Pakistan: the Taliban's successful marriage of dogma and custom

That the guardians of women's virtue should present a direct threat to it, encapsulates the essential paradox of popular opinion about the Taliban movement in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, says Sana Haroon.
Sana Haroon
14 February 2011

Social acceptance of the Taliban movement in Pakistan’s north-west region rests upon an overlap between already existing gender norms and Taliban prescriptions. Yet there is a paradox here: the Taliban’s gender practices overturn the traditional order by interfering in the familial domain and, through their own depredations, create the very danger and insecurity that require further control of women.

As the religious right wing goes from strength to strength in Pakistan, it is increasingly urgent that we understand how the threat it poses to women is largely accepted, rather than meeting with recrimination or resistance. Shirkat Gah conducted research into women's empowerment in Muslim contexts and held group conversations on the subject of women’s lives and empowerment in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Far from describing a system of passive capitulation before the agenda of the religious right wing, these conversations bear testimony to the degree of recognition and awareness of the threat of brutality that the Taliban movement poses to women, and the ways in which it challenges traditional familial prerogatives through direct interference in domestic norms and relations. Yet the Taliban’s dogmatic interpretation of religion is also described by the same interlocutors as being anchored in Pakhtun culture.

There is a logic through which restrictions on women’s freedoms are rationalized – both with reference to cultural values and with reference to the Taliban. In both instances, restrictions on women are not justified with reference to an ethical framework, but rather rest upon the assumed dangers of public spaces. And the irony lies in fact that the Taliban movement itself creates the very conditions that necessitate further restrictions on women.

At the end of the 1979-1989 Afghan war, as the battle of succession began in Kabul, a new movement was launched in the Malakand division of the then-named North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) by Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a one-time member of the Jamaat-i Islami. The movement developed in parallel to the Taliban in Afghanistan which was slowly formalizing prohibitions on women. Sufi Muhammad, emulating the Taliban, sought to establish Shari’a law in Malakand. Support for him waxed and waned through the 1994-2000 period until in 2001 Sufi Muhammad came to national attention when he led a lashkar into Afghanistan to support the Afghan Taliban’s fight against the coalition forces in the post-9/11 War on Terror. In 2007 Sufi Muhammad’s son-in-law Fazlullah drew the movement into an alliance with groups referring to themselves as the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan. (TTP)

Between 2007 and 2009 Fazlullah came to have virtual control over the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Girls’ schools, people accused of being government informers, barbers and music shop owners were attacked by his supporters. Emulating the Taliban principles of segregated public spaces, Fazlullah advocated the burqa and women were warned not to go out – even to bazaars or hospitals – unaccompanied by a husband, father or brother. In the bordering area of Dargai Khas and Khaki in Malakand, fewer and fewer women were visible in public spaces. There were reports of women who were unaccompanied or not wearing the burqa being threatened, and in some cases attacked with acid.

In the manner of the Afghan Taliban, the TTP carried out public floggings of women who had violated the rules of modesty in at least one highly publicized incident in the Swat Valley in 2009. Copy-cat attacks on women were carried out in other districts in the North-West frontier, and as far away as Islamabad women accused of prostitution were threatened or kidnapped.

The issue of public visibility and the threat of slander was described in the group conversations with researchers from Shirkat Gah. Farah, a twenty six year old seamstress and embroiderer said, " there are boys in our neighbourhood who look at other people’s sisters as they would their own, but there are those who are ill-intentioned. Now I have gathered girls together for you for this group, and people in the neighbourhood must be saying that “she brought the girls together so that they could all discuss their boyfriends”.

Farah emphasized that the most persistent danger which women face is the malignant gaze of onlookers who can make all sorts of unsubstantiated allegations. Meetings and movements of women could be described by witnesses in the most vulgar language and with defamatory implications.

Farah’s assertion was proved correct by the number of suggestions made by male interviewees that women who were visible in public were thought to be indistinguishable from prostitutes in the bazaar or at shrines. Two college lecturers, a student and a lawyer, all in their twenties and thirties, explained," there are many shrines in our area.....boys go to achieve success in love. Girls also go, just to hang about....yes. It is generally the case that bad girls go to these shrines".

Interviewer: What sort of girl do you call a bad girl?

" One who is bad; who is not right....a girl of the second caliber".

