The Terrible Taliban

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Dec 1 08:01:16 MST 2001

Afghanistan: As Bad as Its Reputation?

By Michael Rubin, visiting fellow The Washington Institute for Near
East Policy

Middle East Quarterly 7, no. 3 (September 2000)

... The Taliban (Arabic for "religious students") have now ruled
southern Afghanistan for almost six years and have been in Kabul for
nearly four. So how goes life in the Islamic Emirate? Are Hollywood
entertainers [1] and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright [2]
accurate when they declare the Taliban have driven the country back
into the thirteenth century?

To find out, I went to Afghanistan in March 2000. Three months
earlier I had met the Taliban's representative in New York, Abdul
Hakeem Mujahid, at a Middle East Forum event. I expected him to
rebuff my request for a visit, and so was pleasantly surprised by his
invitation to visit Afghanistan and see the situation for myself. The
Taliban permitted me to travel unescorted and without a translator in
their territory during a two-week period. I had the opportunity to
speak to government officials and the man on the street. I visited
major towns and cities: Jalalabad, Kabul, Ghazni, and Kandahar (the
last being the seat of the Taliban leadership). This was my second
trip to the country, having been there in May 1997, when I guest
lectured at Balkh University in Mazar-i Sharif, one of Afghanistan's
last coeducational institutions, and was forced to leave when the
Taliban attacked the city....

...The Feminist Majority exaggerates the pre-Taliban progress of
Afghan women by using pre-Taliban Kabul as an example of women's
progress throughout Afghanistan. Using pre-civil war Afghan numbers
to describe the demise of women's rights by nature is inaccurate,
since the former communist regime massaged statistics to demonstrate
its progressive achievements. Furthermore, Kabul was always more
progressive and cosmopolitan than the rest of Afghanistan. For
example, the Feminist Majority's "Stop Gender Apartheid" campaign
still reports that women cannot leave their house unless accompanied
by a close male relative. However, women in every city I visited
walked around in pairs. While the Feminist Majority claims that women
have been banished from the work force, this is only partially
accurate. Even in the countryside, I saw rural women working in the
fields and with livestock. The situation is bad, perhaps worse than
anywhere else in the Muslim world, but it should be addressed with

While the Taliban have prevented vast numbers of girls and women from
receiving an education, a token Taliban-funded medical school class
for women has opened in Kabul. The question then should become why
classes have not opened in other towns and cities. Restrictions
continue to occur, but NGO-operated girls' schools are not truly
clandestine, as they are often described. Some foreign employees
helping to coordinate girls' schools both in and outside of Kabul
told me not only of obstacles placed in their way by specific Taliban
authorities, but also of assistance they have received from other
Taliban government officials. The problem is that there are not
enough schools (for men and women) to satisfy demand while Taliban
government money continues to be wasted on a war effort. However,
while the Taliban regime as a whole must be held accountable for its
actions, it would be a mistake to portray the movement as monolithic.
Rather, the Taliban include uncompromising radicals, more pragmatic
radicals, and bureaucrats whose adherence to the movement's beliefs
extends not far beyond the ends of their beards.

It is also untrue that all women wear burkas all the time to cover
themselves from head to foot. They do so largely in urban areas but,
even in cities, older women and girls up to young teens show their
faces and, sometimes, a bit of hair. (The more religious among the
Taliban men also cover their face, clutching their cloaks in their
teeth like religious women in Iran.) During my previous trip to areas
in Afghanistan not yet controlled by the Taliban, many women dressed
the same way, although in the university, women did not cover their
heads or faces. The problem should not be reduced to the fact that in
Afghanistan the women wear the burka, for many would choose to
anyway; the problem is that they are forced to do so. The situation
of women in Afghanistan is perhaps worse than it is anyplace in the
Middle East (though Saudi Arabia and Yemen are close), and the
Taliban should be confronted, but exaggeration allows the Taliban
regime to dismiss all Western complaints as based on propaganda. And
the Taliban do have a point when they ask why few Western governments
or celebrity wives went out of their way to condemn the rapes and
assaults which characterized the streets and checkpoints before the
Taliban disarmed gangs and warlords, including those affiliated with
the government then in power.

The same holds true for executions. Human Rights Watch, for example,
commented in their 1999 World Report that, "Every Friday, thousands
were pressured to witness public executions and punitive amputations
in Kabul's stadium." [6] Afghans (including self-described opponents
of the regime) said that while the Taliban does carry out public
executions, sometimes with shocking cruelty, they are not conducted
regularly and probably occur less frequently than in Iran and Saudi
Arabia. Massacres which mandate further investigation did occur in
1997 when the United Front took Mazar-i Sharif after a brief
occupation by the Taliban and in 1998, when the Taliban took and held
the northern city. However, they by no means occur regularly. And
while the frontline mirrors an ethnic divide between primarily Tajik,
United Front-held areas, and the Pushtun-dominated south, Afghanistan
has not become polarized to the extent that Kosovo has. Even in the
south, Tajiks and Shi'i Hazaras live and work among Afghans of other

In general, life has relaxed a bit since the initial onslaught of the
Taliban. One NGO worker explained that the Taliban officer in charge
of "Prevention of Vice" forces and responsible for the worst excesses
of the Taliban's restrictions in Kabul had been sacked for watching
pornographic videos in his office. In contrast to just a few years
ago, young boys and girls play together in playgrounds, boys fly
kites, and men play volleyball and soccer in parks. I watched teenage
and younger girls march around a city block in Ghazni playing drums,
something not imaginable in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and
Yemen. One Afghan man explained, "Girls are children, too." I heard
banned music, even in Kandahar (though I was in a taxi that had its
cassettes confiscated and destroyed days later): in Ghazni, I learned
how to buy an illegal television. While men have to wear beards, many
do illegally trim them, albeit extremely carefully....


Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 12/01/2001

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