The press conference and after – Jawed Naqwi

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HOW do we trust the Taliban? The question has been hanging fire since the extremist group took over Kabul with shocking ease. What left the world even more dazed was their press conference, which had the effect of turning punditry upside down. Let’s hold their feet to the fire, averred a democracy enthusiast only to be reminded it would be very Taliban-like, mediaeval torture to do so, as the imagery suggests. How could the Taliban say that women were needed in the government and that girls would go to schools but according to rules framed by the Taliban’s version of Sharia, which frowns on co-education?

It’s a difficult circle to square.

India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu revivalist group, is saddled with a similar stance against co-education. No jeans for women. Boys and girls are watched by ‘Romeo Squad’ vigilantes. No interfaith marriage. No Valentine’s Day either. The press conference made a landmark promise, however. No ethnic minority was to be excluded from the purview of rights available to others.

New tactics by the killers? It’d be no time before they resume stoning women to death. The suspicion runs deep. But consider the following. Suppose a Bajrang Dal leader from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva corner were to hold a press conference and declare there would be no more lynching of Muslims and Christians by vigilantes. One’s instinctive response would be to welcome the new body language, feel relieved, and then hope for the best. It may seem far-fetched, of course. Can we afford hope? Let’s say Donald Trump writes a review of Gone With The Wind and slams it as a romantic relic of America’s racist past, a syndrome that continues to linger on. Or suppose Joe Biden threatens to cut Israel’s aid if it sends another bomber over Gaza again. Incredible things do happen. Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation on TV and an empire disappeared, pat.

As far as women’s rights in Afghanistan are concerned, the quest has seen a pattern of delirious joy and abject despondency since the arrival of Soraya Tarzi as King Amanullah’s rare monogamous wife in 1913. Having been exposed to Western education as an Afghan exile in Syria (the opposite of what the militant Islamic State group is bringing in from there), Tarzi became a symbol of a new culture of liberation. She was the first consort of an Afghan king to step into the public arena alongside her husband. “I am your king, but the minister of education is my wife — your queen,” Amanullah would gloat.

In 1928, Queen Soraya received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. But Afghanistan was Afghanistan. Owing to the reforms King Amanullah Khan instituted, the country’s religious sects grew violent. In 1929, the king abdicated in order to prevent a civil war and went into exile. Exactly 50 years later, the Shah of Iran would be forced out of his country by a similar religious backlash.

Women’s rights could scarcely be ensured by force, leave alone by an occupying army. It’s useful to remember that in India, when the British raised the age of consent for marital rights for girls from 10 years to a mere 12 — after a girl died on her terrifying nuptial night — all hell broke loose. Hinduism was under threat from the West, proclaimed B.G. Tilak, as nationalist leaders successfully pressed for a hands-off colonial policy on religion and culture.

Mocking ‘the white man’s burden’, perhaps, child marriage remains rampant in modern India. Women are still burnt alive for not bringing dowry. Female foeticide is common despite it being declared illegal. While aspiring to justice — thinking in terms of strategic and holistic reform instead of sprinting towards a cultural lambasting and overhauling of the system — seems prudent.

Needless to say, in the context of Afghanistan — the difficult questions remain: what is the lot of the girl child? Can historically subjugated women continue their important struggles? Can succour be brought to frightened ethnic minorities (including Muslims and not just Hindus and Sikhs — as the Indian government wants to push for in its enthusiasm to fuel a divisive domestic politics)? Can the blight of polio be eradicated? Can a template be created for a drugs-free future?

Afghanistan is well placed to blend science, nature and creativity — glimpsed best in its legendary traditions captured by Al Biruni. The people woven into the fabric of Afghanistan are a generous, soulful lot. There is a custom that Afghans often follow while building their homes. They first take into account where their guests would be most comfortable, the mehmankhana. They factor themselves in last. It’s a unique culture of generosity and sharing, but not foreign to the unpolluted human spirit elsewhere. It’s a bit like the Lahoris opening their hearts to Indian visitors of all religious stripes without expecting reciprocity. In Karachi, one notices the chauffeurs are served dinner well before the guests are entertained. Cultures are best left to evolve with a gentle nudge.

There will always be the cynic — important having them around as they keep everyone on their toes. Serious analysts have mentioned truth and reconciliation as the way forward for the Afghans. It’s an excellent idea, but we have to first improve the way it was implemented in South Africa for instance. There’s far too much continued exploitation of the majority of black Africans by a promising change that became corrupt too soon and developed as economic apartheid. Improve South Africa to improve Afghanistan. The world is linked despite the apparent differences.

The Taliban appear to want to be moving from the hardened fundamentalism of their past to a conservative version of religion of which they now speak. In the Indian context it would be like moving from Narendra Modi towards Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The allusion is not only to any news conference that Modi never held.