In Nuristan, the deep valleys insulate the communities with unforgiving landscape, and offer greater measures of security. Blessed with relative safety, and empowered by a different but set of mores still similar to the Pashtunwali, the Nuristani women offer a historic window into the tribal place of a woman within an Afghan setting. While the men of a family follow flocks of sheep and goats from pastures set among the mountain tops, the women are left to life within the community, tending the farm fields and procuring the needs of the home. This results in some of the more fiercely independent women of the Afghan tribes, yet certainly still observe purdah within the village setting, and don the burqa when traveling to less secure frontiers.
The failed attempts to implement Western values in colonies did little to discourage the United States and England from quickly tying the issue of women’s rights to the success of the Global War on Terrorism in an effort to find greater popular support. In a radio address shortly after the initial bombing campaign began, First Lady Laura Bush even went so far as to claim that “the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.” A goal which she later claims, “they would like to impose on the rest of us.” Three days later, Cherie Blair, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, echoed similar sentiments in England. However, the counter to these arguments exists in the unlikely Northwest Frontier Province outside the village of Chitral. The village lies just east of the volatile eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan where the fighting has been fierce enough to result in five Congressional Medals of Honor for American soldiers. Likewise, Chitral lies just to the west of Swat Valley where multiple offensives have been launched to address the growing Tehrik-e Taliban in Pakistan insurgency. Despite living in the eye of an Islamic storm, the Kalash tribe exists as it has for centuries before. The women roam not only uncovered, but greatly adorned with elaborate headdresses made of beads and sea shells set atop their exposed hair hanging in multiple braids. They practice ancient rituals to a pantheon of gods – publicly – and embrace their heritage bequeathed to them by their ancestors allegedly brought by Alexander the Great. Certainly the tribe is often referred to as the kafir Kalash, as if their name must be denoted by first calling them infidels; however, little tragedy has found them throughout their existence. They have representation in the provincial government, though suffer a bit heavier taxation on goods, though there has been no invasions of their lands or large-scale violence directed against them. However, the paranoia of the West cries out that the “central goal of the terrorists” is to export their oppression of women to “the rest of us.” A point made all the more prudent by the revelation that Afghan women were not hiding mini-skirts beneath their burqas. In fact, over a decade since Mrs. Bush announced the West freed women, outsiders will still note that only rarely does a woman wander around villages outside of the main cities of Afghanistan devoid of her full-body cover – even in the Kingdom of Kabul it is often worn. The answer is simple: a woman’s freedom is not tied to her cultural modesty, but to her representative authority within the political and legal landscape. Unfortunately, in this sense, the current administration in Afghanistan has obliterated women’s rights to an inferior position of what they were nearly a hundred years before.
While it may seem counter to the mainstream portrayal of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, a founding member of the Taliban, claims that they were never against women’s rights. He explains that the security situation at the time was not conducive for women to be allowed out of homes alone. Under the tribal value of namus which is an interpretation of the Islamic tenet of purdah, or the protection of women, it would be unethical, if not sinful, to allow a woman into the wilds of instable security – particularly in a nation cited specifically for widespread rape multiple times by the Human Rights Watch. There is no greater threat to a tribe or family’s honor than the perception that they are unable to protect their women and children. If a qawm cannot even protect their most sacred treasures from enemies, then lesser treasures must certainly be available for taking. Beyond, the immediate effects, any single event that possesses the power to strip an entire family or qawm of honor, will certainly have the second order effects of a tribal feud until the badal is satisfied and the honor is restored. Set against a cultural dynamic where honor is the primary currency, and within the context of anarchic depravity within which the Taliban originally formed, an outsider can see how such protective measures for women were initially formed. Certainly, it is not forgivable – but neither is allowing a land to fall into such chaos that these measures seem sane to the people that live there. This is exactly what happened when Western Nations built these warlords, then abruptly stopped the funding and never produced a real reconstruction effort.
After the fall of the communist regime, Afghanistan was carved into sections for primary warlords, the largest chunk belonging to the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance marshaled by the great warrior philosopher, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was nominally led by Professor Burhanudin Rabbani, and believed to be the legitimate and recognized government of Afghanistan as they slaughtered thousands of Kabul’s citizens while fighting Gulbuddin Hikmatyr of Hisb-i-Islami for control. Amid this chaos, Northern Alliance appear and reappear on the Human Rights Watch’s list for crimes against humanity – particularly, the indulgent rape, mass murder, and looting of its citizens in Kabul.
