Afghanistan’s future depends on its treatment of women
While many Afghans are skeptical about the Taliban’s promises of inclusivity and their ability to govern the country, many more are sure that women will have no place in public life generally.
Blocking or curtailing women’s rights and their active role in public institutions, as well as access to health and education, is not only a setback for Afghanistan’s future prosperity but also a black mark on Islam’s image, since the Taliban claim to be introducing these restrictions on the basis of Shariah law.
The oppression of girls and women based on fundamentalist interpretations of Islam was a hallmark of Taliban rule in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and their emancipation was a rallying cry for war and part of the US mission after its invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Twenty years later, the US has departed, leaving behind a shattered country that is once more in the hands of the Taliban. Many, especially girls and women, feel betrayed, exposed and vulnerable. Taliban leaders have sought to assure the Afghan people and the international community that the group today is very different from the one of two decades ago. They say it has learned its lessons and is wiser and more prudent, especially when dealing with public opinion.
However, even before those words of assurance had time to be digested by the public, the militants’ actions on the ground told a different story. As they began seizing territory, the Taliban reportedly stopped girls and women from going to school and work, went door to door looking for unmarried women between the ages of 14 and 45 to marry off to Taliban fighters, and ordered women to wear the hijab and burqa.
The Taliban are facing immense economic, humanitarian and security challenges, but one of the biggest problems for the leadership will be persuading their followers in the field to abide by the promises to the international community, including respecting the rights of women and safeguarding the gains made in education, employment, representation and healthcare. Women do not feel safe leaving their homes. Yet, despite the threat of violence, women are protesting for their rights, while thousands of others are opting to flee or seek refuge.
Whether it is Boko Haram’s abduction of girls in Nigeria, Daesh’s brutal treatment of women or the Houthis taking Yemen back to the stone age, the criminal mentality of these outlaw rebels is a threat to national and regional security, as well as to peaceful coexistence among followers of different religions.
As in all wars and conflicts, women and children are the most vulnerable, but when it is time to sit and negotiate peace, reconciliation and reconstruction, they are often left out of the room. In conflict-riddled Muslim countries, the harm to girls and women is compounded because it is justified on the basis of religion, even though true Islam demands that women are treated kindly and grants them full and fair rights. Poverty, illiteracy and despair help sow the seeds of extremist ideology that sprout in the backyards of governments burdened by underdevelopment, insecurity and debt.
As if that were not enough, Muslim women also bear the brunt of Islamophobia. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent “war on terror,” a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and action spread around the world. Since then, this has been increasing and taking different forms. A UN report released in March showed that Muslims are increasingly viewed in an unfavorable light.
The rise of Islamophobia has been driven in part by underlying class and ethnic biases in individual countries and regions, as well as by the rise of far-right groups. In addition, negative and one-sided media portrayals have contributed to the problem, according to the report. Furthermore, anti-immigration policies that discriminated against Muslims were also evident in several Western countries, along with discriminatory practices against Muslims. The report indicated that Muslim women are more likely than men to be victims of Islamophobic attacks, as they are easily identifiable because of their hijab.
A resurrection of the Taliban’s familiar form of rule, especially with regards to women, will further provoke anti-Muslim hate and reinforce negative stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. On the other hand, a more tolerant and moderate leadership would go a long way toward not only preventing the country from becoming a hub for extremists who threaten national and regional security, but also creating a positive example of a rehabilitated ideology.
Blocking or curtailing women’s rights and their active role in public institutions is not only a setback for Afghanistan’s future prosperity but also a black mark on Islam’s image.
However, for that to happen, there needs to be investment in proper education, infrastructure, development and institutions from the local to the national levels. How girls and women are treated and the rights they are guaranteed will be a barometer for the success of these efforts. Without the inclusion and empowerment of women socially, economically and politically, there can be no sustainable development.
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1