nIslamic Fundamentalism and the
On September 27th, 1996, the extremist militia, the Taliban, seized control of the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul. Up until that day, women and girls in Afghanistan could go to school, work, and walk freely. Then the Taliban issued decrees banning woman and girls from receiving education, entering the workforce or leaving their homes without a close male relative as an escort, wearing a burqa. The Taliban 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. The Taliban claims religious reasoning behind this gender apartheid, using the Muslim faith as their backing, though many critics denounce this logic, saying that The Qur’an condones no such thing. Woman in Afghanistan have become but a shadow of real people. Not only can they no longer enter the workforce or attend school, they cannot choose what they wish to wear, or call to friends in public for fear of being beaten, stoned or killed. The female sex has truly been enslaved by the Taliban, however what rarely comes to light, is that males in Afghanistan have also had strictures of dress and conduct imposed on them. These conditions have roused quite a varied response from the Western World. Western-born Muslims who practice Islam identify with some of the Taliban’s strictures, even wearing the burqa or hajib in Canada. Others who do not know the Muslim faith, are outraged that woman can be subjugated so completely and that the rest of the world can sit back and watch it happen complacently. Human rights atrocities are committed towards women everyday by the Taliban in the name of their religion and their god.
When the Taliban first revealed themselves to the general public, they gave the world the impression that they had come to rid Afghanistan of its problems. At first, all recognized the Taliban as a legitimate Afghan force that had bright ideals of ridding Afghanistan of disorder and
crime. However, as time passed, the true nature of the Taliban was revealed. Soon, the Taliban became known as a militia that used a mixture of false Islam, Opium, and foreign money. Members of the Taliban claim to be students of Islam, and their only desire is to see Afghanistan come under Islamic rule. Their movement began in September of 1994, in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. At that time, they say Kandahar was plagued by groups that robbed, killed, and raped the populace. One man by the name of Mullah Mohammad Omar wanted to end these reprehensible acts, and so founded the Taliban as a means to combat it. Today, the Taliban is something perverted from that original dream. Their leaders have gone as far as to lay allegations that the government led by President Rabbani was illegitimate and unislamic, therefore blasphemy. They even branded the famous Mujahideen Commander Ahmad Shah Masood a criminal. Wherever the Taliban conquered, destruction and oppression has followed. Author Asta Olesen summed up the Taliban’s activities saying that many thousands of people had died, and anarchy had reigned because of the Taliban’s imposition of excesses against the female gender as well as the rest of the civil population (295). So far, they have destroyed historic artwork in Herat, burned villages, committed atrocities against the Shias of Afghanistan, closed schools for girls, banned women from work, started an opium boom, and oppressed men not belonging to their group. In Kabul, they even gathered up hundreds of young men to use as human mine shields. The Taliban may have begun as a movement to reform human rights atrocities, but has instead descended into a group who generates its own human rights violations.
The religion of Islam teaches that men and women are equal in the sight of their god. The Muslim faith also tells us that “individuals should not be judged according to gender, beauty, wealth or privilege” (Mustafa 480). The Taliban believes that woman belong in seclusion in the home, where no man may see them and lust after them. They believe that God has dictated they should remain secluded to gain religious enlightenment. The Taliban Governor of Herat was quoted by Peter Marsden as saying: “It is a matter of pride for all Afghanistan that we have kept our women at home…no other country gives women the rights we have given them…they have the rights that God and his messenger have instructed, that is to stay in their homes and gain
religious instruction in seclusion” (98). Critics of the Taliban however refute the idea that the Qur’an supports such ideals. The representative of the Jamaat-i-Islami political party gave the viewpoint of his party by saying that contrary to what the Taliban believes, the Muslim faith demand that women be educated, and that they ought to be allowed to work provided they observe the Islamic norms of dress and conduct (Marsden 99). The role of women in the Muslim faith changes according to what political party is in question. The Taliban believes that women should be out of sight as much as possible, and when it is necessary that they be in public, that they be shrouded completely. According to the Taliban, women should exist only as shadows, never speaking, rarely seen. Other less fundament groups who follow the Muslim faith say that the education of women id mandatory according to the Qur’an and that woman are equal to men, but ought to retain modesty.
