Afghanistan is sadly at the centre of international attention. The recent events in the country have generated a wave of empathy and preoccupation worldwide. However, their main characters are new on the Afghan stage: they have been around for decades. This is why it is important to try and get to know the country, its history and culture a little bit better.
By Mona Perlingeiro | AGN Brazil
On August 14, the United States announced the departure of their troops from Afghanistan. The statement resulted in the disaster everyone knows: Afghanis tried to desperately flee the country. The images were those of men and women in turbans and veils, speaking a language that is incomprehensible to many. But can we take another look at Afghanistan?
One way of analysing the consequences of the US departure from the country takes into consideration the clothing worn by women in Afghanistan. The pictures of people in shorter clothes that circulated on the Internet showing a country more progressive in the 1960s and 70s than nowadays are emblematic. However, there are some (serious) problems surrounding these images: most of them are from Iran. And Iran and Afghanistan are non the same country: they have never been, in fact.
The picture above, portraying Iranian students in the Seventies, was one of the most circulated on the internet in the last week and it was used as an example of how Afghan society has now regressed as far as individual freedoms (especially for women) are concerned. Notwithstanding the embarrassing confusion between two countries, the question which should really be put at the centre of attention here is: should the measure of women’s clothing be the meter of freedom?
From the beginning: welcome to Afghanistan
Afghanistan is an Asian country which has always been a strategic crossroad between the West and the East. Historically, it was the transiting point of products and people crossing the Mediterranean and the Middle East on their way to India and China. For this reason, Afghanistan has always been in the sights of several countries, especially the British and the Russian empires. The country became an important political player for the British crown throughout the 19th century, mainly due to its proximity to India, the “great jewel in the British crown”. After the signing of the 1919 Treaty of Rawalpindi, the British allowed the artificial foundation of a country, creating a large quilt of ethnic patchwork which did not consider the differences between the groups living in the region. Afghan peoples were much more linked to a clan and to a tribal idea about the composition of their community than to a single state: hence, imperialist interests fostered several internal conflicts inside the country.
Even today, Afghanistan is home to many ethnic groups. The main ones are the Pashtu (42% of the population), the Tajik (27% of the population, descended from Iran), the Hazara (10% of the population, descended from the Mongols), the Uzbek (9% of the population, descended from the Turks), the Aimaq (4% of the population, descended from nomadic Persian tribes), Pajai, Nuristani, Sadat, and others.
What is happening now: origins and development
In 1979, the Soviets occupied Afghanistan: their intention was to change the country, to the point to even eliminate Islam from the region. However, a guerrilla group formed by Egyptians, Libyans and Saudis decided to join the local population to fight against the Soviet Union. These guerrillas became known as mujahidin, who were financed also by the US, interested in overthrowing the Soviet occupation. At that time, the world was in the middle of the Cold War.
After ten years of struggle, Afghanistan has won over the USSR and the mujahidin took control of the country. But problems arose within their organization, which ended up splitting apart. Sever other militias were born, among which the Taliban. A civil war broke out: it ended in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban came to power and established an Islamic Emirate ruled by the sharia law in Afghanistan. The rigid rule of this structure of power commanded among other things the mandatory use of the burqa for women, the prohibition to study and work for women and the banning of music and cinema.
Meanwhile, in 1988, the Saudi entrepreneur Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The organization planned the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers, during which bin Laden was in Afghanistan. Based on this piece of information, the US started a war in the country. According to their government, the act was also intended for them to play a strategic role in structuring a liberal democracy there. The conflict lasted for nearly twenty years. It was a costly one: in almost two decades of American presence in the country, 24.000 American soldiers were killed and more than 500.000 Afghan lives were claimed, including 64.000 soldiers. And it seems it was not a successful effort. The war certainly shrank the influence of the Taliban, but they never ceased to exist. On the contrary, they continued to command some rural regions of the Afghan territory. And to make matters worse the world’s view of the asian country, recently, the US government has declared that this defeat is to be blamed on Afghanistan itself.
Now that they control the country again, the Taliban have been making statements about the possible renewal of their old practises mixed with a newly found respect for personal freedoms and human rights. However, most of the population does not believe their promises and many fear for their lives. Especially women.
One may also ask whether the Islamic religion really preaches the Taliban restrictions. The answer is no. Therefore, the debate has to be around individual freedoms and the building of a democratic country, not the measurement of women’s clothing or the expansion/extinction of Islam. Always keeping in mind that the protagonist of the debate about the future of Afghanistan must be the Afghan population itself.
Curiosities about Afghanistan
Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia are Arab countries, but Afghanistan is not. The expansionism of the Islamic went beyond the borders of Arab countries. Therefore, Islamic/Arabic culture has a very strong and striking influence in many of these societies, including Afghanistan where almost the entire population is Muslim.
Mujahidin is plural of mujahid, which means “guerrilla” or “one who engages in the fight”. The fight would be the jihad, a word often translated as “holy war” but which does not necessarily have a bellicose meaning within the Islamic religion. Jihad is a “struggle” or “effort” made by the individual to maintain the Islamic faith and path. Its interpretation may or may not be to expand this struggle to the point of holding groups and populations hostage to a narrative in which faith and violent struggle are deeply intertwined.
Sharia are laws based on the holy book of Muslims, the Koran. It means that a certain interpretation of the holy scriptures structures a whole legal system. However, this interpretation varies and even Muslims can feel overwhelmed by the decisions made based on these readings. This is what is happening right now to the people of Afghanistan.
Tips and other curiosities about the Islamic world and Afghanistan
Islamic feminism and education
Have you ever heard of Islamic feminism? One of the main intellectuals was the Moroccan Fatima Mernissi, who among other things stated that “there is space for women in Islam, but there is a patriarchy appropriating the words and interpreting them as it suits it”.
As for education, did you know that the first university in the world was created by a Muslim woman in Morocco? Al Quaraouiyine University was founded by Fatima Al-Fihri, in 859 AD. In fact, for Islam it is essential that all its followers know how to read and write, especially in the sacred language that is Arabic. For this reason, the interpretation that women should not have access to education is wrong.
Want to learn more about LGBTQIA+ issues in Afghanistan? Look for the activist Nemat Sadat.
Who to follow on social media?
It is currently possible to access some information directly on the profiles of people who live a different culture and religion. Be wary of poorly told information and unreliable news sources. Here you will find some interesting profiles dealing with Islam and culture from the Middle East and/or Asia, including Afghanistan:
@mariamchami_ (Islam in Brasil/portuguese)
@des.oriente (Middle Eastern Culture and Politics/Portuguese)
@leticiase.jornalista (Journalistic content about Middle East/Portuguese)
@queercrescent (Islam and LGBTQIA+/ English)
Local practices that violate the rights of children and adolescents
Bacha Posh is cultural practice in some parts of Afghanistan in which girls are socially transformed into boys by family demands.
Bacha Bazi is sexual slavery and child prostitution, where preteen and young boys are sold to rich and powerful men for entertainment. The practice was legally prohibited, but there are still reports of its permanence in the country.
These practices have no connection with the teachings of Islam.
Search for the Afghan filmmaker Sahraa Karami @sahraakarimi
And meet the Afghan artist and teacher Shamsia Hassani @shamsiahassani.
When we distance ourselves from other people because of their culture, religion and ethnicity, what feelings do we create about them?
Not really good ones.
So, come closer.