Could restrictions and injustice against women be based not only on hate but also on fear?
The Taliban regime continues to expand its rollback of women's rights. This time they have ordered the total closure of beauty salons, eliminating one of the last spaces available for women to work and find social engagement.
The shutting down of salons is just another demonstration of the direct attack against the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls under this administration. With this ruling, more than 60,000 women could lose their jobs, and 12,000 beauty businesses are likely to be closed, not only affecting women’s financial autonomy but thousands of families that depend on their income.
Since their return to power, excluding women from social and public life seems to be one of the main goals of the Taliban. Women in Afghanistan are not allowed to visit parks, funfairs, and gyms, and Afghan girls have also been excluded from middle school and high school. The restrictions affect not just their social freedom and expression but their fundamental rights to education and employment opportunities.
Taliban states that these rulings respond to the intention to develop a social system according to the Islamic Sharia law and the values of Afghanistan, but if women are not allowed to share and enjoy the public sphere, where do women belong? Are they confined to their house and mosque? Is gender-based violence acceptable when perpetrated by religious interpretations and cultural traditions?
Sharia Law: societies shaped by interpretations
Sharia is Islam's legal system, a religious canonical law derived from the precepts of Islam. In Arabic, Sharia means "the clear way” or “the correct path,” and for Muslims, it represents the guidance provided by God as a legal framework for spiritual and worldly matters.
There are 45 Muslim-majority countries, and all of them have a variety of laws that reference Sharia. Still, the interpretation varies, just like in other religions and systems of beliefs. This clarification is critical when approaching religious criticism because it is not the religion or the spiritual experience itself but interpretations that can attempt against fundamental human rights.
Some Muslim countries have religious-based laws that critics and international organizations have called cruel criminal punishments. They have also been criticized for the restrictions against women (mainly) and minority groups, but there is great diversity in how governments interpret and apply Sharia Law.
In the particular case of Afghanistan, the problem is not the Sharia itself but the Taliban's interpretation of it and the way it is articulated with binding legislation and the pre-Islamic patriarchal traditions of the Pashtun ethnic group, to which most Taliban representatives belong.
For instance, one of the Taliban’s bizarre reasons for the beauty salons’ operation ban is that they offer services forbidden by Islam that attempt to go against the purity of women and cause economic hardship for the grooms’ families during wedding festivities.
These reasons may sound derisive, but for Pashtun ideology, it makes total sense, especially in families and societies that practice the “Purdah,” that is, a woman’s limited access to the world outside her household. Purdah is a custom practiced in some Muslim (and Hindu) societies where women remain hidden or cover their faces and bodies. A woman without social engagement is nearly invisible to outsiders and, therefore, cannot dishonor herself or her male relatives…why would a woman be a cause of dishonor just by being present, and what about the dishonor caused by abusive men? What exactly are the standards for honor?
Transforming interpretations into laws
To promote and maintain the Islam/Pashtun traditions, the Taliban brought back the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Created originally in 1996, this ministry is known for being the “moral police,” enforcing a harsh interpretation of the Sharia law while roaming the streets of Afghanistan. It excluded women from public spaces, banned certain types of music and artistic expressions, carried out public executions, whipped and publicly humiliated women, and implemented a strict dress code.
The return of this ministry after the chaotical US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2020 has virtually erased 20 years of progress in human rights, women's rights, and children's rights.
The power of being a woman
Why are some societies threatened by the beauty, self-expression, knowledge, and abilities of women? Why are women being purposefully hidden?
Most—if not all— of the repressive societies know exactly what they are doing when they allow different ways of gender-based violence. Promoting financial abuse against women and prohibiting education is the only tool they have left to stop women’s incredible force. Perhaps, all the restrictions, bans, inequality, and injustice against women are not only based on hate but also fear.
This “strategy” of preventing certain groups from gathering, building a community, organizing, and communicating is a very old-fashioned and well-known resource for totalitarian governments. They know and fear the power behind self-expression, whether in a classroom, in a park, in the street, or a beauty salon.