Lifting the veil

Using the Taliban's treatment of women as a justification for the West's war will not help Afghan women's liberation.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Since the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, their repressive treatment of women has caused an outcry in the West.

The imposition of Islamic dress code, restrictions on the right of women to travel and work, laws against the education of girls, the harsh punishments delivered for non-compliance…all of this has appeared to the Western eye as barbarous and unfair. Today, the Taliban’s treatment of women is held up by some as justification for the US attacks and as an argument for a UN ‘reconstruction’ of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

But an issue that is presented in simple, moral terms is actually more complicated. ‘I wouldn’t want to live under the Taliban’, said UK prime minister Tony Blair. Nor would I. The Taliban’s treatment of women, like their banning of music and kite-flying, or their chopping off of hands and feet, naturally shocks any person brought up in the relative freedom and equality of Western society.

The terrible aspects of life for women under the Taliban have been well-publicised in the Western media – beatings and executions described in detail, videos broadcast on TV. In protest against the Taliban treatment of women, Oxfam suspended its humanitarian programmes and the USA refused to recognise the regime (1). In the USA, the women’s rights group Feminist Majority won the ear of the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s, with Hillary Clinton and US secretary of state Madeleine Albright condemning the Taliban’s treatment of women. Round-robin email petitions protesting at the position of women in Afghanistan have circulated widely among Western youth.

But look closer, and the Taliban are hardly exceptional in Afghan politics. As a Quetta-based member of the Revolutionary Association of Women (RAWA) in Afghanistan says, ‘[the opposition] Northern Alliance are Taliban, but without beard and with tie’. Unless we believe that the Taliban are evil chauvinists who conjured their ideas and methods from nowhere, their policies on women are tied up with the political and economic reality of Afghanistan.

Yet on the question of why and how such a regime could come to power, critics of the Taliban are less helpful. The recent history of Afghanistan, according to Western women’s rights campaigners, goes something like this: ‘On September 27, 1996, the Taliban, an extremist militia, seized control of the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, and violently plunged the occupied territories of Afghanistan into a brutal state of gender apartheid in which women and girls have been stripped of their basic human rights’, reports the Feminist Majority’s website (2).

The explanation seems to be that the Taliban imposed an extreme and unpleasant form of cultural chauvinism – taking a civilised society back to the dark ages.

‘Before the Taliban takeover, Afghan women were: 60 percent of teachers at Kabul University; 50 percent of students at Kabul University; 70 percent of school teachers; 40 percent of doctors’, says the US women’s rights organisation National Organization for Women (NOW) Foundation (3). But these statistics fail to tell the whole story.

‘Most [Afghan] women who were trained were trained by the Soviet Union’, says Michael Griffin, author of Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan (4). One of the reforms of the communist Taraki government of 1978 was the imposition of compulsory education for women. The Soviet Union’s encouragement of secular reform emerged from its concern to combat Islamic fundamentalism along its borders – a concern that became more urgent after the Islamic Iranian revolution of 1979.

But the modernising influence of the Soviet Union was limited to urban areas – in rural parts of Afghanistan women largely retained their traditional place in society. So the issue of women’s rights really only applied in urban areas in Afghanistan: ‘Outrage at imposition of Taliban strictures is very much a middle-class phenomenon in…Afghan societies’, says Griffin. ‘[Reforms] particularly struck hard in main population centres, like Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. In Pashtun areas, such as Kandahar, these questions are not as evolved, in the sense that women’s rights really didn’t exist in Pashtun traditional society. What the Pashtun Taliban were imposing on the women of Kabul were rural traditional ways in which women were compelled to survive.’

Rural Pashtun society is not conducive to women’s rights for important reasons – the question of women’s equality and freedom only emerges in societies that have achieved a certain level of social and economic development. In the sense that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan represents the imposition of a rural, religious ideology, this was only possible because of the preceding years of chaos that tore the country apart – both politically and economically.

After the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989, Afghanistan was consumed by anarchic battles among warlords. The Mujahideen takeover of Kabul in 1992, writes Griffin in Reaping the Whirlwind, consisted of ‘rival factions setting up roadblocks every hundred or so metres and indulging in a spree of looting’ (5). Lawlessness was not any more conducive to women’s rights than the rule of the Taliban: ‘the rape or abduction of young women…was practised by members of each of the factions.’ (6)

And the repeated sieges of Kabul between 1992 and 1996 reversed much of the achieved modernisation. Built-up areas turned into piles of rubble; the lighting system went out, then the water stopped, followed by an end to the sewer system, rubbish disposal and the postal service. Food and fuel came intermittently through blockades. Unsurprisingly, many bureaucrats and the educated middle class – including many women – left. The refugee population of one camp in Pakistan was known as the ‘University of Kabul in exile’. In turn, the loss of the middle classes further paralysed the city – for example, the circulation of goods was impeded when the Sikhs and Hindus controlling the money markets left.

Part of the reason that the Taliban succeeded in imposing their rural Pashtun religious regime upon the city of Kabul was because Kabul was no longer a modern city.

The Taliban (‘religious students’) rose up in a society of chaos and destitution. In contrast to the anarchy and lawlessness, they preached order and morality. This was a message welcomed by many, from US diplomat in Pakistan John Holtzman, who thought the Taliban could play a role in restoring strong, centralised government to Afghanistan, to many Afghans themselves, who found the strict measures preferable to looting and war.

