The Taliban have made the persecution of women central to their shambolic government in Afghanistan. While not seeking to draw parallels with the Taliban’s medieval barbarity, it is necessary also to recognize that the subjugation of women is central to the nationalisms of many richer countries.
There is no doubt that the Taliban are a bunch of misogynistic thugs with no plan for governance of a country that is approaching a humanitarian disaster. Western countries have withheld funds for the new government unless it ensures the rights of women and minorities and creates an inclusive administration.
Yet this misses the point. The subjugation of women is at the very core of the Taliban’s political project. It is how they can signal to their rank and file that they mean business and intend to deliver on their ideological promise.
By ordering women to stay at home and denying them access to health care, education and work, the Taliban are making half of the Afghan population invisible. This isn’t a random by-product of the Taliban’s ideology. It is the objective. By re-configuring public spaces in the country in such a manner, the Taliban aim to show their supporters just how powerful they are.
While the group has been happy to inherit all the ministries from the previous government, the only ministry it created from scratch was the anti-women Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Rather than focusing on how the country can be brought out of its current economic mess, the new government has busied itself in creating ridiculous rules targeting women. These include mandating waiting rooms in universities where female students should assemble while the men leave, to avoid the risk of inadvertent eye-contact.
The group has conducted forced marriages between women and its soldiers in some cities. Reports have also emerged of women being whipped in public by Taliban soldiers. It seems as if the persecution of women is at the core of the Taliban’s political project and the group’s legitimacy rests on its continuance.
Yet the travails of Afghan women ought also to be a moment for countries considered to be more advanced to hold a mirror to themselves. In nations with vastly different political systems from the Taliban, women continue to be at the center of the nation-state’s evolving identity and legitimacy.
In the US, a conservative-dominated Supreme Court is poised to strike down, or at the very least dilute, its own landmark 1973 judgment that protected a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
The 1973 judgment was based on the 14th Amendment to the constitution, one of its most consequential amendments that guaranteed equal rights to all US citizens and paved the way for, among other things, voting rights for women, equality for blacks, same-sex marriage, and immigration from non-European countries.
Advocates against abortion mainly belong to the Christian conservative political right who are using the issue to hold on to their notion that the US was founded as a Christian nation and continues to be one. Yet it has also invited tactical support from white supremacists and male supremacists.
Should the Supreme Court strike down the 1973 judgment, it would blow a hole through the 14th Amendment and possibly render women as a lesser category of citizen.
It could also open the door for other forms of challenges directed at racial and sexual minorities. Texas recently erected a bizarre law that incentivizes citizens to become vigilantes and report anyone (such as Uber drivers and receptionists) who could abet women seeking an abortion. And so, the type of country the US is going to be rests on the fate of its women.
In China, tennis star Peng Shuai’s explosive allegations of sexual assault against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli have struck at the very heart of the Communist Party’s legitimacy. That legitimacy rests on the fact that the Communist Revolution was meant to usher in a period of equality between men and women and that the current crop of leaders within the party are austere, disciplined, ethical family men.
While Mao Zedong may have said that “women hold up half the sky,” the facts on the ground are starkly different. Women’s participation in China’s workforce has fallen over the last 20 years and women today make up a minuscule proportion of the country’s leadership. There is just one woman in the 25-member Politburo and 10 women in the 204-member Central Committee.
Under President Xi Jinping, the state has launched a campaign against all things feminine, lamenting the presence of female kindergarten teachers for rising levels of “femininity” among boys. State propaganda is obsessed with restoring masculinity to the nation’s men while relegating women to become what they perceived as ideal housewives.
Unlike in the US, women in China have themselves been aborted when, under the country’s former one-child policy, families relied on sex-selective abortion to ensure a sole male offspring. The result is that China has a sex ratio heavily and unnaturally skewed toward males. Chinese women have literally disappeared for the sake of the country’s “progress.”
Afghanistan, China, the US, and many other countries have misogyny at the core of their nationalisms. Focusing on one to the detriment of others is to ensure that the liberation of women, which is a universal project, will forever remain incomplete.