The theology behind the Taliban’s misogyny

The longer an outdated madrasa curriculum exists, the more misogyny will continue to victimise Muslims around the world

Updated - February 18, 2023 01:46 am IST

Published - February 18, 2023 12:08 am IST

A protest march in Kabul

A protest march in Kabul | Photo Credit: AFP

After the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, one of the assurances the triumphalist Taliban gave to the world was that they would respect women’s rights. For a short period, women were allowed to return to work and school on the condition that they wore Islamic headscarves and agreed to gender segregation. But it was just a charade.

The dehumanisation of Afghan women in all its brazenness began in March 2022 when girls’ high schools were shut down on the day they reopened. Two months later, the supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, warned that a woman’s father or closest male relative would be imprisoned or fired from government service if she did not cover her face in public.

In November 2022, women were banned from visiting parks and gymnasiums. The very next month, 27 Afghans, including women, were flogged in public for offences ranging from sodomy, deception, forgery and debauchery; the first public execution by the Taliban was carried out the same month.

The most unconscionable decision, however, was in the same month, on December 20 when women were completely banned from accessing any educational institution, ironically, in the name of “women’s honour”. The so-called Minister for Higher Education Neda Mohammad Nadeem, justified this on the grounds that girls were opting to study “areas that go against Islam and Afghan honour” such as agriculture and engineering.

Misrepresenting Islam

A natural response to this vicious misogyny would be to condemn or dismiss it as being a part of the incorrigibly violent credo of the Taliban — which it is without a doubt. But insofar as prejudice against women is concerned, the Taliban are not unique. Their patriarchy is informed by the ideological conservatism of post-Prophetic schools of Muslim thought.

For instance, the Deobandi maulvi, Ashraf Ali Thanvi (1863-1943), had set the tone for the sexism of the Talibani kind when he warned that girls should not be taught geography because it would only help them run away from home by teaching them the location of and routes to different towns (Al Tableegh).

Today, Thanvi’s alma mater, the Darul Uloom Deoband, believes that “the co-education system of colleges and universities is having a number of evils” and therefore, “undoubtedly unlawful”. In fact, a deeni (religious) class too would be disallowed if it “co-educates grown-up boys and girls [which] is unIslamic”. Such classes can be permitted only if there is a partition between girls and boys.

In Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India, historian Gail Minault narrates how Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, angrily tore up scholar Syed Mumtaz Ali’s Urdu manuscript titled Huquq-e-Niswaan (Women’s Rights) which argued in favour of educating Muslim women to help them better know their rights.

The same androcentrism underpinned the worldview of the Indian cleric, Wahiduddin Khan, a Padma Vibhushan awardee, who was absolutely certain that gender equality is a myth because god made women different from men. Education is important, he conceded, but women do not have to study what men study.

In Woman in Islamic Shariah, Khan reiterated his gender bias stating that success in life for men and women is possible “only if they devote themselves to the particular set of activities which has been preordained for them in God’s scheme of things.” If the gross sexism of conservative Muslim clerics across the world is similar to that of the Taliban, why is it that only the Taliban have become notorious for it? The answer lies in the fact that unlike the militaristically impuissant clerics who lack the power to impose their will, the power-intoxicated Taliban do not feel the need to feign moderation and subdue their gender bias.

Shared roots

Nonetheless, the callous flagrancy of the Taliban’s misogyny and the disingenuously rationalised sexism of Muslim clerics are rooted in the same questionable hadiths that are preached in Muslim societies such as the one in which the Prophet is quoted as saying, “A nation which makes a woman its ruler will not make progress” (Bukhari, Kitab al Fitan). Wahiduddin Khan cites this hadith to explain how denying women political leadership is a “time-honoured principle” in Islam. The Prophet, however, could not have made such a statement because the Koran does not assign gender roles to women. It upholds their equality with men (3:195, 4:124, 16:97 and 33:35).

As for women’s education, the Prophet said: “He who has a slave-girl and educates and treats her well, and then manumits and marries her, will get a double reward” (Bukhari, Kitab al itq). On another occasion, he remarked that “the educated are the heirs of the Prophets” (Abu Dawud, Kitab al ilm). These emancipatory hadiths identify the lack of education as the root cause of human enslavement.

Despite this, if the Muslim world today is riddled with misanthropic power centres such as the Taliban it is because Muslim societies have failed to question the theology that uses inauthentic hadiths to undermine the Koran. Put differently, if the outdated madrasa curriculum is not overhauled to open up Islam to modern interpretations within the framework of its original sources, misogyny would continue to victimise Muslims across the world.

A. Faizur Rahman is the Secretary-General of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. Email:

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