Women and Islamism: A Complex Relationship | Zöe Shipton

The return of the Taliban this year has seen renewed violence against many women and girls in Afghanistan. Women are set to face more uncertainty as the new Taliban government starts to impose their own rendition of sharia-inspired governance. With demonstrations against the new regime’s treatment of women proliferating through the media, important anthropological questions about who will be upholding the new Taliban government are being ignored. Whilst women will clearly have no official role, that is not to say that they are not standing in support of the new regime.

Not long after Kabul fell to the Taliban, 300 Afghan women gathered in a university lecture hall to collectively pledge their commitment to the Taliban’s Islamist policies. Spokeswomen stated that they were standing against the Afghan women protesting on the streets, arguing that they were not representative of all women, stating instead that the last Afghan government was ‘misusing’ women. Protests such as this indicate that a sizable proportion of Afghanistan’s female population may well be pro-Taliban.

This should be no surprise: evidence shows high levels of Afghan Muslim support for sharia law. A report completed by the Pew Research Centre found that 99% of Muslims in Afghanistan believe that sharia law should be the official law in Afghanistan. On top of that, 94% of Afghan Muslims believe a wife must always obey her husband. This proposed lack of autonomy reflects a genuine desire from many in Afghanistan: for Muslim women to exist as the ultimate ‘tradwives’.

Across the region, evidence has shown that the inclusion of women in radical Islamist groups is an important part of their future. The Interior Ministry in Kyrgyzstan estimates that women are an increasing proportion of Islamist radicals. Kyrgyz Islamists have gone on record to say that it is a major part of their strategy. Kyrgyz authorities say that female involvement in extremism is a global trend and have arrested women and raided their homes on suspicion of propagating extremist ideas through religious study groups.

Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) boasts a similar trajectory, with some saying that between 45% and 50% of IRPT are female. The Tajik government banned the IRPT as an ‘extremist organisation’ in 2015. Female involvement in the party is no passive contribution either; a campaign poster from their 2015 parliamentary election celebrates that a notable portion of official candidates are women.

The rationale for women joining extreme Islamist groups is varied and complex. To fully comprehend the extent of these women’s participation, it is necessary to move away from the simplistic narrative that currently governs this topic: that all women are unwillingly duped and coerced into radical groups. IS presents women with active choices, appealing to a sense of agency and empowerment to contribute to a collective objective.

After the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan saw the return of many archaic traditions. Bacha bazi is one such practice – where adolescent boys are conscripted by older powerful men and groomed for sexual purposes. The Taliban’s deep contempt for bacha bazi is often cited as one of the key reasons for their ascent in the early nineties- they outlawed the practice in line with sharia law. This would have been a welcome change for mothers across Afghanistan, who would no longer see their sons kidnapped and acquired by powerful older men. Here, women played a legitimising function that cannot be underestimated. The fight against bacha bazi gives many women a definitive political cause, and the Taliban’s proposed outlaw of bacha bazi allows their Islamism to be ‘gender inclusive’.

The suggestion that we should attempt to understand the role of female extremists in the region is not predicated on the desire to simply have more cultural intelligence. It is far more serious than that: assumptions made about female extremists might lead to a gross underestimation of the threat they pose, whether it be direct or through facilitation.

Critically reflecting on evidence from across the region can help to understand the role of women in the new Taliban regime. Passively upholding these structures, for example, by supporting the abolition of bacha bazi, is just one way of doing so. The recent rise in female Islamists seen in Kyrgyzstan and the official inclusion of women in extreme Islamist organisations as witnessed in Tajikistan, are just some examples of the mounting evidence that shows how women play an integral role in upholding extreme Islamism in Central Asia.

It might seem a questionable time to be highlighting issues such as these, considering the devastating circumstances in which many Afghan women and girls now find themselves. But raising these issues is not a diversion away from this suffering. Rather, it is essential to the proper analysis of the new conditions in Afghanistan. Simplistic assumptions made about the relationship between women and Islamism, along with chronic underestimation of female agency, is a severe impediment both to this task and to the potential to secure societies from the throes of extremism.

Zöe Shipton is an intern with the Henry Jackson Society (HJS). A Durham University Anthropology graduate, her undergraduate research focused on gender relations in Central Asia. Twitter: @ShiptonZoe

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