No right to have rights
In a disturbing recent development, the Taliban government has ordered an indefinite ban on women from attending universities. Although I was expecting this, given what has been happening in Afghanistan since they took over, it still shocked me to the core. This is an inhuman step which is being condemned all over the world. But despite global condemnation, including from conservative countries like Saudia Arabia, the Taliban have refused to rescind their decision and dismissed all criticism as “interference” in Afghan internal matters.
Before this, the Taliban had already excluded girls from secondary schools. The recent step means that now women in Afghanistan face a near-total ban on education. By excluding them from education at all levels, women in Afghanistan have been deprived of the basic rights and their future in the country is bleak. Using Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, I can say that women in Afghanistan don’t have the right to have rights; basically, they have been reduced to a subhuman level. As I write these sentences, images of women protesting in Afghanistan are reverberating in my mind, and particularly I am remembering the heartfelt appeal of an Afghan girl who has gone viral in which she is pleading to the Taliban to treat them as humans.
A little girl in Afghanistan asking the Taliban — “Is being a girl in Afghanistan a crime? Do you have mothers? Do you have sisters? Do you have daughters? Please don’t turn off the light of knowledge & education on us girls.” 💔 pic.twitter.com/gg2kEVfxGP— Shabnam Nasimi (@NasimiShabnam) December 21, 2022
While apparently the decision has been taken by the Taliban regime, at the same time I also blame my own country, state, and a substantial section of the population for supporting the Taliban ideologically as well as politically for the past several years for narrow realpolitik interests. In our narrow obsession to see Indian and US interests defeated, we were willing to overlook and, in fact, even deny any Taliban brutality. This unconditional political support has also been instrumental in the continuing rigidity of the Taliban. The reality is that they have not moderated and in fact had no plans to do so as they were not under any pressure. However, we simply overlooked it in our euphoria.
I was really fearful when the US-backed Karzai government fell in August 2021, resulting in the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Since I am in my late 40s, therefore I remember vividly what happened during the Taliban rule from 1996-2001. While their reign apparently brought some semblance of political stability as it ended the continuous civil war in Afghanistan, at the same time, it was marked by extreme barbarity and complete usurpation of even basic liberties.
Worst was their treatment of Afghan women, who were literally relegated to second-class citizens and were forced out of public spaces completely. The Taliban regime banished women from working in offices, closed schools to girls and expelled women from universities. In addition to imposing a full veil, they also prohibited women from coming out of their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. There was a universal consensus among human rights organisations that the Taliban rule was particularly bad for Afghan women.
I thought that given their history, I was right to be apprehensive about the Taliban regime. However, my and other liberals’ apprehensions were not shared by the Pakistani political leadership and a huge section of Pakistani media, as well as a population belonging to the urban middle class. Imran Khan, who was then prime minister, hailed the Taliban victory by claiming that Afghans had broken the shackles of slavery.
For some religious conservative elements, the fact that the Taliban were a brutal outfit did not matter at all as they saw it as closer to their own understanding of Islam. But while their behaviour was understandable given their ideological bent, a more surprising attitude was that of many apparently moderate people.
Many were completely in denial about the Taliban’s brutal past with respect to human rights in general and gender in particular. Their sole obsession was about the Indian and US “defeat” and therefore was completely dismissive of any person expressing doubts. Many were also expressing the opinion that the Taliban had moderated a lot, and that this time they would rule differently. Some military analysts were mocking liberals for their supposedly “naive mistrust” of the Taliban and assuring the world that contrary to the opinion of some west influenced journalists who had no “real” knowledge of Afghan culture, the Taliban were now a “responsible” and an “evolved” organisation showing “tolerance” and inclusiveness.
At that time, while writing for The Express Tribune, I cast my doubts over all the optimism I was witnessing. As an academic, I study Islamists and my special focus is on whether they moderate, and if they do, to what extent and under which circumstances. Frankly, the record of even those Islamists who believe in the democratic process is, at best, mixed. They strategically moderate only when there are substantial political advantages to be gained, and even then, they never cross a certain line. The Taliban, on the other hand, is not a pro-democratic organisation but a militant group, and since they don’t have any electoral incentive, therefore it is highly unlikely that they would moderate. Only a tactful international policy of carrots and sticks can partially work with such an extremist organisation. The international community was not interested in Afghanistan enough to exercise such a policy and even if they had, I doubt that the Taliban would have moderated substantially.
The reality is that we should not have supported the Taliban the way we did and now the Afghan people, particularly the women, are paying the price. In fact, Pakistan itself is also paying the price as the Taliban regime has been increasingly hostile to us, and there are clear signs that it has also coddled the anti-Pakistan terrorist organisation, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which in recent weeks has been brazenly attacking Pakistani security forces as well as the general population.
In my opinion, the time to change our approach towards the Afghan Taliban has come, and we need to get tough with them. Going forward, we also need to change our grand strategy and reorient it to focus on a holistic picture rather than narrow realpolitik concerns. Failure to learn from our mistakes is going to cost us dearly.