Sanitizing The Taliban:
A Rose By Any Other Name....

Dr. Lynette J. Dumble
International Co-ordinator, The Global Sisterhood Network & Associate Senior Research Fellow, History and Philosophy of Science,
University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic., 3052.

Over recent weeks, a number of reports have attempted to sanitize the unsavory international image of the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist regime which seized control of Afghanistan in 1996. Most reports follow the hijacking of the Delhi-bound Indian Airlines flight IC 814 on December 24, and are based on the Indian Government's praise for the Taliban's constructive cooperation in negotiating the safe return of the 154 hostages held by terrorists during a week-long ordeal in the Afghanistan city of Kandahar. Other reports, notably one entitled "Veiled threats" from the London Guardian on December 21 (SMH, December 24), downplay the Taliban's violence against Afghanistan's women which, in late 1999, a United Nations envoy deemed to be "widespread, systematic and officially sanctioned".

Following bargaining orchestrated by the Taliban, three militants held in India were released in exchange for the freedom of Flight IC 814's passengers. The majority of analysts viewed the swap as a victory for terrorism, but many also saw the Taliban's diplomacy in Kandahar as a step towards improved relations between the Taliban and the world order. Gross human rights violations, together with a thriving opium industry, and shelter for hard line terrorists, has made the Taliban one of the world's most widely reviled regimes. More recently, the Taliban's sheltering of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile accused of plotting and bankrolling terrorist attacks on US military and civilian targets over the last decade, led the United Nations to impose trade sanctions on Afghanistan. At the same time, the Taliban's authority in Afghanistan is recognized by only three countries - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; the rest of the world regards the Rabbani Government, which controls only 10 per cent of Afghanistan, as the territory's lawful authority. On this background, the international community is likely to be unforgiving of the Taliban's complicity with the five hijackers of Flight 814, and the three militants released from Indian prisons in exchange for the hostages. Already, the Taliban's role in granting all eight the luxury of ten hours in which to make their escape to Quetta in neighbouring Pakistan has sparked an outrage amongst British victims of one of the released militants.

Just as claims that the Taliban has been unjustly cast as villains, suggestions that Afghan women have been miscast as helpless heroines hold no sway against the vast body of evidence confirming the Taliban's obscene treatment of women. After interviewing Afghan women, tens of thousands of whom are living as refugees in Pakistan, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, concluded that discrimination against women was an official Taliban policy. According to Coomaraswamy, armed ministry employees patrol the streets of Kabul in pickup trucks looking for women violating Taliban edicts which forbid women to venture or take up employment outside their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. In the same vein, the Taliban bars girls from attending school after the age of twelve. Women violators are publicly beaten, sometimes with radio antennae torn from nearby vehicles, but usually with an instrument resembling a leather cricket bat.

According to the London Guardian's "Veiled threats", women living in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul have learnt to navigate the sporadically enforced, rigid moral codes laid down by the Taliban's Ministry of Vice and Virtue". Supposedly, Taliban concessions permit women to collect salaries and qualify for promotion, although only if they were not previously employed as judges or other occupations which the Talabin's version of Islam deems unsuitable for women. Predictably, critics of the Taliban see no virtue in these minimal concessions, and focus their condemnation on the Taliban's dictates which have denied thousands upon thousands of Afghan women access to dignified employment from which to feed and clothe their families. In a climate where Afghan women have a staggering level of widowhood as a result of their country's decade-long civil war, the Taliban's taboos on their extra-residential employment has left many almost without options. As never before, the ranks of Kabul's beggars are dominated by women. Driven to prostitution, some retain the guise of beggars, covering themselves from head to toe with tattered clothes to conceal clothing designed to attract the men frequenting Kabul's thriving brothel industry. Unlike the beggar prostitutes who are at risk of the Taliban's virtuous wrath, brothels are often protected by the Taliban, effectively endorsing the further abuse of Afghanistan's poverty-stricken women by the regime's self-righteous militia men.

Living in exile, and contending with poverty in nearby Pakistan, the Revolutionary Association of Women from Afghanistan (RAWA), has refused to be intimidated by the Taliban's hateful campaign against women. Regularly protesting against the regime's misinterpretation of the Quran, RAWA has brought international attention to the Taliban's war against women which does not stop at denying them dignified employment. Featuring amongst the Taliban's litany of cruelties imposed on women is the burqa, a garment which, except for a filigree strip across the eyes permitting vision, is all-concealing and symbolic of women's enslavement under the Taliban. Countless Afghan women have been beaten and stoned in public for not wearing the imposed attire, even in some instances where the offense amounted to nothing more than the revealing of eyes from behind the burqa's mesh.

The Taliban's recent activities in Kandahar send a clear message to would-be hijackers that Afghanistan is a sanctuary for unlawful negotiations endorsing terrorism. Equally, the fatal beating of a woman who accidentally exposed her arm while driving, the stoning to death of another for attempting to leave Afghanistan with a man not her relative, and the football stadium execution [just eight weeks ago] of Zareena, mother to seven children, for killing her husband, send a clear message to the international community that Afghanistan is home to gross human rights violations, particularly those of women, while the Taliban remains in power. There are no signs that the Taliban is likely to change its tune. To the contrary, this week's issue of the pre-eminent medical journal, The Lancet, warns that the Taliban plans to purge Afghanistan's heath professions of staff who were educated in socialist countries between 1978 and 1992 when Afghanistan was under communist rule. The Taliban has made no secret of its intention to replace the purgees with "like-minded" sharing its interpretation of Islam. At the end of the day, no amount of sanitizing the Taliban's barbarisms can whitewash the fact that the Taliban is a terrorist-friendly regime; one which undermines global security, and which conducts a reign of fundamentalist terror against the women residing within Afghanistan's borders. Or to paraphrase William Shakespeare's "a rose by any other name...", the Taliban's name, no matter how intense the sanitizing, has yet to escape the stench of indecency!

From the same writer: Taliban are still brutal 'villains'

h t t p : / / w w w . r a w a . o r g