Culture dictates the way people live their lives. Social values and the moral compass of a people are deeply rooted in culture. It is the prism one uses to understand the outside world. Unfortunately, each individual is biased towards his or her own culture. This may stem from ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s culture is superior to others and hence an individual may insist that everyone must adhere to the social values that emanate from this culture because it is the right way to live. In extreme cases, those who see themselves as guardians of certain cultural or religious values will not hesitate to dominate or harm others simply because they need to uphold what they believe is tantamount to law. Thus, breaking the law requires punishment. In Afghanistan, there is a group of people with a unique culture – different from what most Westerners are accustomed to – and they are popular the world over as the Taliban.
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There are many aspects of the culture of the Taliban that are fascinating and repulsive at the same time. But what is arguably the most intriguing is the way this society treats their women. First of all, Taliban women are not considered as co-equals with men in the Taliban world. According to the official website of the U.S. Department of State, one of the most uncanny aspects of their culture relating to women is the one concerning rules on how women can travel or move around town (U.S.gov, 2009). If a woman is married she can only leave her house with her husband. If she is not married she must have the permission of her father to leave the house and she can only do this if she is accompanied by her father, brother, or a male relative. If she is married and her husband is not home she can only be mobile if she is accompanied by a male relative.
It is not difficult to understand that the Taliban has good intentions. They are trying to create an environment of purity where women do not have loose morals and having petty relationships with the opposite sex. It is also easy to understand the negative impact of being a single mother, divorce due to infidelity, sexually transmitted disease, date rape, and other problems that can be associated when women are allowed to mingle freely in the public spheres. Certainly, there is a higher probability that these problems will occur if women have the freedom to do such things but it can be also argued that even if women are free it does not mean that they will automatically succumb to these temptations. The Taliban, it seems is trying to create an environment where these problems cannot occur.
Aside from the inability of women to travel away from home without a male relative escort another Taliban peculiarity is the use of the burqa this is a way of dressing where women are covered from head to ankle with clothing (Gohari, 2000). This can be traced to an ancient tradition called hejab the Arabic term that means body covering (Skaine, 2002). In a hot climate like Afghanistan, this thing can be a source of great inconvenience but the leaders behind the Taliban will never back down. Their culture is shaped by an extremist view of Islam and the rules that can be gleaned from reading their sacred book. A Taliban representative explained the reason why, “The face of a woman is a source of corruption for men who are not related to them” (Gohari, 2000). This is something that a Westerner may find hard to believe and accept.
There are two factors that when combined created this unique culture, these are the extreme interpretation of Islam and age-old patriarchy (Skaine, 2002). This is the reason why women are “discriminated against at birth” (Skaine, 2002). This simply means that Taliban society prefers boys to girls. As a result, there are so many restrictions on women. The Taliban-controlled society is also unique in the sense that it has the authority to carry out these rules. These are not ideals that society hopes its people will follow just like religious institutions in the West are prone to do. The Taliban can severely punish women who go against these statutes. For instance, in December of 1996, there were 225 women who were rounded up to be punished for violation of the hejab; the punishment consisted of being lased on the back and the legs (Gohari, 2000). If this is the kind of punishment given to those who violated their dress code, imagine what can be done to those who committed more serious crimes. In March of 1997, a woman was stoned to death because she was a married woman who attempted to flee with another man (Gohari, 2000). The Taliban can go to extremes just to implement their code of conduct.
Due to their legalism, the Taliban does not allow their women to talk to strangers in social functions such as funerals, weddings, etc. (Skaine, 2002). In order to fulfill their laws, they had to go beyond restricting women to venture into public spaces and interact with men. As a result, Afghan women under Taliban rule are not allowed to work as professionals, they are also barred from entering schools and universities (US.gov, 2009). As if these are not enough to imprison women and to limit them severely, the Taliban also stipulated that houses must be adequately covered so that passers-by cannot peer through and see the women inside their homes (U.S.gov, 2009). This is hard to explain to Westerners but the reality is that there are places where the culture is so bizarre one cannot help but wonder if it is all fiction.
On the lighter side, there are many traditions observed by the Afghan people. The Taliban is a political and religious group that emanated from the Pashtun tribe. This tribe has its unique way of burying its dead. At the climax of the funeral, the family members will offer a dirge, songs that are sung without instruments. This is also called a lament where the lamenters will use high pitched voice and moaning and sometimes the swaying movement of the body (Mills, 2003). In some cases, the lamenters would accuse the dead of abandoning them while their bitter wailing continues (Mills, 2003). This is nothing more than an elaborate way of saying goodbye.
Those who are still alive, sustain themselves with simple fare due to the fact that Afghan people are poor but also because it is a war-torn country. The most popular beverage is sugarless green tea (Rashid, 2001). When it comes to their staple diet, they will have flat oblong-shaped bread eaten after being taken out from the oven (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009). They would also love to partake of roast meats or meat pies, stewed vegetables, rice pilaf which they would enhance with the use of yogurt-based sauces (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009). They learned to lead simple lives.
The Taliban has taken what has existed for thousands of years in Arab countries. The ideas and beliefs regarding patriarchy and the role of women combined with an extreme way of interpreting the laws of Islam have created a society where the culture seems to dominate women and imprison them in a world where they are highly dependent on men for their survival. This is an interesting facet when it comes to studying culture. There is an urge to judge their strange ways of dealing with wives, fiancés, mothers, and sisters. There is the desire to condemn them but at the same time, an objective researcher will have to pause and ask himself if this is not ethnocentrism and what if the Taliban are correct in their dealing with women. There is no simple answer.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. (2001). The Taliban’s War against Women. U.S. Department of State. Web.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Afghanistan.”
Gohari, M.J. 2000. The Taliban: Ascent to Power. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, M. et al. (2003). South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopaedia. New York: Routledge.
Rashid, A. (2001). Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co.
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Skaine, R. (2002). The Women of Afghanistan under the Taliban. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.