No one is going to launch a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan in response to the challenge raised by the Taliban government’s education minister, Mohammad Nadim, who is adamant about banning women from receiving an education. A more probable outcome is that Afghan women will be alone in fighting the war this regime insists on waging against society.
Mohammad Nadim has used two pretexts to justify the de facto decision of the de facto authorities in Afghanistan- first, women attending without a male guardian and second, women not wearing the veil. Despite the condemnations of Muslim bodies like al-Azhar, whose Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb has said the decision “does not represent Islamic Shariaa and goes against the message of the Holy Quran,” the Afghan education minister has stressed that the movement will not walk back on its decision “even if they drop an atomic bomb on us.”
The Taliban followed up its decision to ban women from attending university with a ban on women working in NGOs under the pretext of “complaints of women employees’ noncommitment to the Islamic dress code.” This decision impelled three NGOs to suspend their operations in the country at a time when the catastrophic state of the economy in Afghanistan has made the role they play there, distributing meals and providing medical care to marginalized communities, more critical than ever. Both decisions have come after the Taliban banned girls from secondary school, only allowing them to complete elementary education.
The obscurity around the reasons for the decisions of the Taliban wanes when we account for three matters. First, like other ideological parties, be they religious or secular, the Taliban seeks to create an ideal/ virtuous/ good society. In this pursuit, they follow in the footsteps of an uncountable number of political parties in the East and West that have decided to build a society in their image and based on their ideals.
In the Taliban’s vision for an ideal society, which it has not scaled down since it entered Kabul for the first time in 1996, women have no place outside their homes. And so, it is beside the point whether the Taliban attributes this vision for society to its particular interpretation of Islam or the traditional tribal values prevalent in Afghanistan. What matters is that it will be implemented by force if with resistance, which will be primarily local. And so, it would not be an overstatement to claim that banning women from receiving an education comes within the framework of conscious social engineering.
Second, we have the circumstances under which the Taliban rose to power. They came to rule the country after a twenty-year war, which convinced the movement it had a right to exercise authority based on the revolutionary legitimacy it gained after destroying the foreign occupiers and their local allies. Thus, the Taliban does not believe that anyone has a right to question it or hold it to account, especially not the foreigners who paid no mind to the Afghan villages being bombed by American planes, as a Taliban official put it.
Moreover, these decisions come at a time when the Taliban does not have elections of any kind on the agenda. It is not concerned with enlarging its popular or political support base. As was made clear from the way it handled the negotiations with representatives of other Afghan forces towards the end of Ashraf Ghani’s tenure, the Taliban will go about implementing its social and political program in full. The countries that have maintained ties with Kabul do not see domestic matters as a priority and have thus not been affected by the decisions of the government in place.
As for the third factor, it is that ISIS has been increasingly active in Afghanistan. It has been escalating its armed attacks, some of which have targeted Kabul, while others include planting explosives and launching sporadic attacks across the country. Seeing ISIS as its competition, the Taliban wants to outdo the former by showing itself to be as extreme as possible in its interpretation of religious questions. From this angle, we can understand the context of reports about disagreements between hardliners and moderates within the movement’s top brass. It goes without saying that Afghan women will be the victims of this competition, as they are weak- an easy target for extremists of any camp.
The resistance that Afghan women have demonstrated with their demands for their basic rights to work and receive an education is nothing short of heroic. First and foremost, it stems from the refusal of Afghan society, after being ravaged by decades of war and foreign occupation, to be shackled and prevented from continuing to reform itself, regardless of who is in power. Women carry the heaviest burden in saving society and waking it up from the coma it has been in for so long. This is going to be an extremely difficult task, considering the history of the country and the series of disasters that have hit it without pause for centuries.
It seems that the “shortcoming” that the late poet Hafez Ibrahim believed to be the root of the problem in the East, our neglect of women’s education, will remerge every few years in a new form and under different pretenses.