An expert who knows the Pashtuns intimately says we are wasting our time trying to change their society
The case of Bibi Sanubar, the Afghan widow brutally flogged and shot dead by the Taliban for the crime of being pregnant, caused outrage in the wes. Earlier in the month, Time magazine published a truly shocking picture of Aisha, an 18-year-old girl whose nose had been cut off because she had run away from her inlaws. With so much talk recently of political reconciliation with the Taliban leadership, their attitude towards women is fast becoming as urgent and emotive a topic as it was when they first came to power in the mid-1990s.
However nauseating the treatment of Bibi or Aisha, it would be a mistake to let our stomachs rule our heads. However much westerners would like to see change in Afghan society, this was never the reason our military went to Afghanistan – and nor does it justify our staying there now. The US commander in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, is wary of mission creep and sought to clarify this point in November 2009. “Let us not forget why we are in Afghanistan,” he said. “It is to ensure that this country cannot become once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida.” Women’s rights are important, but they have no direct bearing on the threat from al-Qaida.
This does not mean the west should stand by in silence. On the contrary, it is our duty to go on arguing the case for gender equality and to keep Afghans engaged in that old debate. But we have no right to be shrill and it will do no good to dictate. If social change is to come, it must come from within, which, eventually, it will.
It might help if we understood the Taliban better. The harshness of the punishments they sometimes mete out only seems incomprehensible to the west. The strict sexual propriety the Taliban insist upon is rooted in ancient Pashtun tribal custom, the over-riding purpose of which is to protect the integrity of the tribe, and nothing threatens the gene pool like extramarital relations. “The Pashtun must breed well if he is to breed fighters,” wrote the poet Ghani Khan in 1947. “The potential mother of the man of tomorrow is the greatest treasure of the tribe and is guarded jealously… death to those who dare to risk the health of the tribe. It is treachery and sabotage which you also punish with death.” The system, as Ghani Khan acknowledges, is “hard and brutal”, but it works. The Pashtuns are, famously, the largest tribal society in the world. Some 42m of them are divided into about 60 tribes and 400 sub-clans and they are intensely proud of their culture which has survived three millenniums of almost constant invasion and occupation.
The maltreatment of women is by no means exclusive to the Taliban, nor even to Pashtuns. It is practised all over Afghanistan, including by the state that Nato troops are currently dying to support. Witness the police chief, General Abdul Jabar, who remarked after Bibi Sanubar was killed: “This was not the way she should have been punished. She should have been arrested and we should have had proof that she’d had an illegal affair. Then she should have come to court and faced justice.” As a contributor to arrse.co.uk, the informal Army Rumour Service website, remarked last week: “I’m guessing a guilty verdict by the Afghan courts would be followed by a stoning? What exactly are we fighting this war for?” The emotive observation on Time magazine’s ghastly cover – “What happens if we leave Afghanistan” – was spurious, because it is happening anyway, while we are still there.
I am certain, after 14 years of encounters with the Taliban, that they are not beyond redemption. It seems a paradox, but in the 1990s the Taliban leadership did not see themselves as oppressors of women but as their defenders. Westerners forget the historical context in which the Taliban emerged in 1994, although no Afghan ever will. The Taliban’s first purpose was to bring law and order to a country that had been devastated by five years of vicious civil war and in those areas that came under their control, they succeeded brilliantly. “The real source of their success,” the US assistant secretary of state Robin Raphel told a closed UN session in New York in November 1996, “has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with several social restrictions.” To many Afghans, including many Afghan women, oppression was a small price to pay in exchange for an end to the wholesale rape and slaughter of the preceding years. The Taliban appeared the lesser of two evils, and – in a year when 1,250 civilians have so far been killed in the fighting with Nato – to many they still do.
Shukria Barakzai, a Pashtun MP and a leading women’s rights campaigner, thinks the west has always misread her country. “I changed my view [of the Taliban] three years ago when I realised Afghanistan is on its own,” she said recently. “It’s not that the international community doesn’t support us. They just don’t understand us. The Taliban are part of our population. They have different ideas – but as democrats we have to accept that.” Her view is all the more remarkable considering that in 1999, Barakzai was beaten by the Taliban’s religious police, the infamous Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, for the “crime” of going to the doctor’s unaccompanied by her husband. If even she is now in favour of political compromise with the Taliban, what choice does the west really have but to listen?
The west views gender equality as an absolute human right and so we should. But no country, certainly not Britain, has yet managed unequivocally to establish that right at home; and we tend to forget both how recent our progress towards it is, as well as how hard the struggle has been. Full women’s suffrage was not granted in Britain until 1928. With such a track record, is it not presumptuous to insist that a proud, patriarchal society that has survived for 3,000 years should now instantly mirror us? That, in effect, is what well-meaning western experts did when they helped to draw up Afghanistan’s 2003 constitution. The stipulation that at least 25% of MPs should be women is plain hypocritical. Even after the 2010 election in Britain – a parliamentary democracy that has had rather longer to mature than Afghanistan’s – women MPs account for just 22% of the total.
Women’s suffrage in Britain was achieved not by imposition from abroad but through long internal social debate, which is as it should be in so obviously sovereign a matter. Emmeline Pankhurst would not have succeeded had she been a foreigner. Social change will come eventually to Afghanistan, but it must come from within, and at its own pace. Our soldiers shouldn’t die for it.
James Fergusson is the author of three books on Afghanistan. The latest, Taliban, is published by Bantam Press £16.99