Covered In Glory: Hina Rabbani Khar In Kabul On Own Terms

Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs Hina Rabbani Khar traveled to Kabul without adhering to the Taliban’s dress code for women by dressing typically stylishly and covering only the back of her head with her dupatta leaving much of her hair visible

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), one of Pakistan’s governing parties, can be faulted on multiple counts. Its leadership continues to be the preserve of the Bhutto family, has faced serious corruption charges, and has done little to end the feudalist status quo in its stronghold of Sindh, the country’s second most populous province. But its commitment against the odds to inclusive, liberal values and women’s rights remain its redeeming factors. 

In 2014, American President Barack Obama famously hit the nail on the head when he noted: ‘You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.’ Pakistan has a long way to go on that score but PPP has significantly contributed to it. That women have occupied top positions in Pakistan has much to do with the PPP. 

The PPP gave the country its first woman Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1988), the first speaker of parliament Fehmida Mirza, (2008), and the first foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2011). Pakistan’s first batch of six women fighter pilots was trained when PPP was in power from 2008-2013 before their induction shortly after the party was voted out of the government. 

Sherry Rehman, who is among the more recognisable Pakistani women leaders and the current climate change minister, also belongs to the PPP. She was recently in the news for the role she played in setting the agenda at United Nations climate talks in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh (COP27). The Economist noted Pakistan is not often praised for its leadership and yet Rehman was ‘one of the star turns’ at COP27 as she helmed the G77+China negotiating group of developing countries. 

Rehman won ‘plaudits for shepherding a new deal to channel money from rich countries to poor ones that have suffered climate-related disasters.’ The Economist called this the ‘annual climate jamboree’s single main achievement.’ It noted Rehman, a former ambassador to the US who became the first woman Opposition leader in Pakistan’s Senate in 2018, is also known for her fights against killings in the name of honour and draconian blasphemy laws. 

Three of the five women ministers, including Rehman and Hina Rabbani Khar, in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government are from the PPP. Khar made a mark during her previous stint in the government. But she was relegated to PPP’s princeling Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s deputy in foreign affairs when the party returned to power as part of a multi-party coalition following Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster.

Hina Rabbani Khar’s current stint is set to be much shorter as elections are due in less than a year. But she has already covered herself in glory through her symbolic and momentous trip to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Khar made the trip without conforming to the Taliban’s dress code for women. She was dressed typically stylishly covering only the back of her head with her transparent dupatta as much of her hair was visible. 

Hina Rabbani Khar’s visit as the head of a delegation to Kabul with mostly male subordinates followed the Taliban’s ban on women and girls from visiting parks and gyms even if male chaperones accompanied them. 

Hina Rabbani Khar became the first Pakistani minister to travel to Kabul since the more centrist Shehbaz Sharif-led government took over in April. She made a statement through her trip as the Taliban continued to erase women from public life. Hina Rabbani Khar sat across the table to hold talks with the Taliban’s interim foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi-led all-male Afghan interlocutors. 

Prolonged Conflict; Woman At Receiving End

The optics were significant as the Taliban have failed to live up to their pledges and continued to chip away at the rights and freedoms of women and girls, who have been the worst sufferers in Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation plunged the country into turmoil over 40 years ago.

Hind Elhinnawy, who teaches at Nottingham Trent University, noted in a piece that women’s rights have over these years often been exploited for political gain packaged as a justification for war. ‘At times things have slightly improved for women, but most of the time their rights have significantly been violated.’

Women’s rights were guaranteed in the constitution adopted post-American invasion. The constitution allocated 25% of seats in parliament and provincial council and 30% of positions in civil services to women.

The Taliban returned to power in 2021 and have since gone back on Afghanistan’s commitment to implementing global conventions on women’s rights. They disbanded the women’s affairs ministry mandated to uphold their rights and ensure their empowerment. The Taliban replaced it with the so-called ministry for the ‘propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.’ 

