The Council of Ulema (religious leaders) of Afghanistan has come out with a high-profile five point declaration that, among other things, deals with and "strictly" requests for gender segregation in public places such as universities and work places. This might not seem significant at the first glance but the fact is that such a high-profile declaration is the first show of force and flexing of muscles by the Council of Ulema in quite a long time.
Moreover, this declaration has the explicit approval of President Hamid Karzai since it was taken to the 'court' of President Hamid Karzai and unveiled at the presidential palace. The president, after meeting with the Ulema dignitaries and referring to the declaration as "comprehensive", in heated speech, upheld the articles set out in the declaration and lauded the Ulema for their "competent leadership, wisdom and vigilance".
These moves and generous give and take has not been seen for quite a long time. What is more interesting is a heated support extended to this move by President Karzai and the kind of explicit approval that he has given to this declaration in spite of the president's previous positions on similar issues.
The five point declaration is radical in nature and the likes of it have been rare over the past one decade. In one its articles, the declaration "strictly" calls for segregation of males and females in public places such as universities and work places.
It also designates men above women citing a verse in Holy Quran that the declaration, by inference, offers as a proof that substantiates this position. In another part of the article, the Council of the Ulema declares as 'haram' travel of a woman without an accompanying man who must among her immediate relatives.
Other articles of the declaration are, however, less significant. They urge the Taliban and other insurgent groups to join the government peace process. What is very surprising is that the declaration also calls for the transfer of responsibilities for Bagram prison to the government of Afghanistan; a move that divulges the symbiotic relationship and the give-and-take between the government and the Council of Ulema.
This sort of renewed activism on the part of the Council of Ulema of Afghanistan is significant in the context of the ongoing efforts by the government to woo the Taliban. It also points to this reality that in today's Afghanistan, a clear-cut distinction needs to be made between the Taliban as one thing, the closet Taliban as another and Talibanism as an ever-present phenomenon that lies dormant in Afghan society.
The reaction of media, Afghan civil society members and the more liberal sections of Afghan society has largely been negative. On the whole, the declaration has worked as a rude awakening to those in Afghanistan who had begun to take for granted the newly-found liberty and relative freedom that women have come to enjoy.
For the nascent feminist-progressive movement in today's Afghanistan, the episode has been a flashback to the times bygone and a reminder of the shaky grounds on which Afghan liberal democracy of today stands.
The fact is that, in today's Afghanistan, there are still fertile grounds for resurgence and coming to surface of a kind of reading of Islam and Shariat that is more in tune with that of Taliban rather than the more progressive forces present in Afghan society.
Now that a forced reconciliation with Taliban is gradually turning into an over-arching priority for the political beneficiaries and benefactors, there is ample and growing room for maneuvering for such forces. The government of Afghanistan, in its present form, shape and leadership, will indeed be willing to forego some of the progressive gains of the past one decade for the supposedly more important objective of getting closer to Taliban and the armed opposition.
While such declarations cannot be regarded as serious and immediate dangers to the progressive gains of the past one decade, the fear is that it has signaled the government's willingness to forego them in the face of political expediency. The declaration had the explicit backing of the president and it does not bode well for the difficult times that are surely ahead of Afghanistan.
The government of Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai had surrendered to the more conservative forces of the country's religious right on previous occasions too. The Law on Personal Status of Shiites was proposed by the religious right and duly enacted by President Hamid Karzai. As the move was not considered to be politically damaging but was expedient at the time, the country's president did not have qualms about enacting it. It set a precedent that will show its consequences with the logjam of civil cases starting to arrive in Afghan courts.
The kind of activism demonstrated by the Council of Ulema and supported by the president can very well be the fountainhead of more such declarations and decrees to come in the future. It can very well see the start of a process that will see the screws tightening on the progressive gains of the past decade with women rights being among the early casualties.
On the wise and the astute, it cannot be lost that Afghanistan's impressive but bogus economic growth rates of the past years are largely bubbles waiting to burst with bitter consequences for millions of Afghans who have meager livelihoods at subsistence level. But are such achievements as women and minority rights also bubbles waiting to deflate? The times and indications do not bode well.
It is upon the country's fledgling progressive movements to broaden base, strengthen themselves and organize themselves more extensively at the grassroots level and at the base of Afghan society of today. This is, perhaps, the strongest bulwark against the mounting threats and will go a much longer way in instituting durable change from within. The government of President Hamid Karzai should perceive these calls as long-term imperatives without which Afghanistan would not be able to break away from the vicious cycle of under-development and reactionary resistance to progressive transformation.