Up until the Taliban came to power, women in Afghanistan were active members of the workforce and attended school. Journalist, Jan Goodwin noted that “until the Taliban took over, 70% of the teachers and the students at Kabul University had been female” (110). Female students were forced to drop out of school, forget their dreams and spend the rest of their lives at home, or occasionally outside, wearing a burqa. Some woman fought back against the oppression by schooling girls in their homes at the risk of being beaten. Obviously no school supplies could be purchased so many made their teaching aids out of scraps found around the house (Goodwin 110). Ms Goodwin interviewed a woman who wished to remain nameless, yet had started a school for female children, illegally, in her home. She felt that her only way to rebel against the Taliban was to do this thing for the children deprived of education (Goodwin 110). Ms. Goodwin quoted her as saying: “Im scared about what I’m doing but it’s the only way I can fight back” (110). According to this nameless woman, even the children as young as 6 years understand the danger of opposing the Taliban and the consequences that would befall their teacher if the wrong person learned of their illicit schooling (Goodwin 110). It is sad that the pupils have become the outlawed teachers, imparting the small knowledge given to them before the Taliban called education to an end. Perhaps someday education will be attainable for women.
It is sad to know what it is like to be enthralled by knowledge, then in an instant have it taken away completely, forever.
It is commonly held that Islamic woman should wear the hajib (the scarf covering the head and neck) or the burqa (full body and face covering) as a sign of her faith, yet no group has ever before made it mandatory and punished dissent like the Taliban. Peter Marsden, author of The Taliban, stated that the Taliban have been more extreme than any other in requiring that women’s faces be covered (91). The requirement that the burqa be worn has imposed many constraints on the average Muslim family. When the Taliban banned women entering the workforce, they took away half the economy of many families. “The imposition of the burqa has placed an additional financial burden on…families at a time when the economy has been deteriorating” (Marsden 91). The Taliban does not hesitate to beat a woman caught without the burqa, or even if some of her skin shows beneath it, say should a breeze catch it and blow it around her ankles. “The practice of the Taliban of beating women with sticks…has had an enormous impact on the mobility of the female population” (Marsden 90). There is a climate of fear which inhibits women from leaving the home. Health care workers who are female have either abandoned their jobs, or sleep at the clinics throughout the week to minimize the time they are exposed to Taliban forces (Marsden 90). There is also a marked decline in the numbers of women and children who attend health facilities as many are too afraid to step outside, not knowing what infraction will bring death (Marsden 90). Woman have become sub-human, afraid to tread to heavily in their own neighborhood. Sadly enough it is not the streets they fear, nor crime, it is their government, those who are supposed to protect them.
The response to the donning of the burqa varies from person to person, culture to culture. Much of the Western world is outraged that a country could subjugate their people so, while the rest of the world did nothing to intervene. Agnus Gruda was quoted by Michele Lemon as saying: “The Islamic veil is more than religious garb, it is one of the most powerful symbols of a woman’s servitude” (477). Ms. Lemon was outraged by the sight of a woman in her neighborhood in Canada wearing the hijab, saying she did not want to see a woman so obviously
“a walking billboard that proclaims public space is reserved for men” (477). Ms. Lemon sees the hijab as a symbol of oppression, calling it a “symbol of the difficulty all women once faced and a startling reminder that the struggle for equality has not ended” (477). In defense of her choice of dress, Naheed Mustafa blamed the Western world for the true oppression: “feeling that one has to meet the impossible male standards of beauty if tiring and often humiliating” (481). Mustafa says she donned the hijab because it freed her from the constant scrutiny of physical appearance that many of us have become accustomed to. Each woman differs greatly in her attitude toward the hijab, and many likely share the same feelings as both women. Feelings of self worth, faith, and ones perception of the society around them all contribute to the final decision reached about the hijab and what it means.