No man actually said ‘I have been approached by prostitutes in the bazaar or at shrines’. Knowledge about prostitutes was plucked from a repository of ‘common knowledge’ whereby ‘it is well known’, ‘they say’, or it is a ‘fact’ that only certain sorts of women appear in public. In these narratives, the disembodied and dangerous voice of ‘society’ which spreads rumours, casts aspersions and defines social worth is both autonomous, and employable by individuals. This disembodied voice is the device through which men manage societal expectations of women, alongside their intimate relations with them, allowing them to contribute to diffuse and widespread critiques of women’s freedoms, while morally distancing themselves from the inequities and brutalities implicit in these assertions. By invoking a societal voice over which they have no control and remain at the mercy of, it becomes possible for men to both critique the behaviour of women in general terms and to articulate the empathy which comes from close personal relations with wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. This duality was expressed as follows by one man, " What do we do? To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind if my sister married someone she liked or chose herself. The problem is with society. If someone was to shut the mouth of the world, it would make us all free".

These conversations make clear that even in the absence of the Taliban, the public domain is a tense and fraught space in which the very visibility of women makes them vulnerable.

Fear, justice and the paradox of the ‘Taliban’

Interviewee: "If men do something, who is to know? If a lover enters a woman’s house, everyone will know".

Interviewer: But then isn’t this an issue of fear, not of doing right or wrong?

Interviewee: "Well that is exactly what fear is – that which prevents someone from doing right or wrong. If you give these men and women freedom they will all be having sex like animals in the streets and in buses".

Interviewer: Well, doesn’t religion prevent this as well?

Interviewee: "Yes, religion prevents it, but far greater than that is the fear of the Taliban".

This discussion establishes how far the link between the Taliban agenda, the control of female sexuality, and the threat of public punishment was incorporated into a public discourse of ethics and morality. Yet the threats posed to women by the Taliban were not only linked to doctrinally derived and thus rationalized punishments; they also included implied sexual threats to women seen on the streets. Public discourse about the ‘danger’ of the Taliban ascribed them the power to molest, rape or abduct women seen outside. That the guardians of women’s virtue should present a direct threat to it encapsulates the essential paradox of popular opinion about the Taliban. While women were encouraged to stay out of public view so that they do not attract unwanted attention from men, their appearance could be punished by the very violations which the Taliban claimed to be protecting the women from. In the words of one man, " families do not let their girls go to school. My own parents say, what is worth doing for the education of our daughters when if God forbid, one of the Taliban were to lay a hand on our daughter we would die right there. Now the Taliban’s influence is very strong. Girls don’t go to school, they don’t go to work. It has reached the point that if they go to attend even weddings or funerals, they have to come home before evening otherwise they can be endangered by two or four men on the street on their way back".

On the one hand, the Taliban presented themselves as resolvers of the political and social crisis of insecurity and injustice. On the other hand, the Taliban themselves were seen by many as a symptom of the insecurity and criminality which endangers women, and they were referred to as louts, local thugs and ruffians.

It is in no way a new or radical supposition that the Taliban force social complicity with their gendered project by inspiring fear, but it is also important to understand the manner in which they have engaged with and altered societal principles. The Taliban dictates mirror those of society in some respects. Yet at the same time they prompt inversions of norms which privilege and recognize familial control over women’s sexuality, and the prerogative of the family to apply sanctions for breaches of norms. In villages where families have dared to defy Taliban dictates and send their daughters to school or allow their sisters to work, the Taliban have been permitted to utter the unspeakable – to name a particular man’s wife, sister or daughter and accuse her of shameful acts. Furthermore, the Taliban were reported to sexually assault women in a cultural environment where such crimes are avenged with blood. They have assumed patriarchal control over domestic issues in familial units which normally jealously guard the hierarchy and authority of the oldest male family member. Despite this, there was neither widespread resistance to the Taliban, nor explicit condemnation voiced in the group discussions.

I posit the following: that instead of meeting with recrimination, the coercive power of the Taliban has merged with pre-existing malignant and dangerous societal ruminations. An unknown yet widespread membership and the possibility that anyone, anywhere could be a Taliban informer echoed the pervasive sense that unknown, unrelated people anywhere could be watching women and casting aspersions on their character. Descriptions of the ‘seeing eyes’ and ‘listening ears’ of the Taliban and their network of informers recall descriptions of the ‘society’ which acts to restrict women’s freedoms in the first place.

Through penetration into the public domain – the bazaars, masjids and broadcast and print media – the Taliban police the lives of men and women and tap into pre-existing fears about loss of reputation through slander. The reason people are unable to adequately respond to this type of control is precisely because their own rationale for the restrictions on women’s freedoms rests upon “popular opinion” rather than ideological premises.

There is a tendency in the study of Islamic societies to use paradigms that emphasize either ideological conviction or forced subjection to explain societal acceptance of prohibitions on women’s attire and movements. Comprehending the sort of fear and social coercion which the Taliban employ rests on understanding the ways in which they have appropriated and amplified a contested public discourse of threat and danger around women’s visibility.




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