A majority of Afghans did not so much fear Taliban brutality as they feared the insults the Taliban were capable of heaping upon them
During the Taliban regime my parents -- along with two of my siblings -- moved to Afghanistan, leaving the rest of us behind at a refugee camp in Peshawar. Members of an underground progressive organisation, they returned to work in the underground resistance. One of my brothers, who studying in Rawalpindi, visited my parents during summer vacation. Like most teenagers, he had long hair. Under the Taliban rule, young boys were not allowed to grow long hair. Yet despite my father’s warnings, my brother refused to have a haircut. He was proud of his long hair. “I’m only staying for a few days. They won’t spot me,’” he replied.
My family lived in a suburb where the Taliban vice and virtue police rarely visit. But as luck would have it, my brother was spotted one day when a Taliban mobile team arrived in the neighborhood. They yelled at my brother for sporting long hair and ordered him to stand still. Terrified, he chose to escape. Since he knew the streets, he was able to make it home safely.
However, my brother had been seen running and people, perhaps facing threats, revealed his whereabouts. Within the hour the Taliban arrived at our house and demanded to search the house.
My father was not home. My mother bravely stood at the door, telling them that she would resist. Another brother, almost 18 and present on the scene, thought the Taliban might arrest my mother and spoke up: “Since my brother is not home, you can punish me for his crime.”
The Taliban agreed and his head was shaved in the street. For years, he lived with the trauma of that public insult.
Ever since then I have concluded that the Taliban use insult as a powerful public weapon. Both the press and human rights organisations often report various kinds of public punishment for offences: for theft, it is amputation, for adultery, stoning to death, for drug-peddling, being buried alive under a wall, for immodesty, lashings. The Talib is portrayed as brutal, absurd, guilty of obscurantism and the oppression of women.
In my view, the Western media conveniently tagged the Taliban with these negative attributes well before the Occupation. These then became the reasons why imperialism needed to intervene. In other words, it is necessary for imperialism to prepare the ground for an Occupation or colonization scheme by demonizing the enemy. Clearly the absurdities and brutalities the Taliban committed could not be explained as a standard confessional tool of political oppression. In fact the specific technique of insulting Afghan men and women remains overlooked by these Western journalists.
Let us examine how women’s bodies became a systematic victim of this policy. By humiliating women publicly for minor ‘”offences”’ like wearing heels, bangles, or laughing aloud, the Taliban thwarted possible resistance. In Afghanistan, where patriarchal structures are strong, the men would shield women by obediently following Taliban instructions in the public sphere. That is, in order to spare women’s bodies from public humiliation, Afghan men would jealously guard them. Thus the Taliban were able to gain control over people’s public and private lives.
I personally think a majority of Afghans did not so much fear Taliban brutality as they feared the insults the Taliban were capable of heaping upon them. This tool was also generously employed in Pakistan.
One example in Swat that illustrates the Taliban approach is that of a school teacher who according to a press report worked to support her children. She was labeled a prostitute, forced to wear ghungroos (ankle bells) on her feet and killed after being mercilessly demeaned.
The case of Pir Samiullah is even more telling. Samiullah was the first tribal leader in Swat to raise a lashkar, or tribal army, in opposition to the Taliban. Members of the Gujjar community, Pir Samiullah and his followers claimed to have organized more than 10,000 tribesmen to protect 20 villages. He was killed along a few of his followers by Taliban.
Since Pir Samiullah could not be captured alive, after his death and burial the Taliban returned to dig up his body and hang it in public. Some thought the desecration of Pir Samiullah's body was due to confessional differences. But a Taliban spokesperson, talking to a BBC Urdu correspondent, clarified that this was done ''to show that those opposing Taliban will not even get a burial.'' Hence, they did not merely brutalise their enemy, but also made it a point to humiliate him.
Pir Samiullah's episode is no novelty. The Taliban in Afghanistan meted out the same treatment to Dr Najibullah and his brother. When the Taliban were unleashed on Kabul by their Pakistani patrons, Dr Najibullah was beaten, castrated and murdered. His blood-soaked body was hanged by a lamp-post and his mouth stuffed with U.S. dollars. A high-ranking member of the Taliban militia, Mullah Muhammad Rabbani, maintained that Najibullah deserved this fate: "He killed so many Islamic people and was against Islam and his crimes were so obvious that it had to happen. He was a communist." Again, an enemy was brutally killed and dehumanized, insulted.
Below is a new story run by Lahore-based the Daily Times, a few years back (excerpts):
PESHAWAR: Khyber Agency's Shinwari and Afridi tribesmen say they are abused and humiliated by Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), a private militia, which has taken it upon itself to 'preserve tribal traditions and Islamic values.’
“I feel disgraced and humiliated at the way the LI men treat us at checkposts,” a tribal elder who migrated to Peshawar from Khyber following the emergence of the private militia and the Taliban in the area told Daily Times.
Fines: Mobile phones with musical ring tones or images will be confiscated, a fine of Rs 500 will be imposed on owners of cars playing music and anyone not wearing the local cap will have to pay aRs 100 fine to the LI vigilantes on the main Torkham highway, tribal sources said.
“The Shinwaris and Afridis have never been disgraced and humiliated in this manner. Sometimes I think we, the proud people of Khyber, are so weak that we cannot face this bunch of people.”
What pains the Shinwaris and Afridis most is the vigilantes swearing at them in women’s presence.
A retired bureaucrat who served in the Tribal Areas as a political agent said a tribesman would prefer death to being called 'shameless' in front of his family’s women.
“A tribesman takes pride in being [a] male and when someone dishonours him in front of women, it is like you are stripping him of that pride,” the bureaucrat said.
Travel: “We have stopped travelling between Landikotal and Peshawar to avoid this humiliation,” said a tribal trader.
For those in the West theorizing that the Taliban function as a Pashtoon resistance force or as anti-imperialist dissidents should test their theoretical assumption in the course of an empirical travel through a few Taliban check posts!
Sahar Saba is an Afghan women rights' activist. For many years, she was spokesperson of Revolutionary Afghan Women Association (RAWA). Also, she has worked with RAWA for many years in refugee camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan in different capacities. She has traveled to many countries in the past several years to speak on behalf of Afghan women. She was born in Kabul. Her family migrated to Pakistan where Sahar Saba became active with RAWA. She has a law degree from London University and writes on issues facing Afghan women.