One of the most regressive socio-political events to take place in late 2022 was the Taliban regime’s decision to officially reduce the female population of Afghanistan to second-class citizens. It did so after a slow choreographed policy undertaking. What started as advisory on dress code for women – following it assuming power on 15 Aug. 2021 – has metamorphosed into barring them from schools and universities and literally disenfranchising them from right to education. The year 2023 has begun for most Afghan women when they find themselves squeezed out of all public places.
Given the Taliban’s strict adherence to Shari’a law and its supposed principled stand on core Islamic values, one may be forgiven for thinking that its anti-female policy undertakings are perhaps couched in religion. Nothing can be farther from the truth, however. The Taliban’s banning of female education, restricting their employment, and literally reducing their lot to second-class citizens have nothing to do with the core Islamic precepts. Its claim that women’s education is anti-Islamic and part of a “Western agenda” is an outright fib at best. For the first verse of the Holy Quran begins with an invitation by angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad to “read”.
Fortunately, this contrarian position of the Taliban on women’s’ education has irked many fellow Muslim nations. While the custodian Islam’s core heritages Saudi Arabia expressed its “astonishment and regret” over the ban on female education by the Taliban, the most poignant and pointed outrage in this regard came from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. As he put it, “What harm is there in women’s education? What harm does it do to Afghanistan?” Cavusoglu said. “Is there an Islamic explanation? On the contrary, our religion, Islam, is not against education; on the contrary, it encourages education and science.”
Moreover, another globally influential Islamic nation, Qatar, which has served as a mediator between the United States and the Taliban, and consistently sought to soften the anti-Taliban stance of the international community, has unequivocally criticised the decision. But is the Taliban listening?
Given its past record, it should not come as a surprise that the Taliban would grossly undermine the equal rights of girls and women in Afghanistan. But this anti-female gendered stance, by the regime, is something that could have been tempered, if not avoided altogether. On balance, the Taliban would appear to be on this narrow path to get even with the international community.
The Taliban regime harbours two key grievances vis-à-vis the world at large. First, its repeated requests to the international community to recognise its government – the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – has not borne any fruit. It remains unrecognised and diplomatically isolated. Second, the international economic sanctions against the regime have led to a complete economic collapse in the country. To compound its gripe, the United States that holds nearly US$10 billions of Afghan assets in its banks, has refused to repatriate the amount owing to the Taliban’s records.
These grievances coupled with Taliban’s own medieval misogynistic worldview has led to a bottled-up fury that is channelled internally. The victims, in this instance, are the eternally marginal and persecuted women folk in the society. When the international aid organisations like UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the UN Development Programme, and the UN high commissioners for refugees and human rights point to the fact that “No country can afford to exclude half of its population from contributing to society,” they tend to forget that we are dealing with an exceptional regime whose core model of governance has been cruelty and vengeance towards its own citizens.
When self-harm becomes the norm
In any considered view, actions of the Taliban that denies and deprives Afghan women their core fundamental rights, is unlawful. It is without a dispute an exercise of power contrary to religious as well as man-made international law, and therefore inhumane and unlawful.
While scores of nations as well as the critical international body the UN Security Council has denounced Taliban government policies targeting women and girls in Afghanistan the regime remains unnerved on its decision. This begs the question are all the doors for women’s emancipation in Afghanistan shut?
Afghanistan, under the helm of the Taliban, is a problem child in international society. It feels the only way it can get even with the international community — for failing to give the regime diplomatic recognition – is by turning the screw on that constituency of citizens [sic women] in Afghanistan that the outside world is so concerned about.
Engagement is the Key!
The Taliban after being shunned by the international community feels who are they to course correct the decision of the regime. In their archaic mindset and worldview, they consider those outside Afghanistan should mind their own business.
While this hard-line position may appear regressive, is not uncommon in contemporary international system. Regimes and governments that are castigated by the world often turn inward and unleash repressive campaigns against their own citizens. North Korea, Iran and Myanmar are some good examples in this context.
Yet, if we (the caring block of nations) would like to course correct the decision of an external regime, the first and foremost task would be to remain engaged with that adversary. Unfortunately, compassion towards an obtrusive and authoritarian regime is a rare commodity in international diplomacy. When faced with this lot, we either dismiss them outrightly or shut them off altogether from any meaningful interaction. Such attitude unhinges the regimes concerned from the international system and provides them the perfect excuse to enact their own nefarious policy undertakings.
After two-decade long costly engagement (both in terms of economic as well as human lives), the international community has developed a compassion fatigue, when it comes to the plight and privations of the Afghans. A year-long war on the doorsteps of Europe and a downward economic forecast has pushed the Afghan tragedy to the margins.
Lest we forget more than 90 percent of Afghanistan’s 38 million people are at risk of poverty and about 23 million people faced acute hunger as the Taliban has struggled to turn around the economy due to its international financial isolation.
[Photo by U.S. Department of State, Public Domain]
*Amalendu MISRA is a Professor of International Politics at Lancaster University, United Kingdom. Author of Afghanistan: The Labyrinth of Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press. Follow Professor Misra on Twitter: @MisraAmalendu