[This article is part of a roundtable on "Ignoring the Local in Afghanistan." Click here to read the introduction to the roundtable and the other articles in this collection.]
Mass deprivation and transgression of women’s rights and the establishment of gender apartheid are often presented as a reflection of cultural and ideological norms and assumptions. This does not suggest that certain cultures are more prone to gender apartheid than others; rather, a state or actor opts to neglect the universality of the regime of rights and appropriates a cultural justification for its policies.
Viewing such a situation through the lens of cultural relativism counters the universality of human rights and presents culture, religion, and customs as bases for the entitlement of rights. In other words, cultural relativism restricts women’s rights as they apply to “their” ascriptive cultures or religions. This contribution considers the cases of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran and argues that relativism denies human rights by demarcating a false line between the universal and the local.
The Taliban, Iran, and Cultural Relativism
While practices of mainstream Muslims across the world defy the limitation of fundamental rights, authoritarian and in certain cases sultanistic regimes in the Muslim world have enforced a conservative form of Sharia law in an idiosyncratic manner. Of all of them, the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Ayatollahs in Iran share a common policy of subjugating and segregating women, to the extent that it constitutes what scholars such as Abdelfatah Amor, Ann Mayer, and Karima Bennoune have termed “gender apartheid.”
Moreover, Juan Cole has argued with respect to the first Taliban rule (1996-2001) and the Ayatollahs of Iran (1980s) that both regimes privatize women by redrawing the line between public and private and bringing medieval motifs to “the modern re-creation of power as representation” and exercising “power as spectacle.” The same logic prevails in the second, current phase of the Taliban, whose project of political Islam emphasizes the privatization of women.
As the Taliban regime is an ethno-religious group that relies both on Afghan ethno-nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, cultural relativists justify gender apartheid with reference to both Pashtun culture and Islam. Cultural relativism, in this case, is based both on local culture and transnational Islamic fundamentalism. Similarly, narrators and defenders of cultural relativism are both local and international.
For instance, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative in the United Nations, Munir Akram, said in a UN meeting in February 2023 that the Taliban’s restriction on women’s rights is rooted in Pashtun culture. He argued, “[T]he restrictions that have been put by the Afghan interim government flow not so much from a religious perspective as from a peculiar cultural perspective of the Pashtun culture, which requires women to be kept at home.”
A few months beforehand, in December 2022, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan made a similar argument in an OIC meeting: “[E]very society’s idea of human rights and women’s rights are different…If we are not sensitive to cultural norms of these people, even with stipends people in Afghanistan won’t send their girls to school.”
Such remarks by a neighboring country that has been accused of having a vested interest in supporting and preserving Taliban rule can be considered colonialism in that the use of cultural relativism by a foreign actor to justify the deprivation of a group’s rights is a mark of such a system. In other words, colonialism deprived the colonized of their right to self-determination based on relativist assumptions. As Maryam Namazie has argued, cultural relativism is a “racist phenomenon” as it legitimizes the deprivation of rights by segregating people in the same country based on religion. This can be observed in a few cases in Western democracies where Muslim asylum seekers and refugees are treated based on Sharia law. In some of these cases, this has led to ghettoization.
Though many secular nationalists in Afghanistan denounced the remarks from Pakistan, their narrative is also reductionist in that it portrays the Taliban exclusively as Pakistan’s proxy. Such an approach prevents a holistic perspective that considers the domestic sources of the Taliban’s conservative communalism. For instance, on 11 September 2022, the Taliban Minister of Education, Noorullah Munir, framed Taliban practices and beliefs as cultural during a visit to the southern province of Urozgan, arguing that residents do not want their daughters to attend school: “The culture is clear to everyone,” he said. Similarly, on 4 December 2022, Taliban Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim claimed that “education for women clash[es] with Islam and Afghan values.” One should not be surprised by the resemblance between the Taliban phrase “Afghan and Islamic values” and the Saudi Arabia Basic Law of Governance’s phrase “Arab-Islamic values,” as both regimes implement a patriarchal system of segregation and the subjugation of women.
