For twenty years the West, a coalition of Western countries, has tried to make Afghanistan a modern, civilized country and that seems to have failed so far: The Americans are withdrawing their troops and with them the European countries as well. NATO’s ISAF mission ends.
What do we actually mean by ‘civilization’? Civilization is reflected in how people in a society interact with each other. Which laws, rules, conventions or manners, which traditions apply and what is taboo. They are not eternal but temporary and changeable.
Also with us, but we also find that there are universal values that are worth pursuing and timeless. Like human rights. These rights originated from the spirit of humanism that developed in Europe from the late Middle Ages onwards as a harbinger of the Enlightenment, the idea that people can think and therefore can free themselves from their own ignorance.
It marked, as Karl Popper wrote, the transition from a tribal society (in which the tribe or clan determines the freedom of movement of the individual) to an open society in which the individual, vested with universal rights, is central. Afghan women – and girls – now rightly fear the repercussions of the Taliban reintroducing Sharia law and curtailing their rights.
In secular Western justice there is often quite a bit to criticize about the procedure – see the sluggishness that Peter R. de Vries brought to light – but in any case that justice is now practiced by both men and women. Religious justice – whether it be Christian, Islamic or Jewish – is a male affair. Something is not right there, very fundamentally. Whatever scripture exegetical asshole you are hanging on to it, I can’t see why half of the world’s population should be barred from practicing justice. Male privileges lead to arbitrariness towards women. Living under arbitrariness is living in fear. Not having to live in fear, without fear, is perhaps the most important aspect of the human condition, the state of being that every person needs for a dignified life.
However, I do want to make something a discharge for those Taliban men: They rightly see Western, cosmopolitan universalism as an attempt to end their civilization. A cultural imperialism.
How a civilization can change on its own, illustrates the story of Franca Viola, a Sicilian woman, that I came across by chance. Franca Viola sparked a national scandal in 1960 by reporting her rapist to the judicial authorities. She thereby violated the convention that a raped woman is dishonorable unless she is married after all, which could only be done if her rapist was willing to marry her because a man normally does not marry a dishonored woman. That was the way to ‘conquer’ a woman in 1960s Sicilian Italy. Franca was socially ostracized for her rebellion, but the perpetrator disappeared behind bars. This was inevitable because Italy was already fully immersed in modernity. Franca broke the spell.
The Taliban are medieval in their standards and values, but those Middle Ages have disappeared from European civilization not so long ago. I am from 1958. Franca is from 1948. She’s almost like a contemporary of mine. The fact that things are no longer like this is thanks to women raising their voices, but to be the first to raise your voice, that takes courage and we can only hope that Afghan women will also raise their voices because they do not see discrimination by Taliban men accept longer.