In mid-August in the northern Afghanistan province of Kunduz, the Taliban carried out a horrific sentence against two young Afghan lovers who had eloped against their families’ wishes. The punishment was death by stoning. Deemed by Islamic extremists to be justified under sharia law, the process involves partially burying the accused, after which a male crowd hurls stones at the victims’ exposed heads until they die.
Observers around the world were shocked by another recent cruel event. It was the plight of a young Afghan woman, whose nose and ears were sliced off by order of the Taliban for fleeing her husband’s home to escape beatings and abuse by her in-laws. Her picture was dramatized on the cover of Time magazine.
A Taliban comeback?
No wonder that Afghan women fear this is the beginning of a Taliban comeback, the imposition of harsh treatment and subjugation of women, and the loss of their newfound freedoms since the invading US forces routed the Taliban in 2001. In some regions of Afghanistan, Taliban forces seem to be regaining the strength they once had in the 1990s and are restoring the draconian laws and punishments they imposed earlier.
In the United States there is intense debate about President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan next July. Some US military leaders say that decision has effectively given the Taliban the green light to reassert themselves. And some in the military argue that the July date must be seen as just a beginning of the phaseout with the pace of further withdrawals spread over an extended period.
What is clear is that if the US military departs Afghanistan before the Taliban is either defeated or has laid down its arms, the outlook for women’s rights is bleak.
When the Taliban was in retreat in 2001, many women in Afghanistan began to enjoy a heady new bout of freedom, leaving their homes without spousal approval and attending school. Some even ran for political office.
A massive combined American-led military and civilian effort began, first to establish security, then to build schools, clinics, and other infrastructure needed for the country’s modernization. Women blossomed and displayed a hunger for education and emancipation. American officials pored over “Three Cups of Tea,” a book chronicling the efforts of a sturdy mountaineer from Montana, Greg Mortenson, who had built dozens of schools, especially for girls, in Taliban territory in neighboring Pakistan.
Women in the Arab world
Although Afghanistan is not an Arab country, it is an Islamic one, and while there are some exceptions, the tribulations of women under the Islamic yoke throughout the Arab world mirror those of women in Afghanistan. Half of all Arab women can neither read nor write. In 2004, a report for the United Nations by Arab scholars concluded: “Society as a whole suffers when a huge proportion of its productive potential is stifled.” The intervening years have not seen any wholesale change. Even Somalia, a country 1,500 miles away from Afghanistan, but with a hard-line Islamist militia similar to the Taliban, is now encountering a wave of punishment by mutilation and executions by stoning.
Many Americans are questioning the value of their sacrifice in a country where the Kabul government is riddled with corruption, and as yet is unable by itself to provide security for its people.
There are two reasons, however, for American steadfastness in Afghanistan. Enhancing modernization and some Afghan version of democracy – wherein the emancipation of women plays a crucial part – is a sound contribution to American security. Free and prospering nations are less likely than those in poverty and under dictatorship to pose problems for the US.
The other reason is that leaving Afghanistan, to have its women plunged by the Taliban back into the Dark Ages, is a contradiction of the historic American conviction that all men – and women – deserve to be free.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column. His book, “Islamic Extremism and the War of Ideas: Lessons from Indonesia,” has just been released by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Press.