The Invisibles Who Stand in Darkness

Ironic though it may sound, it is as if the Taliban emirate is a kind of ivory tower whose only Achilles heel is woman. Nothing, neither compassion nor reason, neither common sense nor wisdom, can penetrate into this ivory tower yet it falls apart the moment a woman’s voice enters it. Nothing, neither the present need of girls nor the future hope of children, can carry the men in this tower to the point of understanding that the absurdity of their pride and prejudice should be brought under the rationality of reason and wisdom. Afghanistan is the only country in the world today where girls are excluded from education.

The Taliban’s policy on gender equality can be best seen in their attitude toward girls’ right to education. During their first rule, the regime banned girls’ education completely, but this time they have knotted the issue of secondary education for girls to a decision yet to be taken. A decision that forces families to keep their girls out of higher education institutions against their will simply means to deprive girls of an essential right to which they are naturally entitled. The question of why the Taliban rejects girls’ right to education, and even more the question of why the regime cares about the age of girls when a fundamental right is at stake, shows that there is a connection between the social milieu in which the Taliban were born and the political predicament in which Afghanistan finds itself today.

Obviously, discrimination against women in Taliban’s Afghanistan has its roots in the minds and hearts of those who harbor an aversion to women’s rights. The ground on which the Taliban regime bases its stance against women, or more precisely, the idea that subjects women to blatant discrimination, is a subjective bond that links the current Taliban authorities to the tribal strata of Afghan society, albeit the same bond that enables the Taliban leadership to hold rapport with the tribal strata turns out to be a policy that violates the basic principle of human rights. However, it is of great importance to note that under the Taliban rule, the word right—right to education, work and movement—is replaced by the word opinion. The outstanding quality of opinion here means the unanimity of group opinion, which in its stark unsophisticated simplicity, becomes obvious at the very moment they resort to an eerie pretext.

There is an obvious connection between the Taliban’s stance on gender equality and the exclusive interpretation of sharia to which they are committed, but it would be a mistake to believe that the regime’s gender policy is a mere byproduct of Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence. The Taliban is a movement that has its roots in Pashtunwali and Deobandi Islam. Ethnographically, Pashtunwali is a complex set of cultural values and social behaviors. Though it consists of many characteristics, being Pashtun by descent and behaving as a Pashtun by code of honor construct the core of what is conventionally named Pashtunwali. In its doctrinal dimension, Taliban jurisdiction adheres to an explicitly normative interpretation of Sunni Hanafi law that is preached by the Deobandi School.

What guides the Taliban to action, in respect to women, is a state of selfhood where pride and prejudice are simultaneously at work. In the contextual sense of word, pride here is what that constructs the self (I am proud of what I do) and if the “I” plays any role at all here, is judged and shaped by the kind of pride associated with social behavior that helps individual achieve a socially acceptable trait in a society, where man happens to be by the accident of birth and struggles to become as a “man” according to the standards by which manhood is judged. By behavior, pride and prejudice are a sense of attachment to group value that prevents rejection by the group and guarantees acceptance of the group where “like attracts like.”

Certainly, it does not take much effort to imagine that an Afghanistan with an illiterate female population means a poorer Afghanistan with deeper gender disparities and more social problems, but as far as education and politics are concerned in Taliban’s Afghanistan, the idea of creating a pure Muslim society combined with an emphasis on patriarchal tribalism forms the signature facet of the Taliban emirate. The distinguishing feature of the Taliban, insofar as they regard women as members of the tribe, stresses upon the patriarchal spirit of the tribe, not the natural rights of women.

The main discrimination between men and women in Afghan tribal society lies solely in a striking difference between the female body and the male conception of it. What is important for the tribe is not the more or less active participation of women in all aspects of daily life, but a symbolic prestige that they acquire for the family. The distinction between men and women, from the view point of the Taliban, is synonymous with the distinction between the things that may be shown and the things that may not be shown. In the regime’s view, an adult woman belongs to the category that should be hidden from public view, not because she is someone else’s property, but because her personality symbolizes the honor of the family and the tribe. At the age of 14, a girl reaches puberty and from then on is considered an adult who belongs to the category of the household belongings that must be hidden.

If equality means equality of right and equality of visibility and opportunity, then the gender exclusion imposed by the Taliban is nothing but an apartheid. It is perfectly true that gender segregation, when it becomes the social norm in society, hermetically seals off women from the public sphere, where no one counts who cannot be seen or heard.

However, under the Taliban emirate, the fundamental discrepancy on the issue of education lies in the inversion of the nature of education. Certain as it is, the motive of education lies in the goal of education and it is nothing but to make human useful and happy in the future. But for the Taliban, as it happens under all dictatorships, the domain of education is an area where the children must be indoctrinated. What families in Afghanistan’s urban centers and in the northern and central parts of the country rightly regard as the hallmark of education—namely to raise children in the spirit of the future—the Taliban authorities regard as a prerequisite for indoctrination of children, and what Afghan women, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regard as their natural right, the Taliban regime labels as Western hegemony.

What is happening in Afghanistan today particularly to female population recalls to mind the earlier rule of the Taliban. Some countries that have colonial interests in the country equate the Taliban regime with the people of Afghanistan, even though Afghanistan is home to a diverse population. A large part of the population in urban centers of Afghanistan does not show tenacity regarding women’s education, but this does not change the fact on the ground as they play no role in changing the rule imposed by the Taliban. The international community, burdened by their own preoccupations, appears to be tempted to give up for political reasons rather than the principle of justice and right.

The battle for civil rights on the ground of girls’ right to education is a difficult task as all parties concerned with this issue know very well that little can be achieved in the circumstances that shape and influence the actual condition of women in Afghanistan.

Afghan women have little agency to push for real change. Under abject poverty, their sympathizers in the country are trapped in the necessity of daily life. The Taliban regime, whether it is the revival of certain tradition or the consequence of years of war, good or bad, is exsiccating the present need and the future hope of some 2.5 million girls living in Afghanistan today. Afghan girls stand in darkness that is located in the hearts and minds of Taliban men.

[Photo by Marius Arnesen,via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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