For women in many Muslim countries, change for the better is now the norm. In Turkey, an election last Sunday saw a record number of women (20%) elected to parliament. Women in Iran are in permanent protest by flouting rules on female head covering. In Saudi Arabia, women can now drive and travel more freely. Such trends may help explain why the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation is on a mission. As the collective voice of the Muslim world, the OIC wants to persuade the Taliban, who returned to power in Afghanistan 17 months ago, to ease off harsh rules on girls and women.
In March, the OIC decided to send a team of Islamic scholars to the country to discuss women’s rights to work and to an education beyond the sixth grade – both banned last year. Then in May, the prime minister of Qatar went to Kabul. The tiny Gulf kingdom is a longtime mediator for the Taliban in dealing with the international community. In addition, Islamic scholars at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University have called for the Taliban to reconsider their policies.
This religious outreach may have a better chance of success than recent diplomatic efforts by the United Nations. The U.N.’s insistence on the Taliban honoring the human rights of women is up against a faith that sees rights as divinely given, not humanly given. The Taliban’s Sunni school of theology is particularly strict on women’s behavior, even resulting in flogging for violations.
The OIC and other foreign Muslim groups have yet to reach the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is called “commander of the faithful.” Instead, they have appealed to moderates and young people within the Taliban, hoping they will challenge the rulings on women.
Within Afghanistan, a few Islamic scholars feel free enough to speak out. “Islam has allowed both men and women to learn,” Toryali Himat, a member of the Taliban, told The Associated Press. “Corrective criticism should be given and the Islamic emirate should think about this.” A survey this year of more than 2,000 Afghans found nearly 44% believe the Taliban will change because “the world is much more interconnected than before.” Close to a third have “absolutely no trust” in the Taliban.
Education Minister Sayed Habibullah Agha says the restrictions on girls’ education is only temporary. “At present, the condition is not suitable. When the ground is prepared, schools will open with the nation’s support and in line with decisions made by religious scholars,” he said. That leaves room for outside Islamic scholars to make their case. They need only point to the new freedoms now being enjoyed by millions of women in many Muslim countries.