The situation faced by women in Afghanistan is a problematic one. In an ideal conflict there are only two sides, what is right and what is wrong. In this conflict, however, there are many different layers, comparable to that of an onion. For instance, a fact that never comes to light in our western media coverage is that men also face a dress code, and stricter rules of conduct. By law, a man is required to wear a beard, keep his hair un-styled, wear a turban and a shalwar kameez (A long tunic) (Marsden 91). What the Taliban doesn’t seem to consider however is that not all men are capable of growing a beard. If a man is caught disobeying Taliban edicts, he is just as susceptible to their wrath as a woman. Although assuming a burqa or hijab is not the most tasteful thing and quite likely hated, at least it is easy to do. A man who cannot grow a beard must hide his face which is difficult as the male must lead the female and be the financial breadwinner. Many women also, Like Ms. Mustafa, choose to wear the burqa or hajib as a proud sign of their religion, or to make themselves less of an object. It is hard for Western society to be empathetic to a woman’s plight when not only did she choose it, but revels in it. Finally, it is impossible for Westerners to pass judgement on a custom they no nothing of. Not many know the Qur’an intimately, and therefore cannot say what the Islamic faith does or does not say about the position of women in a Muslim society. It is easy to be a bleeding heart without having all the facts, more difficult when one does have all the facts. It is very true that many women in
Afghanistan did not choose their lifestyle, although they did choose their religion.
The Western world is very caught up in the plight of women in Afghanistan, and their subjugation; so much so that many don’t stop to think about their own subjugation. We think it is terrible that a woman should be stuffed into a sheet so that she wont be looked at in lust, that she should have the right to choose, and well this is true, or society is at the other extreme. Ms. Mustafa chooses to wear her hijab so people will know her as a person. In 1997, the Ontario government passed a bill saying women had the right to be topless in public, and women all over the province rejoiced. Ms. Mustafa attacked the issue saying “Women are not going to achieve equality with the right to bare their breasts in public, as some people would like to have you believe. That would only make us party to our own objectification” (481). It is very true. In our society “women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness” (Mustafa 480). It is true. The very magazine that featured the article on women in Afghanistan was absolutely full of advertisements showing voluptuous, tall, sleek women, an ideal few can hope to achieve. Even the articles enslave, articles on how to better do one’s make up, to hook that man and many along the same lines. Woman are conditioned from a very young age to feel bad about the way they look so they will buy that miracle product that will instantly make them taller, thinner, and make their breasts that much bigger. In the question of who is really a slave to their society, it is the so-called liberated women of the western world who lose. At least the woman in the burqa has self respect.
The Taliban brutally removed women from the world that they were accustomed to. Perhaps it would not have been so bad for them had they not known the freedoms of education and the workforce. Unfortunately, however, they did, and the abruptness of its removal is still a shock to many. Many women give up what it means to live. Some function because they have to. Many are clinically depressed. Each year, those who are able to find the means, commit suicide, opting for death rather than the hell in which they exist. Women in Afghanistan are but a shadow of their former selves, slaves to the Taliban’s whims. No longer are working, education, freedom or even having friends an option. A woman’s place, according to the Taliban is in seclusion in
the home where she can contemplate god all day, everyday. Not everyone in Afghanistan agrees with this, and much of the Western world does not either. Perhaps one day women in Afghanistan will triumph over the misogyny of the Taliban and regain their rightful place in society. Perhaps one day the women of the western world will realize what they do to themselves every time they pick up a Cosmopolitan magazine. We are not all that different, Muslim women in Afghanistan and the women in Canada and the United States. We Westerners however are much worse, as we choose our subjugation every time we buy into the beauty myth. If they had our freedom they would likely use it much more wisely.
Goodwin, Jan. “Risking Her Life to Teach Girls.” Marie Claire December 2000: 171.
Lemon, Michele. “Understanding Does Not Always Lead to Tolerance.” Reader’s Choice. 3rd Canadian Edition. Kim Flachmann, Michael Flachmann, & Alexandra MacLennan.
Toronto: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 477-9.
Marsden, Peter. The Taliban. War, Religion And The New Order in Afghanistan. New York:
Mustafa, Naheed. “My Body is My On Business.”Reader’s Choice. 3rd Canadian Edition. Kim Flachmann, Michael Flachmann, & Alexandra MacLennan. Toronto: Prentice-Hall, 2000.
Olesen, Asta. Islam and Politics in Afghanistan. Wiltshire, Great Britain: Antony Rowe Ltd. 1995.
Mousavi, Sayed Askar. The Hazaras Of Afghanistan. A Historical, Cultural, Economic and Political Study. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1997.