October 19, 2001
The Rifle and the Veil
By JAN GOODWIN and JESSICA NEUWIRTH
Anyone who has paid attention to the situation of women in Afghanistan should not have been surprised to learn that the Taliban are complicit in terrorism. When radical Muslim movements are on the rise, women are the canaries in the mines. The very visible repression of forced veiling and loss of hard-won freedoms coexists naturally with a general disrespect for human rights. This repression of women is not about religion; it is a political tool for achieving and consolidating power.
Sher Abbas Stanakzai, then the Taliban regime's deputy foreign minister, admitted as much in a 1997 interview. "Our current restrictions of women are necessary in order to bring the Afghan people under control," he said. "We need these restrictions until people learn to obey the Taliban."
In the same way that many Islamic extremist crusades use the oppression of women to help them gain control over wider populations, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden are now employing the tactics of terrorism to gain control.
The Taliban did not start the oppression of Afghan women, nor have they been its only practitioners.
In 1989, Arab militants working with the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union based in Peshawar, Pakistan — and helping to finance the resistance fighters — issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, stating that Afghan women would be killed if they worked for humanitarian organizations. At that time, a third of the Afghan population of 15 million were displaced from their homes, and many were heavily dependent on humanitarian groups for food and other necessities. Among the 3.5 million of these refugees who were then living in Pakistan, many were war widows supporting their families by working for the aid groups. After the fatwa, Afghan women going to work were shot at and several were murdered. Some international aid groups promptly stopped employing Afghan women, and though many women were infuriated, most complied after being intimidated by the violent attacks. Soon afterward, another edict in Peshawar forbade Afghan women to "walk with pride" or walk in the middle of the street and said they must wear the hijab, the Arab black head and body covering and half-face veil. Again, most women felt they had no choice but to comply.
In 1990, a fatwa from Afghan leaders in Peshawar decreed that women should not attend schools or become educated, and that if they did, the Islamic movement would meet with failure. The document measured 2 feet by 3 feet to accommodate the signatures of about 200 mullahs and political leaders representing the majority of the seven main mujahedeen parties of Afghanistan. The leading school for Afghan girls in Peshawar, where many Afghan refugees still lived, was sprayed with Kalashnikov gunfire. It closed for months, and its principal was forced into hiding.
When an alliance of mujahedeen groups took over in Kabul in 1992, it forced women out of news broadcasting and government ministry jobs and required them to wear veils. But it was the Taliban who institutionalized the total oppression of women after Kabul fell to them four years later, and who required the total coverage of the now familiar burqa.
Now, as Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans look to the future of Afghanistan, most plans call for a broad-based new government giving representation to all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups and major political parties, including the Taliban. No one, however, has called for the participation of women, even though women, after many years of war, now almost certainly make up the majority of the adult Afghan population.
Afghan women gradually gained rights in the first decades of the 20th century. Women helped write their country's Constitution in 1964. They served in parliament and the cabinet and were diplomats, academics, professionals, judges and even army generals. All of this happened well before the Soviets arrived in 1979, with their much-touted claim of liberating Afghan women.
Many of the forces now opposing the Taliban include signatories of the later fatwas that deprived Afghan women of their rights. History is repeating itself.
Any political process that moves forward without the representation and participation of women will undermine any chances that the principles of democracy and human rights will take hold in Afghanistan. It will be the first clue that little has changed.
Jan Goodwin is author of "Price of Honor," a book on women and Islamic extremism. Jessica Neuwirth is president of Equality Now, an international women's rights group.Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company