The Struggle for Emancipation: Dialogue between Reformist Women and Progressive Mullahs

The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization launched its new project titled ” The Struggle for Emancipation: Dialogue between Reformist Women and Progressive Mullahs” on January 3, 2019.
The confrontation between mullahs and women’s issues have often led to broader conflict between liberal and conservative forces. The crux of this project is to prevent the emergence of such conflict and to transform the conflictual forces into a potential for social coexistence. The project intends to bring about a number of important changes that would have longer-term impact on the conditions of Afghan women’s lives, the prospects for future growth, and development.
Improvement in women’s condition has been one of the key characteristics of post-Taliban Afghan democratic order. The achievements, indeed, have cut across critical fields, ranging from legislative to educational, economic, social and political developments. As warned well in advance by a broad array of actors, most principal, the human rights and civil society activists, the security transition from international military forces to Afghan security forces challenged if not reversed to an extent, women’s rights achievements. Dramatic increase in violence against women by the insurgent groups, and by an emboldened religious conservative groups, have been most noticeable impacts of security transition on women.
Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO) implemented a grassroots level project on women in 2015 through engaging Afghan men, the principal agents of violence against women: “Women in the Eyes of Men: Tackling the Structural Women’s Rights Problem in Afghanistan”. The project focused on four major structures and variables: the family, religious establishments, public spaces, and customs and traditions. All these institutions have got masculine character, tacitly entrenching and legitimating the control of men over women. The project revealed that amongst these four institutions and structures, the religious establishment had greater influence constraining women, legitimizing physical control of men over women and in many cases sanctioning violence and abuses against them. It also revealed that the religious institution was almost exclusively controlled and administered by men. And religious establishment has the largest network in the form of mosques, madrasas, and religious centers and massively influence almost every aspect of social life in the country.
The project recommended engagement with the religious forces to challenge abuses and violence against women. One of the best ways to influence the behavior of the religious forces is women’s direct engagement with Mullahs, the most visible agents of religious establishment on the ground. The project revealed that Mullahs could broadly be divided into two categories when it comes to women’s rights: The Progressive Mullahs and the Hardline Mullahs. The Hardline Mullahs believe in strict segregation of women from men in almost all areas, from education to work and the marketplace. The Hardline Mullahs largely confine women to the family environment. By contrast, the Progressive Mullahs, as the project revealed, were supportive of women’s presence in education, in the marketplace and in the public sphere. The Progressive Mullahs, however, believed that women must comply with certain religious rules and customary practices when they decide to play a role outside the family environment.
This is where the current project aims to intervene to assuage and mobilize the support of the Progressive Mullahs in favor of women’s rights, and thereby influence the hardliners and the broader behavior of the Afghan society. The project is unprecedented as it proposes substantive engagement between women and the Mullahs.
Polarization is a methodology used to deescalate tension and moderate behavior in conflictual environment between two groups that are located at the two end of a spectrum. Formation of homogeneous/non-polarized groups where members of the same platform organize themselves, their thoughts, identify the moderating and compromise nodes and project the behavior of the opposite group, precedes the formation of heterogeneous and polarized groups. Amidst sharp disagreements, the methodology aims to identify the middle grounds to encourage moderation and mutual cooperation.
Polarization, experimented successfully in other contexts where hostile social forces diametrically oppose and constrain each other, will be applied in the context of this project to bring the Progressive Mullahs, representatives of a conservative institution, and the religious establishment to a constructive engagement and dialogue with women. It is certain that at the end of the day control, management, and elimination of violence against women could not be achieved without securing the cooperation and altering the attitude, behavior, and views of the religious forces and institutions in Afghanistan. This is what the current project strategically aims to achieve.
The project is expected to bear significant impacts in the level of Afghan society. The following are some of the key impacts of the project:
A) Since the project involves the establishment of structured dialogue and partnership between women and the Mullahs, Reformist Women and Progressive Mullahs, two forces that have been at loggerhead with each other and often have contentious relationships, it will lead to decreased potential for social conflict and help create greater social harmony, reconciliation and solidarity.
B) Women could be an important source of development, as elsewhere, in Afghanistan. The wrong approach of the Mullahs, which parochially focuses on physical control and isolation of women, has taken this opportunity away. This project will help mullahs transition from a physical control approach on women to promoting women as independent agents for decreasing their vulnerabilities. A transformation in the approach of religious forces with respect to women will unleash women’s developmental potential, impacting the pace and quality of development in Afghanistan.
C) Religious forces have been both creating the conditions and legitimizing the application of violence against women. Dialogue and partnership between women and the Mullahs will help mitigate the conditions and challenge the religious legitimacy of violence against women. Changed conditions and context and the de-legitimization of violence against women will lead to a less violence-tainted and less violence prone Afghan society.
D) Religious forces and actors have institutionalized unequal relationship between men and women and have portrayed women as inferior being and weaker social actors permanently in need of male safeguarding and protection. The project which is predicated upon partnership between women and the Mullahs will challenge the principle of this unequal relationship, for women to emerge as equal and independent agents and actor. The impact of this changed relationship will be a society characterized by greater social equality.
E) Reduces and prevents the potential for conflict between women and the mullahs in societal level. The mullah-women relationship as two social groups are always conflictual. This project changes the conflictual modality of this relationship into peaceful one between two important social forces, the mullahs and the women.

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