Taliban and the Socio-Economics of Gender Relations

February 15, 2013

Douglass C. North, an economist often studied by undergraduate students of “Institutional Economics”, introduces into economic theory the effects of “institutions”, which are ways of perceiving and behaving that result from “mental models” and socio-economic history (social customs and myths, contracts between organizations). North criticizes “neoclassical” theory that only talks about “scarcity and hence competition” as an “institution-free theory” and offers his theory as a corrective that describes the “imperfect markets” in the real world where “constraints” structure all economic exchange. In an economic system with institutions, agents may appear that manipulate the system to their own advantage, or which have a “stake in the existing conditions” of an inefficient status quo, thereby resulting in overall paths of less-than-ideal efficiency.

What North shows in his approach is how the social and political spheres are linked inevitably with the economic sphere. This gives us an interesting way to approach the gender relations governing a society. The attack on Malala Yousafzai in Swat Valley became an international media event, accompanied with the perfunctory condemnation of the Taliban social order. But, from the perspective of the local Taliban sympathizers, the Taliban movement in the northern areas of Pakistan is an “anti-imperialist” resistance against a system that marginalized and deprived them. In her social theory, the Moroccan feminist Mernissi has portrayed the traditional Muslim social order in terms of a public-private divide, where women are identified with the private sphere and their encroachment in the public sphere is seen as threatening to the social order, creating fitna, or “social disorder” (1987: 31). It is a forced observance of this social order that the Taliban adhere to. This enforcement can be seen as part of the Taliban’s attempt to create an anti-Western spirit that is embodied not just in the political struggle of the men but also in their society’s economic behavior.

At the intersection of these two spheres of the “political” and the “social” where public and private mingle, we find not only ideology, but also business interests.  North mentions how “ideologies play a major role” in economic choices. The Taliban movement’s relegation of women to the private sphere can be seen ideologically as a rejection of the West, including the economic system which supports. As we know, women’s empowerment is one of the developmental goals of the United Nations. It is an important part of an interconnected web of goals that include economic growth and self-sufficiency. Empowerment of women has also been the focus of a lot of developmental work related literacy, health, population control, and micro-finance, the reason being the key role women play in societies as mothers, wives and teachers. They obviously constitute the consumer base of a wide range of domestic and women’s-only products in the market and are the main workforce in professions like nursing, gynaecology, education and hospitality. But in general, by their participation in the “public sphere”, women, when they enter the labor force, interact with the variables of “scarcity” and “competition”, which in neoclassical theory, drive change in a system of perfect markets.  In short, women’s empowerment is integral to the development of a modern economy.

Thus, women’s empowerment cannot be separated from its economic context. The economic conditions of the tribal North could not be more different. Development along a “productive path” (productive, at the very least, insofar as it achieves integration with the prevailing political system and its markets) was held back in Pakistan’s tribal North  by the informal constraints. In the marginalized north of Pakistan, the scarcity of economic opportunities and a culture of “honour” had always kept women from becoming an important part of the economy. While this was slowly changing with modernization (schools opened where female teachers got employment and girls studied, markets arose that dealt with women’s-only consumer goods), the Taliban stemmed this tide of change – they can be seen as North’s “interest group” with a stake in the “existing constraints”. of the status quo.

Taliban control of the region led to shutting down of not only schools for girls but also markets that traded in consumer items for women. Local markets, as well as schools, are part of the economy, and their shutting down can be viewed as the informal constraints enforced by the “interest group” Taliban, who have a political stake in the enforcement of their ideology in the social order.  In a resistance movement like the Taliban’s, the demands of “masculine” warfare override all other concerns. This is demonstrated by how the Taliban destroyed not just girls’ schools, but also boys’ schools. Hospitals and polio vaccinations were also targeted. In a way, the Taliban  extended the logic of the traditional public-private and banished from their public sphere not only women but also the “softer” issues of welfare. And so, we see that education and healthcare have both deteriorated under the reign of the Taliban. (Interesting sidenote: in this latter way at least, the Taliban are not that different from security states the world over which devote a maximmum of their resources to defense, to the detriment of education and healthcare.)

I mentioned the attack on Malala in the beginning. North mentions “opposing” interest groups which can bring change to the status quo. As news coverage has made clear, Malala Yousafzai’s father was himself an education activist and the owner of a chain of public schools, and therefore this family’s activism represents the conflicting interest of an opposing “interest group”, that is, of the Pakhtuns in progressive professions who have stakes in the modern economic system and want to participate in it. Malala’s zeal to go to school and her activism threatened the public-private divide that the Taliban sought to enforce in more than just one way: not only did she flout the no-school-for-girls rule, she also took her voice to the international media. The Taliban reacted by branding her a “spy” – and it is for this crime that she was attacked (not for going to school), as the Taliban statement made clear. Malala broke the public-private divide, and with international acclaim and support, she became a political force to be reckoned with.

In this context, we can better understand the attack on Malala Yousafzai and speculate about its aftermath. Yousafzai was shot because she was seen by the Taliban as encroaching the ‘man’s sphere’ of politics and warfare, and by shooting her, they wanted to get rid of a political nuisance and make an example of her. But the attack on her has done the opposite of what her attackers wished: her presence on the political sphere is now even more powerful, and has made her the face and the voice of the oppressed Pakhtuns who do not sympathize with Taliban goals.


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