If you think the West's culture wars are bad, try Afghanistan's

With the looming prospect of Taliban rule, Afghans have been embroiled in debates about race and gender

Security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, March 15, 2021. A bomb targeting a minibus in Afghanistan's capital exploded Monday wounding at least 15 civilians, police said, amid a surge in attacks in Kabul. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Powered by automated translation

If there is one saying that presages all of the violence that has plagued Afghanistan for decades, it is the seemingly innocuous one inscribed at the entrance to the Kabul Museum. The English version reads “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive”.

As if a metaphor for how often Western interpretations of Afghan realities miss the mark, it fails to capture fully what the Persian text above it says: “A nation stays alive when it keeps its culture and history alive.”

There is in Afghanistan one culture in which women are kept home from school and work, are required to wear a certain outfit and generally treated as second-class citizens. There is, in parallel, another in which they hold elected office, train as fighter pilots and are free to work as performing artists. There is one culture in which tribalism and ethnicity govern nearly all aspects of daily life, and another in which they simply do not.

The Taliban clings to one set of these cultures, and those who dread their return to power cling to the other. Each has a corresponding historical narrative that explains who society’s greatest villain is and the cognitive dissonance between them is immense. For so many lifetimes now, long and short, Afghanistan’s story has been one of a disjointed culture and a disfigured history, and of a nation dying in an effort to keep them alive.

The cultural chasm between Kabul and the Taliban is so vast that communication between them is agonising. During the peace talks in Doha over the past six months, it reportedly took weeks for delegates from both sides to look one another in the eye, or even agree on the shape of the conference table. Their readings of history are not only different, but contradictory. The Taliban still has not recognised that the government it is negotiating with is even legitimate. Meanwhile, since the talks started, more than 2,600 Afghans, excluding Taliban fighters, have been killed.

Now, the US government, recognising the failure of the talks and keen to pull its own soldiers out from Afghanistan, has opted to promote what it calls an “inclusive” government, in which the Taliban and politicians from the republic, along with several ethnic warlords, share power. “Inclusivity” in tomorrow’s Afghanistan will mean women running for office against former Taliban leaders by whose orders they were once beaten in the streets.

Hazara female basketball players take part in an event on International Women's Day in Bamiyan Province on March 8, 2021. / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR
Women have made a mark on Afghan sport in the past two decades. AFP

Five days ago, Shamila Kohestani, former captain of the Afghan national women’s football team, tweeted: “I will never forget being beaten on the street at age 12 by the Taliban because I was out shopping with my mother during prayer time.” Where is Ms Kohestani’s, or today’s 12 year old girls’, safe space in the newly inclusive Afghanistan?

How will the nation Ms Kohestani has helped to build stay alive while the Taliban’s culture stays alive?

But the Taliban by no means has a monopoly on oppressive culture in Afghanistan. Last week, Kabul’s education department imposed a ban on schoolgirls singing. It was supported by many Kabuli parents, but met on social media with outrage from other Afghans. The hashtag #IAmMySong went viral, attached to tweets of Afghan women recording themselves singing, and embarrassed government officials into rescinding the order.

As with culture wars elsewhere, those in Afghanistan are also heavily inflected with race, and what is thought of as progress instead creates awkward moments of regression. For many years now, Afghanistan’s fledgling republic has had fierce debates over national ID cards – specifically, the issue of listing one’s racial or ethnic identity on them. And that is because for decades before that, Afghanistan’s history has been articulated to its people in terms of ethnicity and race. One’s ethnicity dictates one’s place in the national story and whether one is entitled to more, or entitled to push for more.

In 2015, the Parliament decided to go with what it thought was the most progressive, unifying stance – simply leaving out ethnicity altogether and calling everyone “Afghan”. It may seem harmless enough – people from Afghanistan are Afghans, right? But the word “Afghan”, historically, is another term for Pashtuns, who are the dominant ethnic group in the country. The Afghan constitution recognises 13 other groups (“and others”), but that hasn’t shaken the sense among many Afghans that the very word they are forced to use to describe themselves is racialised. The pushback was one factor that caused President Ashraf Ghani, who is Pashtun, to overrule Parliament.

“Like bodies without souls” is how Ahmad Shakib Sanin, the head of the national council for the mobilisation of minorities, described the treatment of ethnic minorities this week. Ironically, however, he made that statement in support of a new decision by the Afghan National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA) to allow people to choose from not 14, but 71 ethnic groups to put on their IDs.

Many Afghans see the new selection as simply absurd, given that it includes branches of some ethnicities, and even just groups associated with certain geographic locations, sparking charges that the whole affair is a conspiracy to break up other ethnic groups and make Pashtuns seem even more populous.

In this picture taken on March 4, 2021, visitors walk at the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, in Bamiyan province. Afghanistan's giant Buddhas stood watch over the picturesque Bamiyan valley for centuries, surviving Mongol invasions and the harsh environment until the Taliban arrived with an apocalyptic worldview that did not care about one of the great wonders of antiquity. - TO GO WITH FOCUS 'AFGHANISTAN-RELIGION-HISTORY-TALIBAN-BUDDHA-STATUES' by USMAN SHARIFI
The Taliban famously destroyed statues of Buddhas in its war on the history of minority religions in Afghanistan. AFP

One of the NSIA’s detractors is Sarwar Danish, one of Afghanistan’s two vice presidents, who has criticised the list of ethnicities as being not scientific enough. This is the wrong conversation to have, for obvious reasons. At what point will the NSIA call people in to have genetic tests and get their faces measured in order to determine their ethnic status for what is ultimately a political exercise? At what point will Afghans truly become bodies without souls?

Incidentally, Mr Danish and I are technically from the same ethnic group. Like him, my father is a Hazara Afghan, though because my paternal grandmother is Tajik and my mother’s family is from the Indian subcontinent, I look completely different to any Afghan stereotype of a Hazara. So incomprehensible and embarrassing were my non-stereotypical facial features that when I was last in Kabul, I visited a Hazara family friend and he asked me to pretend I was not Hazara if other visitors called at the house.

Curiously, the NSIA’s list of 71 ethnicities also includes Uyghurs, most of whom arrived in Afghanistan from China only recently. They are not in the constitution, and yet now they are part of the nation and get ID cards like everyone else, turning upside down the notion that any one list of ethnicities defined Afghanistan to begin with.

That old history, in which Afghanistan was a struggle between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras “and others”, will also have to die if the nation is to stay alive. And it will die on its own, as the country’s evolving demographic complexity shows, of natural causes. And the national culture, whatever it really is, will change with it. Rather than talking about how to keep these things alive, conversations for Afghanistan's survival should be about the best way to let go of them.

Sulaiman Hakemy is opinion editor at The National