Why the Taliban’s Repression of Women May Be More Tactical Than Ideological

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Cracking down on women is a form of marketing for the new rulers of Afghanistan. But it can still cost them dearly.

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Why are the Taliban taking away the freedom of Afghan women who have been so hard-won?


This may sound like a dumb question. When the Taliban ruled the country in the 1990s, after all, their regime was known for some of the world’s harshest restrictions on women. The group still adheres to a radical view of Islamic society.

But ideology is only part of the story.

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Every group has many beliefs, and not all of them become a priority for governance. Some Taliban officials, notably those who conducted peace talks and supported international engagement, have suggested that this iteration of the Taliban regime may be less restrictive towards women. And of course there are economic incentives, as the resumption of international aid will be based at least partly on human rights considerations.

None of these have made any difference so far. Although some Taliban officials say the situation will improve, women are still being kept away from workplaces and schools. Every week brings a new report of restrictions.

In that light, the Taliban’s decision to restrict women’s freedom begins to sound as much a political choice as it is a matter of ideology. Understanding why the Taliban may see that choice as rewarding, experts say, provides insight into the group’s state-building efforts, and the nature of the society they now rule again.

“I didn’t believe for a minute that the Taliban had changed,” said Muqaddesa Yoreish, a former deputy commerce minister who fled to the United States with her family when the Taliban came to power. “If anything has changed about them, it’s that they know how to deal with the West.”

Less than two months after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, their promised allowances for women in the workplace and in schools have yet to be revealed. Most women are still banned from going to work, the Taliban’s claim for security is considered a temporary measure.

The leadership is using the same term to describe when women might be allowed to attend public universities. And when secondary schools reopened this month, the Taliban instructed boys to return to class, but said nothing about girls, which families across the country understood as a directive that girls should stay home. needed.

Groups like the Taliban often struggle to transition from violent insurgency to de facto regime, said Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies insurgent regimes in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

They do not have the experience, funding or personnel to provide sophisticated government services. Instead, their main strength is controlling security – using their position as the most powerful violent group in the country to operate a country-level security racket, exchanging public security for obedience.

“We should not buy into the narrative that they are an alternative to the previous government because they are providing protection,” said Metra Mehran, co-founder of the Feminine Perspectives campaign. “They are not providing security; They have stopped killing us.”

Dr. Mukhopadhyay echoed that sentiment. “It is a cornerstone of understanding what the Taliban is offering: security and also the threat of force,” he said. “But people, especially women, know that the form of security comes with an ideology attached to it.”

Seen from that perspective, limiting women’s freedom is a powerful demonstration of the Taliban’s power. When women and girls disappear from offices and schools, it shows that the Taliban have enough power – and clearly, enough capacity and willingness to use violence – to dramatically re-engineer public spaces. For.

Dr Mukhopadhyay noted that the Taliban had not only dismantled the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, but had also taken its place with the Deputy Ministry of Virtue and Virtue, known for its fearful religious police, for public beatings of women. was known, who used to go out without a male relative. Wear something other than a burqa.

“It’s a very powerful symbol of who is winning within the Taliban right now,” she said.

But marketing is only part of the story. Despite the support and funding for gender equality efforts during 20 years of US-backed governments, Afghan women’s freedoms have always been fragile.

Ms Yorish said she had always felt that many Afghan men were uncomfortable with women in public life. Although her own father and husband were supportive of her career, she said, they often seemed like outsiders.

In the final days before the Taliban came to power, Ms. Yorish said, she and her friends exchanged stories about how “the Talib is coming out in every man,” she said. Male strangers approached her and other women on the street, shouting cryptic threats like, “Your days will be over soon.” She said she could feel the creaking of women’s progress even before the previous government fell.

On paper and in the table of foreign aid budgets, gender equality was a priority for two decades. And there were substantial improvements for many women, especially those who were educated and lived in more urban areas.

But Afghanistan remains a deeply patriarchal society. The Taliban’s promise to return to “traditional” values, in which women are subordinate to their male relatives, is a tempting proposition for many Afghan men.

Alice Evans, a researcher at King’s College London who studies women’s economic and social progress, said women’s rights are entangled in a “patrilineal trap”.

Dr. Evans said that societies in which family wealth passes through the male line have traditionally placed great importance on the purity of the bride. “Girls are closely watched to improve their marriage prospects and family honor,” he said, “and norms develop that keep women away from public life.”

The dynamic is self-reinforcing: Families don’t want to risk deviating from social norms on their own, so everyone is trapped in a system in which women have to live closer to home.

To break out of that trap, women’s wages must be high enough that the benefits of working outweigh the risks to the family’s honor, Dr. Evans said. For example, in East Asia, rapid industrialization increased women’s potential earnings, effectively buying them out of respect-based rules that confined them to the home.

This did not happen in Afghanistan, where economic productivity and employment remained low despite an influx of aid. Women’s wages didn’t rise enough, in enough places, to exceed their family’s honor-based concerns, or to change social norms.

This can strengthen the Taliban. Dr Mukhopadhyay said insurgent groups that are perceived to be based on local communities and values ​​tend to be more successful. For conservative Afghans, especially men, restricting women’s freedoms may be a way for the Taliban to claim they support local values.

But it could still backfire, Dr Mukhopadhyay said, if the sanctions are so extreme that Afghans see them as overreach by leaders who do not understand how the country has changed. “Talib had been living across the border in Pakistan for decades,” he said. “Their perceptions of Islam and modernity are not the same as those of Afghanistan.”

Maniza Wafek, co-founder and president of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said women’s employment has become so widespread that many families are at least partially dependent on their income.

His earnings have disappeared in recent weeks as a result of Taliban sanctions, and this could cut into the public’s acceptance of his rule.

“This is already an economic crisis for the whole country,” Ms Vafek said. “People are already trying to figure out how to feed their families.”

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