What is Shariah? And how have Afghan women fared under the Taliban?


(NEW YORK) — The Taliban, an extremist militant group, has taken over Afghanistan’s capital as U.S. troops have withdrawn from much of the country.

The group has said it will rule the country based on Shariah, or Islamic law, and many Afghan nationals have said they fear that the Taliban will reimplement the harsh interpretation seen when the group last ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban previously has imposed harsh penalties, including death sentences, for infractions linked to adultery, blasphemy, non-compliance with dress codes, working with the U.S. government and more.

Abed Awad, a lawyer and Shariah law expert, said that the Taliban’s use of Shariah, or “Islamic law” to describe their legal system has led to a misunderstanding of the religious practice.

“What you see in the news is the politicization of Shariah, looking at it only as a movement for political elections or for government,” Awad said. “People miss this really beautiful moral and ethical framework that is on a Muslim to conduct his daily affairs.”

What is Shariah?
Shariah is the moral guide many Muslims follow that operates based on the teaching of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, according to the Middle East Institute. Shariah helps Muslims in everyday decision making, guiding people in interpersonal conflicts, responsibilities, health-related and financial decisions.

“It guides us to be righteous humans, to be good neighbors, compassionate mothers, providing fathers, loyal spouses, protective parents, care for the elderly,” Awad said. “That’s what this really means to 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.”

For example, Awad said, some Muslim women wear hijabs and some don’t — both groups interpret the principle of modesty differently.

The teachings of the sacred texts, Hadith and Sunna, often supplement Shariah. Hadith is a collection of writings about the Prophet Muhammed’s life and Sunna is the collection of practices, deeds, words and actions. These also help guide many Muslims in their moral choices.

Awad said that the outcome of Shariah is “Fiqh,” which means “understanding” in Arabic. It refers to the moral and ethical understanding that is gained from Shariah — the rules that one sets for themselves based on the Islamic guidance.

But there isn’t a single understanding of Shariah, according to Awad.

Many Islamic researchers and experts have said that the Taliban’s interpretation is an extremist interpretation, and that it’s implemented as a strict legal system instead of a moral code for the individual.

“They use Shariah as a weapon to give them some legitimacy,” Awad said. By claiming that their strict, violent legal system is based on religious grounds, Awad said it’s seemingly used as justification.

How has the Taliban implemented Shariah in the past?

During Taliban rule in the ’90s, the group enforced harsh, dangerous interpretations of Shariah as law, experts said.

“It was a very brutal society,” said Elizabeth Neumann, an ABC News contributor and former U.S. homeland security official. “That was their way of maintaining control. If you stepped out of line — whatever the rules were — you were likely to be executed or stoned or abused in some way.”

Neumann said people accused of violating “Islamic law” could be stoned to death, have their hands cut off or subject to a public execution.

It’s unclear exactly how many people have been killed or maimed by the Taliban for perceived violations.

Many Afghan nationals currently trying to escape are afraid of what a return to power could mean for those who spoke out against the Taliban, or those who aided the Afghan and U.S. governments.

According to United Nations Assistance Mission In Afghanistan, which documents civilian casualties, the Taliban is responsible for 39% of 5,183 civilian casualties so far in 2021.

The U.S. had planned to completely withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, but President Joe Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that the deadline might be extended until every American is out of the country.

How does this affect women’s rights in Afghanistan?

A member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, Enamullah Samangani, said that the Taliban will provide women with the “environment to work and study” and that women will be present in their government from now on.

Taliban officials have sworn to continue to honor women’s rights “according to Islamic law,” but many Afghan women fear what actually will happen, according to refugees with family back in Afghanistan.

“They claim they are changing, but I know they are not,” said an Afghan ex-refugee named Shabnam, who could only share her first name because she feared for her family’s safety in Afghanistan. “They are just waiting for the U.S. troops to get out of the country.”

She said the Taliban has yet to show any signs of changing.

More than 18 million women live in Afghanistan, making up roughly half the population, according to data compiled by the World Bank, and the majority are under the age of 35.

Shabnam said many women in the country fear that the Taliban will revert to their oppressive tactics seen in the 1990s — keeping women at home, not letting them work or attend school, forcing them to wear burqas from head to toe, forcing them to marry and harshly punishing those who don’t comply.

“​​In the 1990s, when they came, I was a little kid. I was 13 years old or so, but I still remember at that time, it was a nightmare for me,” Shabnam said. “We had all these woman activists, human rights activists in Afghanistan before the Taliban came. … When the Taliban came, everybody was silenced.”

“You weren’t even allowed to leave the household without a male relative escorting you, as a woman,” Neumann said. However, since the Taliban was ousted from power in the majority of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, there have been steps taken toward equality.

“Girls have been going to school, women have been able to go to advanced universities and start careers, and be able to have freedoms,” Neumann added.

Because of this — and the Taliban’s use of the term “Islamic law” to describe its harsh rules, restrictions and policies — Awad said the misunderstanding around Shariah by people in the West has fueled Islamophobia and xenophobia.

“[People think] the idea is a totalitarian movement, that Shariah is a movement coming to take over America,” Awad said. “Shariah covers everything from the way we eat, how we treat animals, how we protect the environment, our obligation to share our wealth with the indigent and the poor. … It’s a very personal lifestyle.”

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