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The vise tightens on Afghanistan’s women

The Taliban’s actions are the logical, and horrifying, result of the group’s ideology

Female students stand outside Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Dec. 21, 2022. Associated Press/Photo by Ebrahim Noroozi

The vise tightens on Afghanistan’s women
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When the Taliban took over Afghanistan after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, many encouraged the international community to give the Islamist radical group an opportunity to prove itself. Some enthusiastically claimed that the Taliban had become different and more “moderate.” Even the Associated Press interviewed Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, one of the founders of the Taliban, who assured the world, “We are changed from the past.”

I was skeptical about a “moderate” Taliban from the start and recent news proves that the group is still the same: a radical militant group, devoted to a literal application of Islamic texts as they construe them.

Last month, AP reported that the Taliban “banned female students from attending universities effective immediately.” This was the latest edict cracking down on Afghani women’s rights. The announcement came almost one year after the Taliban stated: “Women can study in gender-segregated universities.” Except they can’t. The group has changed its policy yet again and female students aren’t only banned from university education, but they cannot go to gyms nor can they work for any “foreign and domestic non-governmental groups in Afghanistan.”

When some educated Afghani women took to the streets to protest the education ban, Taliban fighters used water cannons to disperse them and “enforced the order at gunpoint in some places.”

The Taliban reversal on women’s education rightly brought condemnation from many in the international community. However, the Taliban’s response to international condemnation was strong, loud, and clear. The regime’s acting Minister of Higher Education, Neda Muhammad Nadim, stated, “Whether you sanction us, come for another war, or even atom bomb us, we have to implement the Shariah law and force women to wear hijab.”

Nadim isn’t exaggerating. He is being absolutely honest. Unlike many world leaders and liberal intellectuals who have been trying to convince us that the militant Islamist Taliban had changed, we should actually believe Nadim.

The Taliban is unwilling and unable to change, nor to deviate from its fundamentalist, radical, and terrorist disposition. Intellectually, it is rigid. Religiously, the group is literalist: If what they read in the Quran and Muhammad’s statements say right, they cannot go left—not even an inch.

The Taliban doesn’t really care about what the world thinks of it. What really matters for the group is what Islam says in its original texts.

According to Islamic law, any mixing between men and women is haram (legally and religiously forbidden). In the absence of women-only colleges, allowing female students to go to the university—where they can encounter men—cannot be religiously permissible, if one seeks to follow Islamic written traditions. This understanding of Islam is actually built on some clear statements attributed to Muhammad, where he warns men against being in one place with women, because women are a source of temptations and trials.

Muhammad reportedly said, “After me I have not left any trial more severe to men than women.” The statement basically seeks to protect men by shielding them from encountering women. In another tradition, Muhammad warned his male followers, “Beware of entering upon the ladies.” When a Muslim asked him, “What about the in-laws of the wife?,” Muhammad responded, “The in-laws of the wife are death itself.”

These traditions form Islamic radical dispositions against women in strict conservative societies. The statements reflect a tradition that clearly elevates men over women. Women’s rights are confined, limited, and defined by what men need, want, and desire. The result is simple but horrific. Their rule leads to the mistreatment of women and the undermining of their rights.

When the Taliban initially allowed women to study in gender-segregated schools, they were apparently trying to appease the international community by playing on the fence. Now the group retracted the little “freedom” it allowed for Afghani women and returned to strict application of Islamic law, which essentially seeks to re-create a culture reflecting a seventh-century Arabian desert with all its Bedouin aspects.

Without a doubt, many modernist and progressive Muslims in the West reject the edicts of the Taliban and hate the version of Islam presented by the group—a version that shows Islam in a dark light and makes it unacceptable, unappealing, and unlivable. However, the fact remains that the Taliban doesn’t really care about what the world thinks of it. What really matters for the group is what Islam says in its original texts.

The issue is thus the texts, and the words of the Islamic texts are there for all to see. It’s time to take the Taliban seriously and honestly. When they hand down these edicts, they mean what they say.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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