The Muslim world has been facing heightening crises, which have led to violent escalations in certain areas during the last decade of the 20th century. In addition to the innumerable loss of lives during the onslaughts of war, women have suffered immeasurably at the hands of despotic governments and tyrannical rulers. The status of women has immensely deteriorated and this has been reflected to the world, through the camera lenses, in war or strife hit regions such as Jammu and Kashmir, Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Chechneya, Algeria, and most recently Afghanistan.
In the case of Afghanistan, the plight of women has been led to the forefront of the media’s attention in light of the repercussions of the September 11 attacks and the resulting war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda organization in Afghanistan.
While the world was focusing its efforts towards reshaping the political landscape of Afghanistan, the issue of Afghan women was brought to the table in such a way that raised effective questions about the politicization of the issue, the means of this politicization, and its goals regarding the shape of political, social, and cultural forces in Afghanistan after Western intervention.
The Afghan women’s situation is by no means unique and has its equivalencies and derivatives in the Muslim world albeit varying degrees and levels of extremeties. General features of women’s conditions throughout the Muslim world, Afghanistan being no exception, are: Backwardness that is characteristic of the underdevelopment of Muslim communities calling for real changes as part of a comprehensive social reform program; the inability for progress caused by controversial debates revolving around Islamic jurisprudence on women’s issues necessitating fresh and new discussions; and the repercussion of foreign intervention introducing internal reforms which do little for the status of women and instead cause internal rifts amongst warring factions.
It should be highlighted that Taliban policies have not created the problems that Afghan women are currently suffering from, but the movement rather brought these problems to their climax. The world had little concern for Afghan women’s issues until political debates heated. Women’s suffrage became a pressing issue, when the US decided to lead its military campaign contra-Taliban. However, Afghan women served merely as an excuse for international criticism, while the main problem the West was addressing was that of the political and juridical framework that Afghan women resided in.
In the pretext of the military campaign against Taliban, we can recall the following incidents that the media highlighted: the report presented by the United Nations Secretary-General in 1999 in which he accused Taliban of human rights violations, the programs aired by US channels and articles that appeared in the mass- circulated US newspapers accusing Taliban of violating women’s rights under the pretext of Islam, the support of former US President Bill Clinton, his Democratic Party, the rivals Republicans and even some UN agencies to this anti-Taliban media campaign, and the TV program jointly prepared by the American CNN and the British BBC televisions in the summer of 2001 showing the deterioration of Afghan women conditions under Taliban.
To defend its policies, Taliban offered religious claims to confine women at home, declaring that the government was aiming to protect women from impending dangers that may arise from political instability or the absence of an effective security system. Regardless of its justifications, one can argue that Taliban practices, as well as other practices led by Islamic regimes, are unfairly measured according to a Western model which takes no account of religious, cultural or social forces operating in the Muslim world. This raises intelligent questions worth contemplating such as, is the Western model applicable for all the worlds regimes and should any regimes that deviate from the model be punished. Also, should Islam be blamed, regardless of the model at hand, for the oppression facing Muslim women in contemporary societies. The answers are not simple but they do call for the creation of an indigenous model that has its roots in Islamic jurisprudence leading to political manifestations.
However, it is still arguable that Taliban practices have undermined the basic rights that Islam has given women and in such has created an ambience of sex discrimination under the banner of religion. Prohibiting women from education, work, and political mobilization, has only added to the list of grievances that women have been suffering. Progress doesn’t come without pain, and no doubtedly the Taliban model has led to new and invigorating discussions about Islamic-based models of governance and their responsibilities towards securing women’s rights, as upheld by Sharia Law.
However, it is not fair to assess the Taliban policies of women without making a due comparison regarding the status of women under other regimes.
The first comparison that can be made is to that of Muslim women in Western societies. Veiled women in the West enjoy the right to education and participation in the labor force, albeit facing mounting obstacles towards full integration in society because of their Islamic dress. The hijab, as referred to by Hanifa Sharifi, a 48-year-old French Muslim in an interview with the Le Monde, published on December 15th 2001, is a trap eventually leading to the isolation and marginalization of women.
The second example refers to the case of a Muslim woman residing in a Muslim community under a secular state. Marwa Quwagi, Turkish Member of Parliament, was denied her rights because she chose to wear Hijab. In defending herself against the discriminatory practices of the secular regime, the Turkish MP adopted the same vocabulary of democracy, liberalism, and Western secularism, that the Turkish regime claimed to have its basis in.
The third example rests with the case of Iranian women, under the Islamic republic of Iran. After the Islamic revolution in Iran took place, the West harshly criticized the status of women in the country and accused Iran of violating womens’ rights. However, over the last two decades of the 20th century, Iran has presented to the world a model which has its roots in a feminist movement, harmonious with Islamic fundamentals, that has given women a wide range of liberal participation in society.
While the first two examples share the pains of Afghan women in the face of oppressive circumstances, the third sheds light on an indigenous model rooted in feminist ideology that has led to an enhanced status of women. The third case is one from which Afghan women can benefit without forgoing or overstepping religious limitations.
Symbolic landmarks including the demonstrations led by women in Kabul to celebrate the return of women’s rights and the appointment of two women to the prestigious posts of Women Affairs Minister and Health Minister in the interim Afghan government, still cast somewhat dubious shadows and one should attempt to answer the following questions: Will the downfall of Taliban truly herald a solution to the Afghan women’s problems? Will the solutions to the problems being faced by Afghan women derive from Western models that have little consideration for indigenous issues? If so, how practical will these solutions be? Will the new Afghan government, that paraded female delegates to the Bonn conference, introduce real changes to the status of women? Would the Western attention to the Afghan women’s issue be seen as part of its concern for the protection of human rights? Or would it be regarded as part of the Western battle against terrorism and efforts to redraw the map of regional powers?
Events and reactions in the coming few months after the establishment of the transitional government and the deployment of international troops may present initial answers to the above-mentioned questions. Yet the full impact will not materialize before several years. In this period of observation, it is important to highlight that Afghan women and the Afghan people are in dire need for immediate and effective humanitarian aid from both Western and Islamic agencies. Yet the future of humanitarian aid efforts aimed at improving the women’s situation depends on the future of the political stability of the country as well as its costly reconstruction process.
Debates revolving around the nature and impact of Islamic jurisprudence are not confined to Islamic circles but extend to other circles that can be way too critical of the forces behind such a rule. Islam, as a global power, although not represented by a strong cohesive unit, is present, effective and influential, stirring both praise and blame. Intellectual debates and efforts to change the status quo of Muslim women should lead to the creation of a framework ensuring and enhancing women’s rights and roles in the society. Western ideologies and conceptions do not hold the magic wand that will bring an end to the problems of the Muslim world and the dangers of the politicization of women’s issues need no further clarification. Internal issues should be dealt with a religious, cultural and social sensitivity oblivious to Western policy makers. That is not to say that Westerners have not indeed helped Muslim societies overcome some of the problems plaguing them, however Muslims need to confront their issues collectively and individually to draw conclusions that are both feasible and effective.
Nadia Moustafa, Ph.D. is associated with Center for Civilizations and Political Studies, Cairo, Egypt.