This article originally appeared in Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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