Humanitarians Must Reject the Taliban’s Misogyny

January 10, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Guest Post from Hugo Slim, Senior Research Fellow at the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford

‘Once again, humanitarians are bogged down in a moral predicament in Afghanistan. The extreme misogyny of Taliban policy is back and international humanitarian agencies should refuse to cooperate with it.

The Taliban’s initial tolerance of gender equality in 2021 proved, very predictably, to be just a ploy to trick Western aid agencies into staying and paying. It was about budget support and international recognition, not gender justice. The Taliban have now shown their true face in their countrywide persecution of women and girls, who are banned from most areas of public life and education.

On Christmas Eve, the Taliban banned women aid workers too. Humanitarians are now wondering what to do.

A humanitarian exception is not enough

In a statement just after Christmas, the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC, the highest level humanitarian coordination forum) started lobbying for a humanitarian carve-out that would make an exception for aid agencies. Their statement spoke only of the instrumental value of women as humanitarian workers and said nothing about the absolute value of women as human beings.

This is morally inadequate. It misses the point. Women are being persecuted as a group across Afghanistan. Humanitarians need to recognize this outright and stand against it, making clear that the Taliban’s mistaken form of Islam amounts to the comprehensive persecution of fifty percent of the population. Nor is it morally sufficient, as some aid workers are privately arguing, that because Taliban leaders in about 25% of the country are turning a blind eye to edicts on women’s education and work, humanitarians should keep engaging. This seems to accept that persecution of women in 75% of Afghanistan is tolerable.

A blinkered humanitarian view of the persecution of women in Afghanistan today, which focuses only on aid agency staffing, is rightly troubling the conscience of many humanitarians who see the problem as much bigger than its effect on their own operations. They are right to do so.

Burqa seller

The Taliban’s denial of women’s humanity

The Taliban’s view of women denies their full humanity. Its inhumane theology confines women to a private sphere of life in which their duty is only to care for men, give birth, nurture children, run the household and guard their modesty. For this role, the Taliban determine that women need a primary education at most and minimal access to public space.

This ideology places women only a little above a faithful horse or a delicious pomegranate in the Taliban’s order of things. It gives women the right to exist biologically but with a social and spiritual vocation prescribed by Taliban men. Under recent edicts, women have no free will in how they live their lives, develop their personality, use their power and participate in their society. They are being eradicated from public space and from Afghan culture and society.  

This is not the fullness of human life and is closer to servitude than freedom. The Taliban’s persecution of women is a religious and legal abomination, that constitutes a crime against humanity, in this case women’s humanity. Taliban misogynist policy also deeply diminishes the humanity of Afghan men, boys and girls who flourish because of the full participation of women in society. It is a national disaster.

Humanitarian complicity

The current IASC approach follows a conventional strategy of neutral humanitarianism, which uses limited complicity to secure humanitarian gains by engaging with the Taliban.

The complicity calculation is that biological life is paramount because it is sacred in itself and, if kept alive, a person may one day experience a better quality of life. For this reason, humanitarians have always worked closely with terrible regimes to prioritize the quantity of life regardless of limits on the quality of that life.

Humanitarians could continue their limited complicity with the Taliban, perhaps justifying it by saying “there are Taliban moderates we can work with despite the hard liners”. In such limited complicity, they do not share the Taliban’s inhumane policy for women but they do still recognize the Taliban, show them respect, and compromise with them on a daily basis in ways which inevitably bend humanitarian programming towards Taliban policy.

I sympathize with these arguments and have used them many times myself. I’m sure such compromise will also remain persuasive to many humanitarians if the ban on women aid workers is not reversed. “But surely” they will say, “even with only male staff we can save and improve lives, so we must go on.” I expect UN agencies and the ICRC may follow this line, but they would be wrong to do so in this case.

So, what should international humanitarians do in the face of such a comprehensive political crime?

If international humanitarians compromise with such extreme misogyny and its comprehensive persecution of women and girls in Afghanistan, then they weaken the universal moral standing of gender equality and the principle of humanity on which it is based

Refusal, non-cooperation and exit

Some international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are refusing to cooperate with Taliban policy and are suspending their operations. For them, working with an Islamist dictatorship that persecutes all women and girls is a step too far down the slippery slope of complicity. I agree with them for two main reasons.

First, the universal significance of gender equality and women’s rights. Women’s rights are a profound part of justice across the world today and an essential element of the principle of humanity. It is something to stand up for. Taliban policy is not some deeply popular manifestation of culture and custom. It is a catastrophic restriction of the humanity of women and girls and their creative influence in wider society.

If international humanitarians compromise with such extreme misogyny and its comprehensive persecution of women and girls in Afghanistan, then they weaken the universal moral standing of gender equality and the principle of humanity on which it is based. They also create a precedent for compromising it elsewhere. Humanitarians cannot cooperate with ideologues who insist that full humanity is only for men and boys.

Second is political realism. Liberal values are losing in Afghanistan for now, and Western sponsored humanitarian agencies are the least likely of all political powers to influence the Taliban on its core policies. The Taliban detest the West. Politically, it is now the turn of Afghan men and women – and the Asian powers around them – to influence the Taliban and set up systems of humanitarian aid.

China, Pakistan, Qatar, Iran, India and Central Asian powers have greater responsibility than Western leverage and power in Afghanistan today. Western humanitarians and diplomats who keep insisting on Western responsibility and agency are asking Afghans to live in false hope because the West cannot deliver change. Centreing Western responsibility also allows neighbouring states to pretend moral immunity from this disaster for women’s humanity.

Many might disagree with this last point and argue that NATO’s war in Afghanistan gives the West a particular responsibility for humanitarian repair in Afghanistan today. But this responsibility does not hold if the West is an unacceptable power, or if the process of repair requires international agencies to inflict moral damage on themselves by violating one of their deepest values – gender justice.

The last two centuries of Western interference in Afghanistan have proved that it is only really Afghans who change Afghanistan, and only they who can find an appropriate form of gender justice in Afghan society. In the meantime, many international agencies may find their aid budgets more welcome and more fairly spent preventing starvation in East Africa.’ 

[This post is written by Hugo Slim in an individual capacity, and does not represent the views of Oxfam]

Good update by Thea Hilhorst here

January 10, 2023
Duncan Green