The result of both the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the United States (US) military presence abruptly leaving the country in late August has precipitated the transfer of power to the Taliban, who are now the effective rulers of the country. A country ravaged by a twenty-year civil war with interventions by third party forces, it appeared that the war would never end against the Taliban regime. The war, a conflict between mostly the Taliban and the Afghan Government, supported by the US forces, started as retaliation from the US government after the Taliban refused to extradite then Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden.
Many aspects of life in Afghanistan have drastically changed during the past twenty years, with the emergence of frequent terrorist attacks, rampant poverty and many trade sanctions, all of which have made life hard for the country’s citizens. Some Afghan citizens, especially those who worked and were associated with American forces, have been trying to escape from Kabul by virtually any means necessary, with their willingness to climb onto the wings of aircraft highlighting this desperation. With that being said, the Taliban have promised to allow Afghan citizens with valid travel documentation to leave the country, however, only time will tell if they hold on to this promise.
Another promise that the Taliban has made is that there will be “no violence against women” and that Afghan women will be permitted to receive an education and attend work, but only if it is per ‘Islamic Law’. Female rights within the country have been turbulent and ever-changing, owing to the fickle nature of governmental transfer within the country. Given the Taliban’s record, as well as their views regarding women’s rights in the past, we will once again have to wait and see if there is hope for women’s rights.
The Taliban’s rule in the 1990s imposed one of the strictest rules upon what women could do within society. For example, women were not allowed to visit public spaces without the accompaniment of a male family member or husband. Further, women were not allowed to work nor attend any form of educational institution. These strict rulings came from the Taliban’s fundamentalist views originating from their perception of the Quran as well as the teachings of their Imams, prayer leaders within the Muslim religion, and other influential people within the Taliban. The implications of such strict laws meant less than 4% of girls were enrolled in primary school in 1999, a stark contrast when comparing a peak of 29% in 1995, a year before the Taliban would topple over the then Islamic State of Afghanistan.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the foundation of the Afghan Government we know today, many of the stern laws relating to Afghan women had been relaxed or lessened in degree. More schools were created, including female-only schools. It was during this time, that the primary school enrolment for girls peaked at 86.73% in 2014. Notably, in 2004 the constitution of the new Afghan government highlighted that women were ‘de jure’ equal to men in all parts of life and society. Additionally, the newly formed government also included female politicians; with the 2007 constitution enforcing that 27% of the 250 seats available were reserved for women. However, not all females enjoyed these new laws and policies. In particular, in areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban had control or influence meant that these new policies made to equalise women in society had little to no effect on their lives.
The current situation leaves many questions; will the Taliban regime commit to these promises of upholding women’s rights, or is this merely a publicity stunt in an attempt to boost the 2021 Taliban’s image to the world? Women’s rights activist Seraj Mahbouba believes the latter to be true. Mahbouba is an extremely influential women’s rights activist in Afghanistan, even opening channels to the Taliban to ensure women’s rights are upheld during the Taliban rule. The effectiveness of these negotiations will be revealed with time, through a new era in Afghanistan’s history.
As the Taliban pledges to respect women’s rights within the bounds of Sharia Law, it is essential to understand what Islamic Law is to infer the implications of this promise. Sharia, which translates to ‘the path to water’ in Arabic, refers to the Muslim way of life intended by God. Interpretations of God’s will, or ‘fiqh’, are made by scholars through dissection of sources including Quran and Sunnah and makes for the body of jurisprudence. In contrast to common misconceptions, Sharia Law does not consist of a set of codified laws, but varies across regions and is established by scholars who consider different geographical and cultural contexts.
As a result, there are five schools of Sharia Law at present: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali for Sunni Muslims and Jafari for Shia Muslims. Despite disagreeing on particular topics, the schools acknowledge their differences as inevitable and legitimate and promote pluralism to encourage God’s will to be put into practice, whilst acknowledging diversity within the religion. However, during their rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban failed to recognise the diverse nature of Sharia Law, and exclusively accepted interpretations from their own Sunni Hanafi school. This solidified the Taliban’s control over their people, as they have the power to interpret Quranic verses in ways that are in favour of the authorities, whilst disregarding the legitimacy of other Sharia legal literature.
