“Only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women.”
“Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish.”
Former-US First Lady Mrs Laura Bush made those statements on a radio address with her husband former-President George W Bush in November of 2001, just one month after the American military launched its Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan intended to drive out al Qaeda from the country and overthrow the Taliban government.
The liberation of Afghan women was but one of many sweeping objectives the United States and other international partners hoped to implement in order to secure a broad spectrum of human rights for the Afghan public. It is vital to note that the Western world consistently struggles to understand cultures and traditions that do not conform to its own norms and standards. Often, the West is all too ready to blame incongruences between itself and other nations on what it interprets as outdated tribal traditions or religious restrictions.
In the majority of cases, tribal and religious traditions are vital and beautiful cultural forms that must be celebrated and protected.
For many countries however—as is the case in Afghanistan—there is often an interplay between restrictions on women and others, civil freedoms, and religion, which impacts the legal system. Islamic law is enshrined in the Afghan constitution. The formal judicial system is bound by Islamic law. Informal dispute resolution—which reportedly accounts for the majority of disputes across the country—is organised around a mixture of customary and tribal norms in addition to federal Islamic law.
While the Afghan penal code does lay out protections for all religions by criminalising assault against anyone who makes a public display of faith and against the destruction of places of worship, those protections have received little if any enforcement. In a number of cases, contemporary views of Islam have been able to contribute to sensible, just, and religiously-satisfactory solutions to disputes among Afghanistan’s 90 percent Sunni Muslim population. At other times Islamic law has been forcibly imposed in ways that have endangered and harmed individuals and families.
Reports of religious persecution against minorities have repeatedly surfaced—increasingly so this year— with many people both forcibly and voluntarily fleeing Afghanistan to escape religious oppression.
But not everyone can afford to move. And not everyone wants to move.
Nor should any Afghan man, woman, or family have to move.
Not one single Afghan citizen should have to vacate the land, house, village, city, or country he or she knows and loves…just to be able to enjoy the religious freedom the Afghan government claims is protected under the country’s constitution.
The problem is twofold. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2019 annual report states that (1), the Afghan government only controls 50 to 60 percent of the overall territory in the country. Extremist groups vie for or exercise complete autonomy over the remaining regions. And (2), the Afghan government is so busy fighting the ongoing war against the al Qaeda-Taliban nexus that it no longer possesses any capacity to handle other national concerns. The quarter of the Afghan population who is Shi’a Muslim—in addition to its Hindi, Sikh, Baha’i, Christian, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian groups who make up approximately 1% of the population—continue to suffer at the hands of terrorist and other armed groups who face little to no threat of punishment from the government.
Shi’a Muslims have been repeatedly targeted in ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) and ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) bombing attacks, as well as demeaned in dehumanising IS hate speech. In 1992—before the Taliban assumed control of the government—there were around 200,000 practicing Hindu and Sikh citizens in Afghanistan. But with the Taliban advocating and implementing land grabs, attacks on communities, and socioeconomic exclusion, there are only a mere 3000 to 7000 left in the country. There has been minor improvement in relations since 2016, with some Sikhs and Hindus employed in government sector and parliamentary positions. But as recently as July 2018, another ISKP attack in Jalalabad killed 19 leaders from both the Sikh and Hindu communities.
As a result of such targeted violence and persecution, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian families have deserted traditional temples and churches for plain buildings that attract the least attention. There is nowhere to carry out religious funeral rites, as crematoria in Afghanistan are virtually nonexistent. Families used to hold the ceremonies in their neighbourhoods, but this heightened friction with the local Muslim communities.
Interpretations of Sharia law allow for capital punishment of non-believers in Afghanistan. The USCIRF reports that the Baha’i faith is completely prohibited, as a 2007 fatwa (a legally-binding religious directive) categorised the community as a “blasphemous group.” Additionally, certain government and religious leaders argue that the modernisation of women’s rights is anti-Islamic. What has resulted is a dangerously deficient enforcement of practices aimed at ending early and child marriages and honour killings, as well as the continued deprivation of education for a smaller but still significant number of women.
Major global players like the United States, the European Union, and other foreign powers must prioritise the insight and contribution of the Afghan people into the peace processes in their own country. They must also continue to provide the time, resources, information, and skills training that are necessary to build a strong and equity-focused central government in Afghanistan.
In 2018, the EU unveiled a €474 million financial package as part of its Cooperation Agreement on Partnership and Development (CAPD) with Afghanistan. As part of that package, the EU intends to secure the full participation of women in public life and peace building; a stable, fair, and functioning legal system including a revision of the penal code; capacity-building initiatives for the Afghan national police force; and additional support for other human rights and democratic reforms.
Some progress has undoubtedly been made. Access to healthcare is up from 9% of the population to almost 57%. Around 6000 community development councils have been elected, with an estimated 35% female members. More than 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have benefited from EU assistance each year.
These achievements are worth celebrating. But there is a long road ahead, with a tough fight to secure cross-spectrum human rights for all Afghans. All involved bodies must acknowledge that continuing to stir the winds in Afghanistan without managing to help Afghan citizens achieve any positive, lasting change for themselves—particularly in the arena of religious freedom—is a gross misuse of foreign influence and power.
That misuse of power is one that translates to a willing global trampling of the Afghan people, one that leaves them choking on the dust of our incapability to secure and protect their most basic of rights: to believe, pray, and worship (or not) as they so choose.