Though the Taliban began as a way for the tribal and religious community to address a few specific warlords whose men were raping women in the Khandahar area, it was this complete chaos that resulted in requests from other districts and eventually other provinces to bring Shari‘a to turbulent communities. It was a move that many, even Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Robin Raphel, hoped would stabilize Afghanistan as she asked the U.N. not to isolate the Emirate. It was only the perception of women’s mistreatment that caused the Western Nations to retract even suggested support to Taliban. But it was this fear of women’s abuse that resulted in the initial extremity of namus under the Taliban’s reign which grew more exaggerated as the organization lost touch with the population. Despite the grievances many Western Nations had with the national attitude toward women in the latter part of the Taliban’s reign, nothing has been more paramount to the reversal of women’s rights in Afghanistan than those perpetuated by the NATO-backed Karzai administration. With the Shia Family Law in 2009, Mr. Karzai governed the sexual habits of Shiite Muslim women as well as outlined the parameters and conditions of their ‘freedom’, effectively making them the physical property of their husbands. Not only is it illegal for a Shiite woman to leave her home without her husband’s approval, it is illegal for her to withhold sexual relations from him. The law even went on to specify that if the woman is sick, she still must perform her sexual duties at least every four days. This legalization of sexual slavery effectively reverses the progress of King Amanullah’s 1919 abolishment of slavery and 1920 abolishment of forced labor. Western nations merely wagged their finger at the Karzai administration before doubling-down on the money pouring into Afghanistan. Unfazed by hollow diplomatic threats, a year later Karzai signed the Personal Status Law for Shiite Muslims which only served to solidify the Shia Family Law. At the height of the Afghan Emirite’s restrictions of women, the intention was at least to protect them, whereas Karzai, who was very much a part of the Northern Alliance, plainly exhibits his contempt of women with this legalization of spousal rape.
Seekers of Truth
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef recounts in depth in his autobiography, My Life with the Taliban, the importance that education played throughout his organization’s struggle against the Soviet occupation, and systematically at the birth of the Taliban movement. The term Taliban, after all, translates to students, or seekers of truth. However, that history was largely lost when the Emirate captured Kabul, one of their first orders of business was closing schools for girls, though as Robin Raphel mentioned in her press conference on South Asian affairs shortly after, there were not many left after the seventeen years of war. Nonetheless, the re-establishment of education has been a stated-aim of the West since the beginning of the conflict, and still exists on USAID’s list of objectives right next to “Gender Participation.” While it is not shocking that it is an ongoing endeavor, it is surprising that the idea pervades that the Taliban do not value education. While the Taliban did initially close schools for girls, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef claimed in an interview with Al Jazeera that the Taliban never opposed them, and their closure was a judgment based on the factors of instability and questionable state of security. While many may view this as an apologist’s claim, recent activity suggests its merit.
Security is not an issue in many of the more isolated valleys and districts where NATO forces typically cannot logistically support missions and the resistance is too unforgiving. The eastern province of Kunar is such a location with deep valleys well off the beaten path. As a result, it has not received much assistance for their isolated population in the way of education. They have exhausted foreign aid and help from nongovernment organizations, but logistically there is still much to do. When local Taliban noticed teenage girls discontinuing their education to preserve their modesty, the unlikely advocates approached the Provincial Education Director, Sayed Jamaluddin Hassani, to find more female teachers or men older than fifty to stem the flow of drop outs. Hassani went on to attest that the education program was very active due in large part because of the Taliban. The Kunar Taliban issued a statement supporting all school and welfare incentives administered through the National Solidarity program, and backed it by financially supporting a school in Chogam. However, the group did not stop here. They continued to monitor the education programs in all boys’ and girls’ schools located in regions beyond the government’s control. Hassani went on to say that the Taliban resolves any conflicts as they arise, and not a single school, student or staff member has been harmed in 10 years within the province. While this may seem an isolated or provincial occurrence, it was the Islamic Emirate’s leader, Mullah Omar, who initially opened discussions with Maulauna Faizullah after the Swat School closure in January 2009. While he may or may not have been the sole reason Maulana Faizullah reversed his decision, he certainly made his intent public, though it never seemed to reach mainstream media outlets. While these are bold moves for the Emirate, they do not necessarily illustrate besting the Karzai administration in education, but they certainly counter the popular assumption that the organization is against education. Zaeef’s statements may be explained, but they can also be refuted by the Taliban’s actions witnessed by the discerning public; however, the recent strides of the Emirate could potentially highlight an organization more attuned with the population it hopes to openly govern in the pending future by simply recovering GIRoA’s failures.