Taliban Return

Women and Urban Elites are Again at Risk, in a Democracy that Never Was

Opinion | Edit Schlaffer | March 2008

Afghan women have always lived under the threat of violence, regardless of which regime was in control of the country. But under the Taliban, they became the targets of a particular kind of aggression.

In effect, a war was declared directly on Afghani women.  Their expulsion from public spaces was a cornerstone of the regime’s strategy, and one of their first decrees foreshadowed what was awaiting women in the country: In the spring of 2001, women were told that in public, their silhouette must "not bear any resemblance to a human form" and visits to parks were forbidden.  It was clear that male leaders wanted to keep them under control.

But then came the liberation: the Taliban regime crumbled, and the nation was bombed – under the pretence of the urgent need to implement democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Today, the Taliban is once again on the march. But in actuality they had never left.  We have grown accustomed to the reappearance of reports each spring of the offensives by the religious warriors who, having waited out the long winter in the mountains, have returned to attack the burgeoning civil society.

Life is becoming increasingly dangerous for the urban elite as well.  Denunciations and purges are part of daily life.

The most recent and dramatic example is that of 23-year-old Pervez Kambaksh, who is now in the crosshairs of the local fundamentalists. He is being charged with blasphemy because of the distribution of heretical material for downloading a satirical essay from an Iranian website proposing a small thought experiment of what would happen if – under religious terms – the wives of polygamous men were also allowed to have multiple husbands. But in Afghanistan, the entire raison d’état is based on blind obedience, and testing boundaries through humour and irony can have consequences in a totalitarian regime. For Mr. Kambaksh, these have been severe: He was promptly sentenced to death.

His family, however, dared to bring the case to the public, and his brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi – a fellow journalist who has been a thorn in the side of authorities for some time for his harsh criticisms of public figures and the Parliament – was forced to go underground. The international community reacted immediately and resolutely: the case of Pervez was taken up by the British newspaper the Independent which started a campaign to avert the execution and succeeded in collecting 80,000 signatures within 14 days. During a brief visit to President Karzai in Kabul, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and British counterpart David Milliband expressed their concerns for the safety of Pervez, and Karzai assured them that "justice would be exercised."

However, it is feared that Pervez will languish for months in a prison populated by murderers and religious fanatics, and will be abused by the guards. Secretary of State Rice has emphasized the "need to respect international norms."

But one must remember that Afghanistan is a young democracy. And Hamid Karzai? As president, he has the power to overrule the court in Mazar-e-Sharif and repeal the verdict. But the tribal chiefs and religious leaders have conducted demonstrations to make it very clear that, as far as they are concerned, the death sentence is irrevocable.

Caught between the Mullahs and debt owed to the Western Allies, Karzai is struggling for his political survival.  And while he and Rice remain ensnared in an absurd balancing act, they also remain under pressure to market a democracy which really is not one at all. And for this, Pervez is an inconvenient disturbance who has gained wide, unwelcome, publicity in the West, and will now be used as a benchmark with which to test the actual degree of freedom understanding of rights which exists in Afghanistan.

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