I attended a lecture in London recently by Jonathan Steele, a highly regarded foreign correspondent who has been covering Afghanistan for the past 30 years. Steele first went to the country in the early 1980s, shortly after it had been invaded by the Soviet Union. A decade after they went into Kabul, the Soviets limped out of the country, humiliated. Steele argued that realpolitik now demanded that, to cut their losses, the West likewise withdraw from Afghanistan, even if this means that the Taliban come once more to play a prominent role in the politics of the country.
Steele's argument may play well among some strategic theorists. However, it shall be viewed with dismay by democrats, who remember how the Taliban put women into purdah and shut down schools that admitted girls. Anticipating these objections, Steele claimed in his lecture that the Taliban's attitude to women was part of a wider, South Asian cultural pattern. Across the region, faith and tradition mandated that after they had crossed puberty, girls were not to be seen in public. This was why they could not attend schools, and that was why they were married at the age of 10 or 12. In not permitting girls to study, work, or speak with males who were not their husbands, fathers, or brothers, the Taliban were, as it were, merely acting like South Asians.
Listening to Steele, I recalled that my own grandmother was withdrawn from school at the age of 10, and married. She stayed with her parents for four more years, before being sent to live with her husband. Steele, I thought, was right — to marry off girls very young was indeed a South Asian tradition. But then I turned to the person sitting next to me. This was my daughter. She is 19, and as yet single. After she finishes her studies she might — or might not — choose to get married. Whom she marries and when she marries is entirely her decision — even if her father wished to influence her, it is overwhelmingly likely that his wishes will be disregarded.
So, in fact, Steele was wrong — cultural traditions are not immutable. They can change. And sometimes they must change. My grandmother never spoke of how she was married at the age of 10. But evidently it was a practice of which she did not approve. She taught herself English, and regularly read books and magazines in Tamil, her mother tongue. She thought it as necessary to send girls to school (and college) as boys. She had five sons, and one daughter. The boys went off to university, and so also did the girl. My grandmother lived until she was 90, and till the end her letters to her daughter (my mother) were addressed to 'Mrs Visalakshi Guha, MA, BEd'. She was inordinately proud of the three degrees her daughter had earned — and so she should have been.
The story of my family is representative. Millions of Indians, who, two or three generations ago, practised child marriage or forbade girls from going to school, have enthusiastically embraced the idea, and ideal, of women's education. This is true of conservative Muslims in Kerala and of Rajput patriarchs in Himachal States, two states that have made the most impressive strides in women's literacy despite being part of the same ‘South Asian culture' as the Taliban. Even in Bihar, once a byword for social backwardness and male bigotry, there is now widespread enthusiasm for sending girls to school and college. In an inspired move, the Government of Bihar announced that girls who passed the middle school examination would be gifted a free bicycle to make it easier for them to attend high school. The move was socially emancipatory as well as politically astute — it helped the JD(U)-BJP alliance retain power in the last state elections.
Admittedly, women are still treated shamefully in some parts of India. In Punjab, female foeticide is widely practised. In Haryana, caste panchayats come down hard on girls who dare to choose their marriage partners. Jihadis in Kashmir demand that women wear burqas. Dowry deaths happen in middle-class urban households. Still, when viewed from a longer historical perspective, and taking the country as a whole, it is clear that the direction of change is forward-looking, towards making women more equal partners in social and economic life.
If Indian patriarchs can change, why must one be so despairing of the Afghans? In fact, before and after the Taliban, Afghan women did challenge traditional taboos and demand education and employment. They were encouraged by modernising monarchs and by the Soviets, who, whatever their other deficiencies, did seriously believe in gender equality. After the Taliban were deposed in 2001, the cause of women's emancipation was once more renewed. When I was in Kabul last year, I visited the city's university, where I saw groups of girls chatting and laughing, walking into classrooms and out of cafes.
In Kabul today, there are women in school and college, women at work, women as members of parliament, women as journalists, entrepreneurs, singers, actors. To be sure, across the countryside more conservative, not to say reactionary, practices hold sway. Still, the defeat of the Taliban set in motion processes that could, in time, make women less oppressed, less unequal, more able to feel part of a democratic and plural society. It is this movement that the apologists and advocates of a deal with the Taliban seek to suppress and deny.
Ramachandra Guha is the current holder of the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs, London School of Economics. The views expressed by the author are personal.