In this context, moral outrage at the absence of women’s rights in Afghanistan seems as one-eyed as Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar himself. It is as if campaigners willfully ignore the history behind the Taliban, choosing instead to focus in on a single, distasteful aspect of their rule. But it is impossible to condemn the Taliban’s treatment of women without simultaneously facing and condemning the whole terrible state of Afghan society – which also means admitting the responsibility of the West and the Soviet Union for financing Afghan conflicts.

It is not as if Afghan women had an easy time living under pre-Taliban anarchic warlords – when any man with a gun could do as he pleased. Indeed, the chivalrous Taliban origin story claims that the first act of the movement was to string up a local commander who had raped two village girls.

Though it does not make life under the Taliban any more pleasant, the Taliban’s numerous, and often harsh, strictures are born, less of an evil, pre-conceived power plan, than of their insecurity as a regime. The Taliban today is a fractious regime, composed, not just of religious students, but of many former Mujahideen and other fighters who found it preferable to change sides than risk death. It is likely that the regime is uncertain about its internal cohesiveness and its authority over a subdued but often resentful population. As much as anything, attempts to discipline Afghans in ever more absurd ways represent a desperate attempt to regain control and lay down a line.

But the problem with the Western focus on women’s rights in Afghanistan is not just that it is wrong intellectually. Self-righteous moral condemnation of the Taliban can have dangerous and destructive effects – and can obstruct a solution to the problems of Afghanistan.

As we have noted before on spiked, Oxfam suspended a major humanitarian programme providing clean water to over 400,000 people in Kabul in response to the Taliban’s treatment of women (7). Ex-Oxfam worker Tony Vaux explains Oxfam’s decision: ‘It was not so much a question of what was appropriate policy for Afghanistan, as whether Oxfam’s gender policy would be applied or undermined.’ An independent evaluation of the Oxfam water programme concluded that its suspension caused a risk of death to 1800 people who had to drink from polluted rivers.

But, perhaps more importantly, the condemnation of the ‘evil Taliban’ helps to justify the war and the Western construction of a new Afghan government – a government formed more on the basis of its suitability to Western tastes than of Afghan political will.

The Washington-based Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan (WAPHA) has a sample campaigning letter that pleads: ‘We appeal to you, the world community, the United Nations, and the United States government to stop the Taliban’s reign of terror, cruelty and injustice in Afghanistan. We appeal to you, the world community and the United Nations to put an end to the suffering and misery of the heroic people of Afghanistan.’ (8)

Moral condemnation gives the West carte blanche to clear the offending regime out of the way and to organise something nicer. ‘Whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater’, said Tony Blair in his speech at the Labour Party conference. ‘Look for a moment at the Taliban regime…Women are treated in a way almost too revolting to be credible. First driven out of university; girls not allowed to go to school; no legal rights; unable to go out of doors without a man. Those that disobey are stoned.’ In contrast to such barbarism, Blair rises up as a reforming moral figure – ‘that is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy’.

This use of women’s rights to justify political agendas in Afghanistan is not unique to today: in the past, the Stalinist left used the same argument to justify the Soviet invasion. While the causes may be different, the instrumentality of women’s rights campaigns remains the same.

With an equally unsavoury Northern Alliance as the Taliban’s alternative, suitable candidates for government are being suggested. The RAWA says that a number of ‘journalists and foreigners’ have implored it to ‘take part’ in any future governing coalition.

But a RAWA member rejects such suggestions as unrealistic in such a strongly Islamic country. In Afghanistan, ‘women are not considered human beings’ – ‘in such a country, being realistic, we are not thinking of women’s participation in the coming government of Afghanistan’. Anyway, they are a campaining and underground women’s education and support group, not a political party: ‘as an organisation, we don’t think we are capable of running Afghanistan.’

In a similar vein, Michael Griffin asks, ‘How popular would a democratic human rights oriented post-Taliban government be, in the Islamic world where none of these things exists, and they are regarded as dangerous practises?’.

The solution to the problems of Afghanistan can only come from Afghans themselves. The history of Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 has proven the fragility of governments agreed between external powers. A number of Afghan governments between 1989 and 1996 were formed after negotiations with Pakistan, the USA, Russia or Saudi Arabia – these governments generally sat as isolated cliques in Kabul, while much of the country remained under the control of other factions.

With such a distance between the reality of politics on the ground and the formal political solution, governments are bound to crumble. Indeed, for more than 100 years Afghanistan has been the battleground for other countries’ power games – in the nineteenth century acting as a buffer zone between the Tzars of Russia and British India, and in the twentieth century playing out the Cold War conflict between East and West.

The scrutiny of the Taliban’s policies on women through the eye of Islington moralism ignores the fact that restrictions on women are tied up with the political and economic crisis of Afghanistan, and cannot be tackled apart from this crisis. Tragically, such moralism is as likely to blight the burqa-clad women of Afghanistan, as it is to aid them.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Sisters doing it for themselves?, by Josie Appleton

Nothing to lose but their burqas?, by Josie Appleton

An Englishwoman in Washington, 20 November 2001, by Helen Searls

Aiding the Afghans?, by Bernadette Gibson

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) In defence of sovereignty, by Jon Holbrook

(2) See the section on Afghanistan on the Feminist Majority website

(3) See the section on the Taliban on the NOW Foundation website

(4) Buy Reaping the Whirlwind from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(5) Reaping the Whirlwind, p29. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(6) Reaping the Whirlwind, p30. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) Aiding the Afghans, by Bernadette Gibson

(8) See the sample letter on the WAPHA website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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