Afghan Taliban must come down to earth: Burqa and the question of recognition

Afghan Taliban must come down to earth: Burqa and the question of recognition

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Last week, Taliban announced new measures to regulate and control the movement of women and their pursuit of jobs in Afghanistan. Women will now be required to cover their bodies head to toe while going out of their homes. The traditional ‘burqa’ will now be mandatory, and women have to cover their entire body except for the eyes.

Not only that, all adult women going out of their homes will have to be accompanied by male guardians. Any woman violating these orders will have to face penalties. In addition, penalties will be imposed upon parents and the husbands of women found in violation of these new restrictions. The new policy measures have been approved by Taliban supremo Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, who made a rare, brief public appearance in Qandahar making the important pronouncement.

The new curbs on the movement of women have come as a shock to many. Protest demonstrations have been held in the capital Kabul and in several other cities in Northern Afghanistan. Women protesters resolved to defy these measures in many cities. 

While hopes were pinned on a possible breakthrough on the issue of international recognition, the Taliban were not expected to make that goal more difficult to achieve. Isolated, the country faces a number of difficult challenges on the economic front. With poverty increasing, unemployment rising, hunger and malnutrition affecting women and children by the millions, Afghanistan is terribly in need of immediate food deliveries, medicines, jobs etc- challenges that could only be dealt with the support of the international community. With these new restrictions, the country’s isolation will only deepen with a concomitant socio-economic fallout for the people.

While hopes were pinned on a possible breakthrough on the issue of international recognition, the Taliban were not expected to make that goal more difficult to achieve. 

Rustam Shah Mohmand

The decision to introduce new harsh steps to make women confined to their homes was not adopted unanimously, according to reports. The Taliban are split on the issue. The split was obvious when in the last eight months, different policy options began to emerge in the public domain. First it was emphasized that there would be no restrictions on women pursuing their jobs or education. Then it was revealed that in secondary schools and colleges, girls would be segregated in the same compound. Then it was learnt that new buildings would be provided for exclusive girls education. It was also decided that girls would be allowed to go to high schools and colleges with their faces covered.

All this clearly indicated there was no clarity in their approach or there were serious differences over the manner and extent of placing restrictions on the movement of women or the right of girls to seek higher education. It is presumed there are some ‘moderate’ leaders in the ranks of Taliban who have been advocating a more flexible approach considering the adverse implications of any harsh measures placed on women’s freedom to seek jobs or an education. Mullah Baradar and some others were keen not to take any step that would create conditions for blocking recognition. Haji Khalil of the Haqqani group was one of those who pleaded for a more liberal view of the issue, in view of the unfavourable reactiona tough measures could generate. However, it now appears the hardliners in the group including Mullah Yaqoob and the Head of the Taliban government  have prevailed.

The move to impose more harsh conditions on the movement of women and their right to seek higher education or seek employment has caused anxiety and concern among well-wishers of the war-ravaged country. There was some hope that soon the country’s isolation would end and that a new era would dawn, bringing relief to the long suffering of the people.

More than half of the population are facing food insecurity. Millions of children are malnourished. Millions face starvation. The US is refusing to release Afghan assets worth about $8 billion. Regional countries are not in a position to decide on recognition. Pakistan is confronting a serious political crisis and has no clear vision on when and if to grant recognition. China and Russia too, are waiting to see how the situation unfolds. When faced with such formidable challenges, governments are supposed to show more foresight, acumen and maturity. But the inability of the Taliban to formulate a clear vision on vital issues has caused understandable indignation both inside and outside the country. Attention from core issues would be diverted to deal with the ramifications of more international hostility. The US will become more stubborn and obstinate in its refusal to release Afghan assets. The future of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ will hang in the balance and Chinese investment will not be forthcoming in the immediate future. Uncertainty over the future of the Taliban government will deepen.

Taliban leaders need to incorporate these factors into developing a new, more down to earth approach to issues that have the potential to either unite the country or cause more ruptures and disunity.

- Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.

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