Despite these domestic cultural arguments, it is clear that the Taliban’s gender apartheid is not simply due to culture. Rather, it stems from specific political forms and decisions. First, the Taliban constitute a heightened authoritarian regime that manifests features of sultanism. According to Weber, a sultanistic regime is a government in which domination “operates primarily on the basis of discretion.” Totalitarianism is distinguished from a sultanistic regime through the level of autonomy of its state institutions. A totalitarian regime rules through its institutions, but in a sultanistic regime state institutions cannot veto the leader’s decisions; they must simply obey. While certain Taliban figures disagree with some of the gender policies of the regime, they cannot challenge the discretion of the decision of Habitullah Akhunzada.
Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz argue the transition from a sultanistic regime to democracy is less likely to happen peacefully compared to other types of authoritarian regimes as the soft liners would be suppressed by the Sultan. If peaceful transfer to democracy is not an easy process, definitely addressing apartheid in a sultanist regime would also not be easy.
Second, Taliban apartheid is based on denial. For instance, in 1998 Said Shahidkhayl, the Taliban deputy minister of education, claimed that the Taliban have not only “recognized personhood and private autonomy of women” but also “improved women’s conditions.” Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s current spokesperson, claims the same. The group also obscures reality by justifying their policies as short-term measures to be reversed. Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban representative in Qatar, for instance, stated that provisions with respect to women are temporary and will be removed as soon as appropriate conditions are developed. As Ann Mayer has written, the authoritarian Muslim state resorts to “equivocations, obfuscations, and hypocrisy” with respect to women’s rights.
When in 2007 Saudi Arabia was challenged on its denial of the ban on women driving at the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) committee, the Saudi delegate claimed that “[t]here is no legal provision banning women from driving cars.” Many restrictions on women in Afghanistan and Iran are also not stipulated in statutory laws. This lack of formal provisions can be understood in two ways. First, some restrictions originate from customary provisions such as Mullahs’ and Ayatollahs’ fatwas that are not regularly documented. Second, the Taliban does not have bureaucratic capacity and is still unaccustomed to running the state through formal regulations and bureaucracy. Hence, it at times rules by its leader’s verbal decrees. For the same reason, their policies are not implemented in a consistent manner. Therefore, one should be conscious of not falling into the trap of Taliban equivocations. Instead, their denials should be exposed.
The public execution of violence against women is also a political exercise of power as a spectacle through which the Taliban affirm their authority. Like their first era in the 1990s, the second phase of the Taliban is engaging in public whippings and amputations, as well as the public display of corpses.
Scholars’ analyses of cultural relativism reveal the tensions in coming to terms with communal values versus individual autonomy and human rights, and ultimately demonstrate the danger in using culture and religion to justify gender apartheid.
Cultural Relativism and the Academy
Relativist scholars such as Alison Renteln advocate for ethical relativism, arguing that no truth assertion is acceptable if it is based on an abstract universal principle ignoring specific culture. Accordingly, she believes that a cross-cultural base for human rights increases the likelihood of its acceptability. On the contrary, refuting the relativist argument, Reza Afshari believes that relativism overemphasizes the cultural significance of state administration of societies in the Muslim world, while Islamist rule such as that of Khomeini is driven by political interest. According to Afshari, “[T]he unrealized Islamic expectations in Iran indicate the problems of a discourse that assumes cultural primacy for a legal foundation for human rights in the modern state.” Afshari argues that drawing a cultural foundation for human rights in a context where the state redefines culture and “subjects it to its modus operandi” is highly unlikely to ensure rights.
For Afshari, the Muslim cultural relativists who aim to amend the universal human rights scheme fall into two groups. The first includes those who want to Islamize modernity and human rights. They reject the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), labeling it as a Western value and instead offer a human rights scheme in accordance with Sharia. The second includes those interested in presenting an Islamic base for a modern human rights scheme. In other words, their project is the “modernization” of Islam.
The Islamic Emirate of the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Iran belong to the first group as they reject the regime of human rights by calling it Western. As Mayer has noted, the Taliban label Afghanistan’s women activists as “servile imitators of the West” and “agents of Western cultural imperialism” Conservative opponents of the Taliban who tend to draw from Islam for a rationale of women’s rights belong to the second group. However, the inability of the Muslim world to amend the gender apartheid policies of the Taliban and Iranian theocratic regimes’ persistent gender apartheid demonstrates that neither the Islamization of modernity nor the modernization of Islam has been able to address this problem.
