Restrictions on Afghan women

Will the women of Afghanistan who constitute around 50% of the population again be voiceless and disempowered?


Dr Moonis Ahmar January 02, 2022
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

According to a recent report of the Associated Press (AP), the Taliban government reneging on their earlier commitment not to suppress Afghan women has imposed curbs whereby they are not allowed to travel beyond 75 kilometers without a male relative. Furthermore, transporters have been ordered not to allow women passengers who are not wearing a hijab on board. It seems that the Taliban regime is reverting to its 1996-2001 women restrictions, including banning female education. Earlier, female TV announcers and dramatists were ordered to wear a hijab, and their participation in advertisements was banned too.

Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the frustration and anger of Afghan women is reflected in their periodic demonstrations against the Taliban. Those who expected a positive transformation of the Taliban mindset were wrong because there is absolutely no indication of their flexibility and tolerance as far as their approach on societal issues is concerned. Will the women of Afghanistan who constitute around 50% of the population again be voiceless and disempowered? Is this type of peace, which the Taliban claim to have established, true peace? Or should it be called the ‘peace of the graveyard’ based on fear?

The achievements of the Taliban during their 100 days in power — like controlling corruption and nepotism and relying on national resources for formulating a budget — cannot be denied, but their failure to follow a democratic, enlightened and progressive approach on the mode of governance, political pluralism and rights of women and minorities will degenerate the Afghan state and society. How can a country survive in the 21st century by pursuing a retrogressive and ultra-conservative approach? This means that the Taliban representing clergy are devoid of qualities to run the statecraft on pragmatic and modern lines.

The Taliban regime has failed to earn recognition from any UN member state because of their rigid and intransigent mode of governance; their inability to transform their mindset on issues such as women freedom; their narrow and parochial interpretation of the Sharia; and their failure to reform institutions on democratic lines and form a broad-based government as a first step towards holding elections and power transfer to elected representatives. The Taliban argument that the US refusal to release its frozen assets worth $9.5 billion is the reason for them not being able to reopen girls’ schools and universities is illogical. It is the human and not the financial resources which are essential for reopening doors for female education.

The eventual outcome of suppressing the freedom and creativity of women will be the erosion of the Afghan society. Banning music, songs and healthy entertainment avenues will augment frustration, anger and antagonism particularly among the youth. In turn, the wrong message will be delivered to the world that the Afghan people are socially backward and can never live a normal life. Had the Afghan society been enlightened and modern with a pragmatic leadership, the country wouldn’t have been on the dole and dependent on external resources for meeting budgetary requirements.

Curbs on Afghan women, ban on music, and refusal to reopen female educational institutions will have three adverse implications, as follow:

First, a critical mass composed of youth and women was created in the last 20 years following the dismantling of Taliban regime in October 2001. Catering to that segment of society will be a major challenge for the Taliban regime. That critical mass knows the value of freedom and will not let a bunch of people who have usurped power by force destroy their lives by imposing a lifestyle which will kill their creative and innovative skills. This segment of society also knows that they leave their country for better opportunities and their future will be at stake under the Taliban regime because of their ultra-conservative and retrogressive policies. It seems that the bulk of Afghan youth, particularly the female segment of society, are mindful of losing their independence and want to liberate themselves from a suffocating environment where their skills are rusting with each passing day.

Second, it is feared that once the Taliban regime is able to strengthen its position through international recognition, it will show its real face and try to crush dissent by sheer force. It is perhaps because of the failure of the Taliban to pursue a flexible and tolerant attitude vis-à-vis women and non-conformist groups that the international community has so far refused to grant recognition to Kabul. In the OIC meeting held in Islamabad recently, Pakistan tried its best to convince fellow Muslim countries and other invitees like those from P-5, Germany and Canada to recognise the Taliban regime but in vain. This means that there is a serious trust deficit between the Taliban and the rest of the world. India tried to dilute the impact of the OIC conference by arranging its own meeting on Afghanistan in New Delhi which was attended by the Foreign Ministers of five Central Asian states. New Delhi, along with Washington, is like an ‘injured lion’ in the wake of the Taliban takeover. Both India and the US are using their clout to remind the world that the current Taliban regime is as repressive and orthodox as it was during its earlier stint in power.

Finally, the flawed policy of Pakistan which is reflected because of its soft corner for the Taliban regime is counterproductive since religious extremist groups are motivated in augmenting their anti-women and anti-democratic mindset. Instead of viewing the track record of the Taliban towards Pakistan when they had been in power from 1996-2001, Islamabad ignores their refusal to grant a formal recognition to the Durand Line. A few weeks ago, the Taliban forces dismantled barbed wire fences on a portion of the Pak-Afghan border saying that they reject the Pakistani installation. Pakistan’s national security will be compromised if it overlooks the real ambitions of the Taliban and their evasive nature of letting down their neighbours. If the Taliban regime is not listening to the international community in terms of establishing a broad-based government and pursuing a flexible policy towards women, Islamabad in that case should not go an extra mile in giving legitimacy to them.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 2nd, 2022.

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