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Afghanistan's Taliban: Not a valid interpretation of Islam

By Laila Al-Marayati
Copyright 1998 Religion News Service, November 1996

(Dr. Laila Al-Marayati is a Los Angeles physician and past president of the Muslim Women's League. She is a regular contributor to the RNS series, Voices of Women in Religion.)

UNDATED -- Just a few weeks ago, Jay Leno and his wife Mavis donated $100,000 to the Feminist Majority Foundation to expand its campaign to end "gender apartheid" in Afghanistan.

That is where, after years of civil war, the Taliban emerged as the ruling faction and has imposed harsh measures on all of Afghani society, and particularly against women, in the name of Islam. There is no question the efforts of the Lenos, the Feminist Majority and others like them are laudable.

There is, however, the question of whether they will help.

There is certainly need for change. Under the Taliban, a strict gender segregation has been imposed. Women and girls are denied the right to education and adequate health care. Many women have been removed from the workplace and they are prevented from moving about freely. Violations of the dress code, which compels women to wear a "burqa" that covers her from head to toe, including a face-covering, are met with physical punishment.

But permanent change in Afghanistan can only come from a fuller understanding of Islam as a religion that embraces the value of women without subjecting them to sequestration.

Indeed, the extreme position taken by the Taliban hardly deserves to be considered an "interpretation" of Islam. That implies the position has some degree of validity, when it is really an aberration in violation of the most basic tenets of the faith.

To the Taliban and other extremists, Western -- and especially feminist -- views on women are often blamed for many of the social ills that plague society today, including exploitation of female sexuality, rape, high-risk sexual behavior, the disintegration of the family, and moral decadence in general.

Given this view, the Taliban believe their own policies are more protective of women -- and, therefore, more enlightened.

Changing the situation will require the Taliban and other Muslim leaders to look within Islam itself, rather than through a cultural lens not their own. In so doing, they would find that promoting women's rights does not mean compromising and capitulating to the "West." Rather, it means they are being consistent with their commitment to the message of Islam they seek to uphold.

Any government that professes to enforce shari'a (Islamic law) must be aware that the essential purpose of shari'a is to guarantee for every citizen five broad rights encompassing all aspects of human endeavor. These are the rights to life, intellect, family, property and religion. These rights mirror fundamental freedoms as they have been articulated in the major human rights documents of this century.

By obstructing Afghani women's enjoyment of these rights, the Taliban leadership expose their own ignorance of Islam. The right and obligation of every Muslim to education is spelled out by the Prophet Muhammed in his insistence Muslims must seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave and in his emphasis of divine rewards for those who specifically educate their daughters.

Preventing women from being cared for by male physicians -- especially when female physicians are in short supply -- contradicts rulings by Muslim jurists that rules regarding modesty are not violated when greater interests of health and safety are in play. Removing women from the workplace condemns them and their families to a life of destitution, controverting the Koran, which says "men shall have a benefit from what they earn and women shall have benefit from what they earn."

The obsession with enforcing gender segregation at the expense of women's needs reflects an imported extreme view that is most likely meant to satisfy foreign influences supporting the Taliban. By imposing strict measures against the most vulnerable segments of society, the Taliban can appear to be upholding "Islamic law" while they utterly disregard the inherent complexities involved and the checks and balances that must be applied.

The institution of corporal punishment (lashings, amputations) without due process, the suppression of minorities such as the Shi'a in Mazar-e-Sharif, and the oppression of women enable the Taliban to stake their claim as a bona fide "Islamic" state.

Exerting financial pressure in Afghanistan, engaging in diplomatic maneuvers, and contributing large sums to the Feminist Majority Foundation may have short term beneficial effects -- they at least serve to increase awareness. But the repressive policies of the Taliban are doomed to persist until they and others who share their views can appreciate the spirit of egalitarianism expressed in the Koran.

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