Why the Taliban's repression of women may be more tactical than ideological

Most women are still banned from going to work, a supposedly temporary measure the Taliban claim is necessary for security. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Why are the Taliban stripping away so many of Afghan women's hard-won freedoms? That may seem like a facetious question.

When the Taliban ruled the country in the 1990s, after all, their regime was known for having some of the world's harshest restrictions on women. The group still adheres to a fundamentalist vision of Islamic society.

But ideology is only part of the story.

Every group has a range of beliefs, and not all of them become priorities for governance. Some Taliban officials, particularly those who conducted peace negotiations and favoured international engagement, have suggested that this iteration of Taliban governance might be less restrictive towards women. And there are certainly economic incentives, as the resumption of international aid would be based at least in part on human rights considerations.

None of that has seemed to make a difference thus far. Although some Taliban officials continue to say that conditions will improve, women are still being kept from workplaces and schools. Each week seems to bring a new report of restrictions.

In that light, the Taliban's decision to restrict women's freedom begins to look like a political choice as much as it is a matter of ideology. Understanding why the Taliban might see that choice as rewarding, experts say, offers insight into the group's state-building efforts, and to the nature of the society they now rule again.

The insecurity of Taliban security

"I did not for a minute believe that the Taliban had changed," said Muqaddesa Yourish, a former deputy minister of commerce who fled to the United States with her family when the Taliban took power. "If anything has changed about them, it is that they know how to deal with the West."

Less than two months after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, their promised allowances for women in the workplace and schools have yet to appear. Most women are still banned from going to work, a supposedly temporary measure the Taliban claim is necessary for security.

The leadership is using the same wording in describing when women might be allowed to attend public universities. And when secondary schools reopened, the Taliban directed boys to return to the classroom but said nothing about girls, which families across the country understood as a directive that girls should stay home.

Groups like the Taliban often struggle to make the transition from violent insurgency to actual governance, said Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies rebel governance in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

They do not have the experience, funding or personnel to deliver sophisticated government services. Instead, their main strength is controlling security - using their status as the country's most powerful violent group to operate a kind of country-level protection racket, exchanging public safety for obedience.

"We shouldn't buy this narrative that they are an alternative to the previous government because they are providing security," said Metra Mehran, co-founder of the Feminine Perspectives Campaign, which sought to bring women's voices into peace negotiations. "They're not providing security; they've just stopped killing us."

Mukhopadhyay echoed that sentiment. "That's the cornerstone of understanding what the Taliban is offering: security and also the threat of force," she said. "But people, particularly women, know that form of security comes with an ideology attached to it."

Viewed through that lens, restricting women's freedom serves as a powerful demonstration of the Taliban's power. When women and girls vanish from offices and schools, it shows that the Taliban have enough power - and implicitly, enough capacity and willingness to use violence - to dramatically re-engineer public spaces.

Afghan women's rights defenders and civil activists protest for the preservation of their achievements and education, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept 3, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

'The Talib in every man'

But marketing is only part of the story. Despite support and funding for gender-equality efforts during 20 years of US-backed governments, Afghan women's freedoms have always been fragile.

Yourish said she has always sensed that many Afghan men were uncomfortable with women in public life. Although her own father and husband were supportive of her career, she said, they often seemed like outliers.

In the final days before the Taliban took power, Yourish said, she and her friends traded stories of how "the Talib in every man is coming out", she said. Male strangers approached her and other women on the street, shouting cryptic threats like "your days will be over soon," she said. She could sense women's progress crumbling, she said, even before the previous government fell.

On paper and in the tables of foreign aid budgets, gender equality was a priority for two decades. And there were substantial improvements for many women, especially those who were educated and lived in more urban areas.

But Afghanistan remains a deeply patriarchal society. The Taliban's promise to return to "traditional" values, in which women are subordinate to their male relatives, is an attractive offer to many Afghan men.

Alice Evans, a researcher at King's College London who studies women's economic and social progress, said women's rights were caught in a "patrilineal trap". Societies where family wealth passes through the male line traditionally place a high value on brides' chastity, Evans said.

"Girls are then closely policed to improve their marriage prospects and family honor," she said, and norms develop that keep women out of public life.

The dynamic is self-reinforcing: Families do not want to risk deviating from social norms on their own, so everyone ends up stuck in a system in which women have to stay close to home.

To get out of that trap, women's wages have to become high enough that the benefits of working outweigh the risks to family honour, Evans said. In East Asia, for instance, rapid industrialisation raised women's potential earnings, effectively buying them out of the honour-based rules that constrained them to the home.

That did not happen in Afghanistan, where economic productivity and employment languished despite the influx of aid. Women's wages did not rise enough, in enough places, to outweigh their families' honour-based concerns, or to transform social norms.

Women's employment did become widespread enough that many families relied, at least partly, on their income, said Manizha Wafeq, co-founder and president of the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Their earnings have vanished in recent weeks as a result of Taliban restrictions, and that could cut into the public's acceptance of their rule.

"It's already an economic crisis for the whole country," Wafeq said. "People are already trying to figure out how to feed their families."

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