How life could change for women in Afghanistan as the Taliban enforces its interpretation of Sharia Law
Since their shocking takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban have stated that the country will be governed according to Islamic Law, also known as Sharia.
In the group's first press conference on August, Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid said that women's rights would be "respected within the framework of Islamic Law", and that they would have access to education and work.
They have not elaborated on what this means in reality, and reports are already emerging that women have been sent home from work and university in rural areas, per the Associated Press.
Here, Four Nine speaks to Simon Perfect — researcher at religious think tank, Theos — about Sharia Law, and what it may mean for Afghanistan after US troops officially withdraw on their August 31st deadline.
What is Sharia Law?
Perfect explains that the term Sharia — which translates to "the way" — is used in different ways by Muslims.
"Sharia encompasses a whole range of things, including what we in the West would identify as legal issues, and also how Muslims should conduct themselves in prayer and with people," he tells me.
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"Some scholars identify Sharia in another way, to mean God's will for humankind. So, here, you can make a distinction: there is God's will and then the human interpretations of that."
These human interpretations (Fiqh), or Islamic jurisprudence, have resulted in many different schools of thought when it comes to Sharia, some of which are contested.
As Perfect notes, this explains the huge diversity within Islamic law: "There is no single codebook, there are so many interpretations because it is a human attempt to interpret how God wants Muslims to behave."
What rights are women given under Sharia Law?
Despite the Taliban and other militant Islamic groups' interpretation of Sharia, one of the starting principles within the Quran is equality between men and women.
"They are recognised as being equal in moral terms. However, equality in moral and spiritual terms can be contrasted with what men and women are expected to do within society," Perfect says, highlighting that in the early Muslim community, there was an expectation that men would be the ones going out and doing work, while mothers would primarily be mothers and carers.
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"Islam very much granted women new rights that were absent in pre-Islamic Arabia, and also absent in Christian Europe for centuries," he continues.
Certainly, the religion granted women the right to own their own personal property — and some of the women at the start of early Muslim community were highly independent. Khadija, the prophet's first wife, for example, was a very successful businesswoman.
Similarly, the importance that Islam places on education is equally weighted between men and women. "Women are exhorted to go pursue education, and that really manifested in the early Muslim community," adds Perfect. "There were many women who were important female scholars, they were involved in the compilation of the Hadith" — that is, reports about the Prophet Mohammed said and did.
"Many women were academics, and early jurists," Perfect continues. "They were important in the development of some of the earliest universities in the world, with Muslim civilisation being far ahead of Christian civilisation at the time in terms of education, and science.
"Islam was very forward-think for its time, and that's why so many Muslim women argue that liberation can come from within."
What is the Taliban's interpretation of Sharia Law?
The Taliban is known for its incredibly harsh implementation of Sharia Law.
In their previous reign of Afghanistan — from 1996 to 2001 — they were known for enforcing strict modesty laws, barring women from education and forbidding them from leaving their homes without a male companion.
Violating their rules carried a heavy penalty — they were arbitrarily beaten for exposing the skin on their feet, or hands or for wearing nail varnish.
There were also reports of executions. One woman who was accused of killing her husband, who was an alleged domestic abuser, was shot in an abandoned sports stadium.
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"The question of what is going to happen in the Taliban's subsequent regime is an unknown," Perfect comments. "Some women have already been told to stay at home, but we don't know whether this is a temporary thing, or the start of a permanent clampdown.
"But the context is different from 20 years ago. We have so many Afghan women who have had 20 years of education and being in employment, and being able to access political power.
"Trying to reverse those changes would be extremely difficult. At the moment they are trying to present a moderate image to the rest of the world. We don't know how long they will continue to do that, but the Afghan economy is collapsing. They need to secure economic support from the outside world, and they may have to actually adopt a pragmatic approach."
This may involve allowing women to have their basic fundamental rights — especially given the advent of social media — which means that there is a constant, renewed focus on the plight of women in the country.
As Perfect concludes, it is of the utmost importance that we keep our eyes on the situation as it continues to unfold.