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Ahmed Rashid's Failure in Cross Cultural Communication
His American Audiences Were Shocked at His Report on the Taliban, Women and Burqas


[This is another excerpt from Dr. Kaukab Siddique's forthcoming book RETURN TO PAKISTAN. A librarian in Karachi showed interest in helping to get it published in Pakistan after the first excerpt was posted. The author is still looking for publishers in the U.S., U.K and Canada.]

For me, Ahmed Rashid, as epitomized in his book Taliban, represents the hegemonistic linkage between the Pakistani and American media elites and power structures. With his study of the Taliban as oppressors of women, Rashid provided the moral high ground the American elites need to "sell" their war to the American people. For Rashid, the Taliban were people who forced women into a position worse than that of the Jews under Hitler. They were, for him, religious bigots, who denied women basic human rights such as medical and health facilities, education and even fresh air. They wanted to make women stay cooped up in homes which were no less than their prisons. They imposed the burqa on women (which now is known all over the western world as the instrument of repression, owing to the power of western media).

Ahmed Rashid tried to denigrate the concept of Jihad by attempting to connect the repression of women with it. He wrote:

"In the madrassa milieu, control over women and their virtual exclusion was a powerful symbol of manhood and a reaffirmation of the students' commitment to jihad. Denying a role for women gave the Taliban a kind of false legitimacy amongst these elements." (Page 111) Rashid's main point is summed up thus: "So the oppression of women became a benchmark for the Taliban's Islamic radicalism, their aim to 'cleanse' society and to keep the morale of their troops high." (Ibid.)

Rashid was entirely off the mark but my purpose here is to discuss why the American people were deceived by his propaganda. For an understanding of the tragic deception which Rashid successfully introduced into the American understanding of the Taliban, let us first look at the American way of life.

I have lived in America for 33 years. I can say with assurance that most Americans do not mind semi-nudity. During the summer months, the beaches are covered with men, women, and children who are very scantily dressed. The acceptance of partial and even complete nudity is not something strange or abnormal for Americans. The process begins at a young age for both sexes. In dormitory showers and in locker rooms, especially after sports events, semi or complete nudity is not seen as something strange. Men take off all their clothes in front of other men for purposes of change of clothes or for showers. The same applies to women stripping in front of other women. Quite normal and decent people do this form of undressing.

In urinals, people have little privacy from others while relieving themselves. Only defecation takes place behind closed doors. In public, women and men dress in shorts and sleeveless shirts. Women who want to attract attention have to go to extreme forms of undress if they want to become famous, such as in the case of Madonna, because regular semi-nudity is seen as mundane and unremarkable.

I remember in 1974 an Islamic leader from Pakistan visited me and stayed overnight. The next day, he looked out the window and saw our neighbor, a woman wearing short shorts and a tiny top. She was bending down, tending to her flower beds. My visitor could not help wondering aloud if she was a prostitute. I had to explain to him that she was a housewife and a mother and such dress is quite common, especially in the summer. [This was in a conservative town in Canada.]

Thus there is huge cultural divide between America and Pakistan. As for Afghanistan, it is a land which requires considerable cultural acumen for a writer to make it understandable and available to Americans in any sensible way. Most Afghans would go into shock to know that there are "girlie" magazines in America where women not only willingly get themselves photographed in the nude but contort themselves into poses which would reveal the details of their private parts. Such magazines sell several million copies every month in the U.S.. Many American women, who are used to wearing bikinis and tiny shorts on the beaches, do not see any reason why they should not make money by taking off the little they wear while in a relaxed mood.

Recently a popular woman artist, La Toya, was on the Larry King Show, which is seen on CNN from coast to coast in America and overseas. King asked her about her having taken off all her clothes for a photograph which appeared in a pulpy "for men" magazine. She was quite happy about her photo. Then King mused about what her husband's response was to her nude photo being splashed in a widely read publication. She explained that during one of their visits to Israel, she had asked her husband about it and he was quite enthusiastic and encouraged her all the way. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in America, even male jealousy is no longer an obstacle in the way of a wife taking off her clothes for all to see.

Within that CONTEXT, Ahmed Rashid dropped his bombshell of Afghan women being forced to wear the "HEAD to TOE" burqa. His book had the desired effect. Americans went into culture shock. For them, the Taliban became the epitome of evil, cold blooded devils who had actually imprisoned half the population of Afghanistan.

The Taliban had no idea what Rashid was up to. They accepted his visits and allowed him to visit areas under their control. He never quoted even one Islamic woman in his book. Instead he quotes women who were obviously from the tiny westernized class of Afghanis (and only the ones from Kabul) who provided him his quotes. One woman Nasiba Gul, whom he describes as dressed in "a long skirt and high heels," told him: "The Taliban just want to trample women into the dust. No woman, not even the poorest or most conservative wants the Taliban to rule Afghanistan." (Page 110)

The problem with the thesis Rashid wanted to develop is that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar started his struggle to clean up Afghanistan when the father of a girl who had been raped by a warlord's people appealed to him for help. Omar could not bear the thought of a crime against a woman. Under the Taliban, there were no rapes from 1996 to 2001. The degradation of women which had become widespread during the civil war ended when the Taliban forces seized power.

So what is the real story about the segregation of women, especially in Kabul, and what is the role of the burqa in Afghanistan? If we understand what happened in Afghanistan, we can also understand the role of Ahmed Rashid and the tiny secularized ruling class of Pakistan.

2003-06-14 Sat 08:33ct