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Is This Taliban Deja Vu?

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Is This Taliban Deja Vu?

Expecting moderation from the Taliban and jumping on any signs of change: We’ve been here before.

Is This Taliban Deja Vu?

An Afghan woman enters a beauty salon in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, September 11, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

A Western aid worker speaking to a New York Times reporter suggested that the Taliban, after coming to power, would need to change.

“I think it’s obvious now that the Taliban are going to have to metamorphose or die… what’s happened in the past three months has made it more obvious than ever that the Taliban’s brand of Islam can never unite this country, and that a continuing attempt to enforce it will engender increasing resistance to them wherever they go.”

In his report, the journalist suggested that there was broad agreement that the Taliban, “if they are to retain power, may have to moderate or abandon the decrees that have forbidden women to work, denied girls schooling and in other ways forced women back into a world of house-bound subjugation.”

It was a page 1 story… on July 27, 1997.

Twenty-four years later, the Taliban have returned to power and once again ink (well, more pixels these days than actual ink) is being spilled on how the West can urge the group to moderate. Many have wondered, as the Taliban promised a new face upon taking power in mid-August, whether they’ve actually changed in the 20 years they were out of power

A peek at the archives of newspaper issues past illustrates just cause to be skeptical, even when there are tiny glimmers of hope and progress. This is most clear when it comes to the rights of women in Afghanistan, which rather than an end in themselves have been seen cynically as bargaining chip.

An April 1998 New York Times article noted that “Taliban leaders seem aware that [women’s rights] is a hot issue internationally, and appear to be using it as a bargaining chip for more international aid.”

The same article featured a female engineer, Sadikka Sadique, who worked at a hospital making orthopedic devices for land-mine victims. Contrary to reporting about many women at the time, she wasn’t in a chador or burqa, but shalwar kameez (described in the article as “baggy trousers and long shirt”), a blazer and a shawl:

She argued that Western countries were silent when the former Government of the mujahedeen, which they supported, also denied women rights. Few girls went to schools then, and female literacy never reached 10 percent. The difference now is that the bar to girls’ education is official, and this has attracted worldwide attention.

This time around, the circumstances are different, though perhaps not as different as many would have hoped. The government the Taliban replaced this go-around included women in political positions (though never very many), and did not bar women from pursuing an education. Nevertheless, while literacy rates across the board in Afghanistan have grown since 2001, as of 2017 only around 37 percent of adolescent girls in the country were literate compared to 66 percent of boys of the same age group.

Sadique’s critique could easily be repeated today, but the reality remains that women in Afghanistan have their opportunities circumscribed again by fundamentalists. 

Taliban leaders and spokesmen have repeatedly said that women will be allowed to work, but add the caveat: “within the framework of Shariah.” By being deliberately vague about when and in what capacities women will be allowed to work, the Taliban hope to draw out concessions from the international community.

But beware false hopes.

In a January 2000 New York Times article titled, “Gentle Negotiations Said to Soften Taliban’s Rules for Women,” Erick de Mul, the then-coordinator of the United Nations’ relief program in Afghanistan, suggested that there was some progress being made. Specifically, he noted that after a few weeks of negotiations Taliban leaders agreed to allow a U.N. World Food Program project to set up bakeries.

According to de Mul in the story: “We said we want to have 50 percent male and 50 percent female surveyors, otherwise there is not going to be a bakery project. This took about two weeks of them saying ‘No, it can be done by men; there is no need for women.’ In two weeks they came around and said, ‘That’s fine.””

A March 2000 New York Times story about Afghan girls “fighting” to read and write chronicled the opening of secret home schools and the clever ways women and girls flouted Taliban rules. “In the first years of their rule, some Taliban insisted they had no objection to girls’ education, but it simply was a low priority,” the article states, going on to note that since then “they have relented somewhat” in that women were allowed to work in the health sector as long as they did not mingle with men. 

A few months later, the Taliban, citing Islamic law, shut the World Food Program’s bakeries down. An August 2000 Associated Press wire story began thusly: “Saying Islam unreservedly forbids women to work, Afghanistan’s Taliban government today shut down bakeries run by widows, who are among the poorest of the poor here.”

The article went on to describe one step forward and one step back: “When they took over, the Taliban ordered all girls’ schools closed and all women out of the work force. But they later made concessions in the areas of education and health, and women began to return to work for foreign aid organizations, wearing the all-encompassing garment that covers them head to foot.”

The Taliban then in July 2000 issued an order “barring Afghan women from working for international organizations with the exception of the health sector.” The bakeries were closed soon after. So much for the progress made in “gentle negotiations.”

And here we are, 21 years later: The Taliban say they will respect women’s rights, but define those rights according to a conservative interpretation of Islam and what the group sees as the necessities of the moment, both practical and political. The Taliban, for example, in late August asked women in health professions to return to work