This failure stems from a multiplicity of human rights schemes that are inherently paradoxical and at times contradictory. According to Mayer, “The relevant textual authorities are conflicting and scant.” For instance, the reconciliation of women’s Islamic rights to enjoy legal rights, to own property, and to do business while avoiding contact with men has not been resolved. Mayer’s research highlights that each Muslim country has developed its own scheme of human rights at the national level that it claims as Islamic though there is no consistency among the various schemes. What unifies them, according to Mayer, is their provision with respect to the regulation of women. Comparing the 1979 Iranian constitution, the 1978 Al-Azhar Drafted Constitution, the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), and the 1992 Saudi Basic Law of Governance, Mayer finds that none firmly acknowledge gender equality and instead contain provisions that confine women to the domestic sphere. A stark commonality between these laws and Taliban rhetoric is the use of the vague phrases, “within the framework of Sharia” or “principles of Sharia.”
Rejecting Cultural Relativism and Advocating for Women’s Rights
To end the gender apartheid regime, global human rights defenders and the international community must not only reject cultural relativism but should also use all available tools to end the Taliban’s exercise of power as spectacle. Working with the current campaigns for women’s rights in Afghanistan is critical.
In Afghanistan, the women’s movement has three forms: social movements, transnational networks, and professional organizations. The women’s social movement is a grassroots movement inside the country of students and women who previously worked as civil servants, teachers, librarians, and journalists; this group continuously organizes non-violent protests. Transnational networks are composed of former female politicians, parliamentarians, and civil society activists, as well as women human rights defenders, who are mainly in exile in the West. Finally, professional organizations are a small set of the remnants of republican Afghanistan enterprises, civic organizations, and educational institutions that are now partially underground. They support women by providing humanitarian support, access to the legal system, domestic violence shelters, and skill development.
These campaigns transcend the Muslim relativism stance and attempt to follow the universal human rights scheme. This is necessary, as advocating for the recognition of gender apartheid is based on international law and universal norms of human rights. In the words of the feminist scholar and sociologist Valentine Moghadam, “The women’s rights movement is not ‘identity movements’ but rather democratic and democratizing movements.”
At the same time, the Afghanistan women’s movement and other peaceful resistance show that human rights do not need a common moral foundation as the universalists call for. The mere fact that people claim their rights against Taliban oppression and subjugation proves the appeal of a human rights claim. In this regard, Michael Goodhart’s argument, which suggests that contestation over human rights should not be considered contestation over moral truth, rings true. The global appeal of human rights does not require a common moral foundation, and the fact that modern human rights norms are not incompatible with local values and cultures does not make them irrelevant to society. Rather, Goodhart argues that “human rights may appeal to people enduring subjection because of their transformative potential, both of which depend on compatibility with oppressive social arrangements and the conceptions of dignity that suffuse and legitimate them.”
 Bennoune, Karima. 2022. “The International Obligation to Counter Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 54 (1).
 Cole, Juan. 2003. “The Taliban, Women, and the Hegelian Private Sphere,” Social Research 70 (3): 777.
 Article 10 of Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law of Governance (1992) states: “The State shall aspire to promote family bonds and Arab-Islamic values.”
 Stepan, Alfred and Juan Linz. 2013. “Democratization Theory and The Arab Spring,” Journal of Democracy 24 (2): 26-27.
 Cole. 2003, 796.
 Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. 2013. Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. (Boulder: Westview Press), 99.
 Mayer. 2013, 124.
 Afshari, Reza. 1994. “An Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 16 (2): 247.
 Afshari. 1994, 250.
 Mayer. 2013, 102.
 Mayer. 2013, 101.
 Moghadam, Valentine M. 2013. “What is Democracy? Promises and Perils of the Arab Spring,” Current Sociology 61(4): 396.
 Goodhart, Michael. 2018. “Constructing Dignity: Human Rights as a Praxis of Egalitarian Freedom,” Journal of Human Rights 17 (4): 412.