Afghanistan: Changing the Taliban’s mentality toward women will not be easy

Bringing attention back to Afghanistan, the Taliban shocked the world last month with the absurd order to local and foreign aid organizations to stop employing female staff because some women had not adhered to the strict dress code. This demand resulted in many of these organizations suspending their operations. Last week, the Taliban assured female health staff and those working in office support roles that they were allowed to resume work. A spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Public Health told Reuters that there was a misunderstanding of the orders and that health-related activities were not stopped.

There was a cautious sigh of relief at this change, but it does not alter the daily reality that women in Afghanistan are subjected to old and new restrictions and violations based on unfounded interpretations of religious texts and principles. The most obvious of these is denying girls the right to education, which is clearly and unequivocally guaranteed in Islam.

The Taliban has a certain view of females and their role in society that is misogynistic, derived from years of limited and uninformed religious teachings, an underdeveloped education system and inadequate social cohesion that emerged from decades of civil war, corrupt government and militarization. We cannot expect their sexist attitude to change overnight or by simple promises and words of assurance. A change in perception, attitude and mentality needs to take place throughout their ranks, especially among the leadership.

Similar is happening in Yemen with how the Houthis are treating women. After decades of progressive women’s rights and empowerment in Yemen, the Houthis are imposing a strict dress code, travel restrictions, gender segregation and limited employment.

Extremist groups tend to frame their rights violations and abuses of women in religious terms, when it is mostly an ideology. There is almost an agreed formula for curtailing women’s public appearances, movement, growth and independence. This is a formula that leads to poverty, hunger and regression. Due to their own limited capacity and inability to address real political, economic and social development challenges, they instead focus on women. It is not the religion that dictates this kind of demeaning attitude and treatment of women, but the mentality, interpretations and views of those leading the group.

The Taliban’s limited capacity to judge and comprehend the dire consequences of their decisions on social and economic development is illustrated by the ban on girls’ education and women’s employment and public role. For a country that is heavily dependent on international organizations for survival and humanitarian support, such decisions raise the alarm about worsening humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan and question the credibility and leadership of the Taliban.

We cannot expect their sexist attitude to change overnight or by simple promises and words of assurance

Maha Akeel

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, representing the voice of the Muslim world, held an extraordinary meeting last week in reaction to the decisions by the de facto Afghan authorities to close schools and universities for girls and women and suspend women’s work in national and international nongovernmental organizations, which the OIC considered a violation of the purposes of Islamic law and the Prophet’s message.

Considering the deteriorating humanitarian, social, economic and human rights conditions in Afghanistan — and stressing the significant role of women in social and economic development and peace and security, while confirming the right of women and girls to access all levels of education in accordance with Islamic Shariah — the OIC expressed its disappointment over these latest decisions. It urged the de facto Afghan authorities to adhere to the principles of the UN and OIC charters, to abide by their international obligations on human rights, and to reopen schools and universities for girls and women and allow them to exercise their right to contribute to the social and economic development of Afghan society.

The OIC meeting decided to dispatch a delegation to assess the need for technical and developmental assistance, particularly for small-scale income-generating activities, and to dispatch the OIC secretary-general’s special envoy for Afghanistan to deliver the message on supporting the country and on reconsidering the recent decisions on women’s work and girls’ education. The OIC last year sent all-male delegations to Afghanistan and received assurances from the de facto authorities that they would allow girls to go to school. The International Islamic Fiqh Academy also led a delegation of Muslim scholars, including one woman, and met with Afghan officials and a group of female Afghan scholars. Shortly after these visits, the Taliban reneged on their promise.

The Taliban leaders must hear and see clear, constant messages about the real situation and the consequences of their shortsighted decisions. They need to understand why they need to change their attitude and to have confidence and trust in the messenger. Not all Taliban officials and followers are of the same mindset and worldview. They have moved ahead with some bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation on economic, security and humanitarian projects, despite not being internationally recognized. However, they have expressed rejection and resistance to foreign intervention in their internal affairs, especially when it comes to women.

Women’s rights should not be a bargaining tool or optional. Ensuring women’s rights and security according to Islamic laws and principles should be an integral part of humanitarian, economic and political assistance.

• Maha Akeel 

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