There is no women representation in the Taliban’s interim government. The Taliban asked women to refrain from attending work until systems were put in place to ensure their safety. They have restricted access to education for women and girls until they are able to create a secure ‘learning environment’ for them. 

Women have been barred from travelling long distances without a male chaperone and forced to cover their faces in public. They have been asked to remain indoors except in cases of emergency. But the Afghan women have refused to take this lying down and have taken to the streets to assert their agency.

Whose Sharia?

All of this has been done in the name of the Taliban’s form of ‘sharia’, which has in reality little to do with religiosity. A large number of people in Afghanistan, a deeply religious country, in any case, and non-Pasthuns certainly do not identify with the Taliban’s brand of religiosity.

Pashtuns and other ethnic groups have long tussled for political power in Afghanistan. Non-Pashtuns howsoever religious are unlikely to support the Taliban and see their so-called sharia as just a tool for grabbing power. 

The 2001 American invasion titled the power balance in favour of non-Pahtuns and helped the Taliban eventually reclaim power by tapping into the resentment of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s single largest ethnic group.   

The Taliban’s literalist obsession with criminal law makes them even more abominable as this violates Islam’s basic mandate for egalitarianism based on kindness, mutual respect, and forgiveness. The Taliban’s style of governance can only cause disruption of social and economic lives, leading to instability, which makes their position untenable under the sharia as outlaws.

There is no place for the Taliban’s kangaroo courts as Islam mandates the creation of a society, where people do not need to commit punishable offenses. It seeks to first address the people’s needs before allowing punishments as a last resort. The punishments also have to be benign and merciful. 

The Taliban conflate pre-Islamic Pashtun tribal code Pashtunwali with sharia. The ideas drawn from Pashtunwali such as revenge, counter-revenge, denial of inheritance rights, confining them to homes, and denying women education are utterly un-Islamic.

Sharia literally means the ‘way’ in Arabic. Unlike what the Taliban and their ilk may want us to believe, it is not uniform and has been subjected to much debate. Sharia has varied meanings for different people. For some, it means the Quran, the Prophet’s way and manners, and early interpretations of divine sources. Sources of sharia have to be interpreted in different contexts and have differed based on the ideological and theological position of the interpreters. There have often been different outcomes from separate interpretations. 

The Quran is revered as divine but interpretations, the fiqh or jurisprudence is man-made. Muslims over centuries have interpreted divine sources differently depending on the contexts relevant to them. The fiqh is neither divine nor immutable and is amendable, unlike the Quran.

Often sharia is conflated with fiqh, which is actually a result of human reflection. Fiqh, which literally means understanding and has different schools, is human and hence fallible. But it is often wrongly projected as beyond change. 

Sharia is not even law as it has often been projected in the West. In a Washington Times piece in 2016, academic Asifa Quraishi-Landes explained most devout Muslims embracing sharia conceptually do not think of it as a substitute for civil law. She wrote sharia is not a book of statutes or judicial precedent a government has imposed.

Sharia is not a set of regulations adjudicated in court either. It is rather a body of Quran-based guidance that points Muslims toward living an Islamic life. ‘It doesn’t come from the state, and it doesn’t even come in one book or a single collection of rules,’ wrote Quraishi-Landes.

The Taliban are literal followers of fiqh, which was formulated centuries back, and belongs to another era. They are incompatible with the world we live in, making the Taliban primitive, outdated, and parochial. The Taliban are products of dogmatic adherence. They contradict Islam’s universal and inclusive spirit underlined in the Prophet Muhammad’s moral and ethical mandate for Muslims in his last sermon.

The Prophet reiterated his vision in the sermon and called all humans descendants of Adam and Eve. He declared there is no superiority ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, a white person over a black person, or of a black person over a white person.’ The Prophet called for treating others justly to ensure that no one would be unjust to his followers:

‘You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity… you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. … Treat women well and be kind to them…’

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s life-long teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia that the Taliban appear to be hell-bent on turning the clock back to.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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