An invisible existence - GulfToday

An invisible existence

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A closed beauty salon in Kabul with graffiti on its windows.

A closed beauty salon in Kabul with graffiti on its windows.

The ban on Afghan beauty salons and women’s hairdressers, set to take effect at the end of this month, is the latest tactic in the Taliban’s campaign to erase women from life outside the home. The Taliban began this offensive by gradually excluding women from public and private employment almost as soon as the movement seized power in mid-August 2021 after the US and its allies withdrew from the country.

The Taliban immediately imposed its mandatory dress code for women. In September, the Taliban allowed only boys schools to reopen and announced that women could continue with university courses only if taught by women or eldery men and dressed as required. In March 2022, girls remained excluded from secondary education and women were forced to have a male escort during journeys of more than 75 kilometres. In November, the Taliban declared women were barred from amusement parks, public gardens, gyms, and public baths. In December, universities were closed for women and they were excluded from jobs in international and domestic humanitarian organisations. The latter seriously curtailed their contacts with women heads of households who are not permitted to meet with men who are not family members.

The exclusion of girls and women from education violates the sacred rights of all Muslims to learning which is central to the faith, teaches them to use their minds, enhances their capabilities and makes them productive members of their societies.

Decreed by the Taliban’s top leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, this systematic reduction of women’s spaces and activities is seen as proof of the movement’s misogeny. He argues that women must adhere to the Taliban’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam and Afghanistan’s traditional cultural and social behaviour. While there are suggestions that there is disagreement on these bans among more moderate Taliban leaders, his word is law.

On International Women’s Day, March 8th, this year, UN experts said that the position of women in Afghanistan has reverted to their state during the earlier period of Taliban rule from 1996-2001. This retrenchment has effectively erased advances reached from 2002-2021. The point has rarely been made, however, that from 1919, when women were given the vote, they had made great gains in education, representation in business and public affairs, and secured a large degree of independence from conservative constraints. In the 1950s, gender separation was abolished and the new 1960s constitution guaranteed gender equality in many sectors of endeavour, including political partipation.

After the Soviet intervention and occupation during the 1970s, the US and its allies recruited, financed, trained, and armed mujahideen with the object of ousting the Russians. Among the groups which emerged from the fighting was the Taliban. Its membership had been drawn mainly from madrassa educated youths from Afghan refugee camps. They had been inculcated with the Taliban’s idiosyncratic ideology while resident in Pakistan while the Taliban leadership had been based in Quetta. The Taliban took control in 1996, ending the anarchy and chaos precipitated by the power struggle among rival armed groups after Russia’s withdrawal in 1989. During its first period in charge the Taliban created the system of communal repression and female suppression now in force.

Why has the Taliban now targeted beauty parlours and women’s hairdressers. They abound in Afghanistan as they are the last redoubt of women largely confined to their homes. There are an estimated 12,000 of these enterprises in the country employ 50,000 women. The facilities are seen by the Taliban as Western imports and symbols of the middle class as only women living in urban areas can afford them. Some 26 per cent of Afghanistan’s people live in cities and towns, 74 per cent dwell in the countryside whre most women are denied educational and social advancement and remain at home.

Therefore, the coming ban on hairdressers and beauty parlours has exposed the Taliban’s ultimate ambition. This is to eliminate Afghanistan’s middle class which grew from zero to about 10-15 per cent at all levels during the modernising Western occupation. Nevertheless, even this small number is seen by the Taliban as the chief challenge to the movement’s current reign. The Taliban’s aim is to revert to the state of affairs before the US invasion and occupation.

Education was the Taliban’s initial target for a good reason. Between 2001-2021, when the population grew from 19 to 40 million, there was a ten-fold increase in school enrolment from 1-10 million. The number of girls in primary schools rose from zero to 2.5 million and women in higher education surged from, 5,000 to over 100,000. The 2005 constitution gave women 27.5 per cent of the seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament, providing women with a voice in political affairs. While jobs in the civil service were few (about 6 per cent), female professionals found employment in education, medicine, journalism, film making, technology, sports, and commerce. There were women lawyers and judges. There was one female prosecutor, one woman provincial governor, and eight women ambassadors.

In 2017, women were 39 per cent of the workforce, in December 2019, there were more than 1,000 women-run businesses and there was a Women’s Chamber of Commerce to promote their interests. Women were in the forefront of human rights activism and championing the banning of opium poppy cultivation and heroin exports which used to earn Afghanistan billions of dollars annually. After ignoring this crop during 2022, the Taliban has this year cracked down on farmers and distributors.

Women’s participation in education, employment and governance is a driver of change in the family and society. Educated and employed women impact the thinking and values of conservative elders by bringing money home and boosting living standards, consumption, and status. Girls and boys are energised by their mothers who serve as caregivers more than their fathers do and seek change in their circumstances. Advancement into the 21st century is anathema to the backward-focused Taliban which, in the view of mainstream Muslim scholars, remains anchored in pre-Islamic and non-Islamic beliefs and practices.

Related articles