Since the process of constructing Sharia law relies heavily on human interpretation, it is susceptible to personal biases. For example, men are stated as more ‘qawwamun’ than women in Quran, reflecting the fact that men were traditionally the protectors and maintainers in past societies. However, as the interpretation of religious texts is historically male-dominated, this statement has been interpreted to reinforce the idea that male is the superior gender and has been used to legitimise suppression and mistreatment of women. Another example showing the possibility of contrasting interpretations is the Quranic verse: “…and if there are not two men [available], then [bring] a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses”. The verse suggests the importance of having the presence of witnesses when forming business contracts and is sometimes used to support the view that women’s credibility, and therefore social status, is considered to be lesser than that of a man. Conversely, other scholars argue that the requirement of having two female witnesses was not a judgement of their intelligence, but a reflection of their likely lack of business knowledge in the past. This goes to demonstrate the flexibility that lies within the formation of Sharia Law, and the detrimental results it could bring about if politicised and adopted as a tool for oppression.
In the wake of the last US flight from Kabul, the Taliban celebrate their victory, and the world is left to wonder whether history will repeat itself. In the weeks since the Taliban have gained control over Afghanistan, many promises and symbolic gestures of ostensible change have been made. The Taliban have illuminated a glowing forecast for themselves; they are not the same pariah state leaders of the 20th century, at least, not according to their PR record.
‘Taliban 2.0’ are a more sophisticated communications and political outfit partly driven by a desperately low level of cash. As a humanitarian crisis unfolds, the international community is left debating on how to provide financial aid. Currently, organisations such as the International Monetary Fund have suspended payments to Afghanistan, and the Afghan Central Bank’s reserves are frozen in the US. This helps to explain the Taliban’s commitment to international standards of conduct. From the outset, they chose not to take Kabul by force, their reasoning being that the international community would not recognise a forced establishment. To symbolise their changed attitudes towards women, at their press conference, the first journalist they chose to answer was a woman. From here, their answers seemed to be meticulously designed to fit the desires of the West; women’s rights would be protected; religious minorities would not be persecuted; the international groups who fought them would be given amnesty and forgiveness.
Is this merely a surface level change? Or is this a Taliban that is fundamentally different from twenty years ago? So far, the rhetoric has been unmatched by reality. For religious minorities, reports of the persecution of Hazara and Shia have surfaced. For women, a resonant symbol of change came a few weeks ago when a senior Taliban leader chose a woman journalist to conduct his interview. However, the excitement from this was quickly muted by a government announcement asking women to stay home for their “own safety”.
As for the international community, the question of whether bygones will truly be bygones seems less and less relevant as a rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis grips the region.
Afghanistan has become a melting pot of terrorist groups heated by instability and chaos. The recent Hamid Karzai International Airport suicide bombings have been a claimed victory for the Al-Qaeda linked ISIS-K group – a Taliban rival. Due to the rising threat of extremism, the US has vowed to continue airstrikes, and with that, the decades of relentless violence faced daily by Afghans will also continue. An estimated 50,000 civilians and 70,000 Afghan soldiers have died in the last twenty years due to the violent nature of the war.
Afghan journalist, Nelufar Hedayat reflected on the continued violence; “The dream of self-determination has eluded Afghans for longer, more than 40 years and counting. Whatever the invading force, whether internal or external, the land of the Afghans has been a battleground of ideologies…Through foreign meddling, the graveyard of empires has become the graveyard of innocent Afghans too, lest we forget.”
Other foreign governments have also begun collaborating with the Taliban. As a neighbouring country, China has met with the Taliban to cooperate and express concern over the potential for the rise of terrorist groups in the wake of a security vacuum left by the US. Wang Yi, a top Chinese diplomat has urged the US and other nations to engage and “guide” the new Taliban government.
Whether the court of international public opinion judges the Taliban to be a transformed entity is losing its relevance amid the growing bloodshed. The harrowing pictures coming out of Kabul are a harbinger for the exploding refugee exodus that is to come. The only certainty for the future is the growth of the current crises if the international community do not step in and cooperate with this new government.
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I'm a Bachelor of Commerce student in my final year majoring in Finance and Management. My key interests are in public policy, regulation and inequality. As a writer at Cainz, I hope to produce pertinent pieces of work that will help people think critically about the pressing issues of our time.