Pajhwok Afghan News/Handout via REUTERS
People in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, carry Afghan flags as they take part in an anti-Taliban protest Aug.18, 2021.

The Taliban’s wink on women’s rights

Even if not genuine, the Islamic group’s promise of leniency on women’s freedoms shows it must operate in a much different Muslim world.

Is this a new Taliban?

On Tuesday, the Islamist group that now controls Afghanistan announced that women need not wear burqas (full body covering) but must wear hijabs (headscarves). Women and girls could receive an education and be allowed to attend university. Women would be welcomed to serve in government.

These few details, if actually implemented, would suggest the Taliban might have changed from their previous rule between 1996 and 2001, when they relied on harsh violence to impose their vision of a social Utopia.

What has not changed, according to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, is that women’s rights would be respected only “within Islamic law.” In other words, the Taliban, by force of their weapons and self-defined authority, would remain the interpreter of Islamic scripture and would define the moral behavior for Afghans.

These initial pronouncements, even if merely an insincere move to prevent a strong backlash, show the Taliban are aware of shifts among the world’s Muslims, as well as Afghans, since they last ruled. Here are just a few examples of those shifts:

In 2018, Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive. Also in that year, Iraqis united in helping to overthrow the Islamic State’s ruthless caliphate. In 2020, Sudan’s leaders agreed to enshrine the principle of “separation of religion and state” in the constitution.

In 2016, Tunisia’s largest Islamic party, Ennahda, took a remarkable step and separated its religious and political work. During pro-democracy protests in Iraq and Sudan in 2019, women were in the forefront demanding basic rights. In Egypt, women are using Islamic law (sharia) to expand their rights to divorce. And in a few Middle Eastern countries, democracy is being tried for the first time at the local level, including the right of women to vote or hold office. In Afghanistan itself, about 40% of girls have been in school and 27% of the seats in the nation’s parliament were held by women.

The issue of how the Taliban treat women is important beyond itself. The group’s apparent concessions toward women are a window into how Muslims in general are gaining new political freedoms to participate in governance and live under rule of law in which citizens are equal in determining the law.

For almost every society with religious communities, the debate is rarely easy in deciding the source of sovereignty – the basis of governing – especially societies with diverse views and practices. Does sovereignty lie with God or with religious authorities? Or do individuals have the agency to understand religious texts and express their political views through a pluralistic democracy?

In recent years, the Muslim world has accepted more individual agency and consensus politics rather than ruler-centered governance.

For a quarter century, Taliban leaders have had to operate outside Afghanistan. They once banned television; now they rely on it. They once shunned women in governance, but have learned to sit down with Afghan women during recent peace negotiations. They, like the rest of us, are being served up constant reminders of where sovereignty lies. It’s a tough lesson for any society. But a necessary one.

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