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Before the Taliban, Afghanistan was a pretty “normal” country, not the lawless wasteland many people describe it as today.

Today I’d like to share this fascinating and evocative photograph, taken in 1972 in Kabul. That’s right, Kabul, Afghanistan. There was a time when the sight of three young women  dressed in skirts and shirts, unaccompanied by any male relatives, would not have been unusual on the streets of the major cities of Afghanistan. Before the Taliban, there was a small, but significant minority of women in professions as varied medicine, research, and teaching. In fact, when the Taliban effectively put all the women in the country under house arrest, there was a crisis in education throughout the country because before then, the majority of teachers were women.

The Taliban era itself was, of course, unmitigated madness, but unfortunately, even after their deposition, their ideology and their influence has not receded. In March 2012, the country’s president, Hamid Karzai endorsed a “code of conduct” that he says is based on Islamic Sharia law [source]. Among the rules:

…women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices. Beating one’s wife is prohibited only if there is no “sharia-compliant reason,” …

Furthermore, it is apparently the official position of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that “women are secondary to men” [source].

What’s heartbreaking about all this is that the naive moral-relativistic cliche that Afghanistan “is and always has been a lawless land; it’s customs and traditions are its own and can never be changed” is patently false. Afghanistan has not always been a “broken 13th century county“. In the 60s and 70s,

“… there was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead.”

Returning to the photograph above, it saddens me to note that I know it will elicit negative reactions from many Muslims. It saddens me further to note that I am not talking about extremists or fundamentalists, but moderate Muslims of the sort that you are likely to meet if you live anywhere with a significant Muslim population. Their response can be summarized as follows: “What’s so great about women dressing in Western clothing? I wouldn’t want my daughter dressing like that. At least in this respect, the Taliban did something  good for that country.”

I’d like to explain my position to them. Firstly, I do not believe any style of clothing is really any better than any other style; and yes, I am aware that hundreds of thousands of women around the world choose to wear burqas in public. The point is not that women in skirts are inherently, automatically, better off than women in burqas. The point is that the women in that picture almost certainly chose to dress the way they did – they weren’t forced to dress that way. Even if we make the unrealistic assumption that “societal pressures” drove them to adhere to Western tastes, we can ask what the penalty would have been for any single woman to opt out – to choose to wear a burqa in those social circumstances. Almost certainly, it would not have involved being beaten, flogged, raped, stoned, shot, or having acid flung in her face. So not only did women in Afghanistan have more freedom in the 70s, they were also less surrounded by threats of grievous bodily harm.

Of course, one could ask, “Why should we give people the freedom to flout their religious obligations?” Well, those are deep and murky waters, and I choose to wade no further into them for now than to say – thank God for the separation of religion and governance.




  1. Wow! I had no idea Afghanistan was like this before the Taliban…its somehow inspires hope that a country that conservative was once progressive. But it’s also really scary because if a country can go from finding women in skirts walking alone normal to flogging them for not wearing a burqa, then unspeakable horrors can happen in any place at any time…

  2. When I was in Afghanistan, some of our interpreters who had grown up there spoke about the “golden age” of Afghanistan in the 70’s. One had dozens of pictures, which he was very proud of. But even they said the western-ish mentality of the time was limited to the large cities. I was far out in a very rural area, and have a hard time believing the villagers there ever embraced anything other than the traditional role and dress for women.

    Regarding the comment above that “unspeakable horrors can happen in any place and time”, I would strongly disagree. Certain horrors that occur in Afghanistan are not going to happen here. Nobody is going to poison little girls for going to school, and more importantly the larger society wouldn’t close ranks to protect anyone who tried to.

  3. By the way, I’ve carried a picture of the “pale blue dot” along with Sagan’s quote in my wallet since I was a teenager. The picture and quote have gone with me to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Helps keep things in perspective.

  4. Beautifully written, and a very interesting read my friend. 🙂

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