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No Woman, No Cry?

In what way does the Taliban inflict major economic disadvantage on itself?

June 8, 2000

In what way does the Taliban inflict major economic disadvantage on itself?

After three years in power, the Taliban may finally be about to win Afghanistan’s long-running civil war. But winning the armed conflict is the easy part. The real challenge for the Taliban will be to rebuild the country’s economy, which has been ruined by more than two decades of war.

The list of Afghanistan’s economic problems is long. The country has suffered unsustainable losses of labor and capital. Food, clothing, housing and medical care are all inadequate. Trade is hindered by a poor infrastructure and lack of transportation. Agriculture — currently hit by severe droughts — still accounts for 53% of GDP.

On top of all this, the country is under stringent economic sanctions for its support of international terrorism. Countries like the United States, Russia, Tajikistan and China — who usually can’t agree on too many things — all are united in their opposition to the Taliban’s fundamentalism.

Tragically, the Taliban’s radical beliefs also put an end to any form of female participation in professional and public life. From one day to the other, working women were forced to leave their jobs, cover themselves in the traditional purka — and often ended up at home staring at walls. Depression was but one of the problems they had to cope with.

But given Afghanistan’s dismal economic performance, even the Taliban – though they would not admit to it – need to acknowledge that their archaic treatment of women makes an economic recovery unlikely. Shut off from outside investment, Afghanistan’s best chance for development may indeed be its relatively large pool of well-educated women.

Prior to the Civil War and Taliban control, especially in Kabul, the country’s capital, Afghani women were highly educated and employed: 50% of the students and 60% of the teachers at Kabul University were women, as were 70% of school teachers, 50% of civilian government workers, and 40% of all doctors in Kabul.

The way to raise the standard of living is to unlock a society’s productive potential. And as the U.S. economic example has shown, that often involves women joining the work force. The Taliban does exactly the opposite, as if it were actively trying to hinder development.

Even countries like Iran, not known for their liberal treatment of women, found out — admittedly by sheer necessity — that women are up the to job. After a long war with Iraq, women were recruited to drive trucks. Saudi Arabia, which is also hostile towards any form of gender equality, at least allows their women to drive — unthinkable in Afghanistan right now.

With so many things going against them, one can only hope that the Taliban leadership will realize that they have no alternative but to unlock the potential of their women. Who else is going to get the economy going? Certainly not all the men who spend much of their lives in religious schools.

Maybe the Internet — once it reaches Afghanistan — could play a role in bringing women into the economy. Working from home, they could not only contribute their brainpower — but also subvert the very system that oppresses them.