By Jawed Naqvi
09 Apr, 2009
Why does the image of barbarism in the case of the Taliban receive greater urgency and instil more palpable outrage than the scandalous happenings in Saudi Arabia, for example?
THE flogging of a young girl in Swat by the so-called good Taliban has outraged civil society in Pakistan and elsewhere. However, only last month, a 75-year-old Arab widow was reportedly handed a similar punishment by a Saudi court.
Khamisa Sawadi, a Syrian who was married to a Saudi, was sentenced to 40 lashes for ‘mingling’ with two young men who were not her immediate relatives.
The two men, including one who was Mrs Sawadi’s late husband’s nephew, were evidently bringing her bread. They were also found guilty and sentenced to prison terms and lashes.
Why do we look the other way instead of confronting our double standards? Why does the image of barbarism in the case of the Taliban receive greater urgency and instil more palpable outrage than the scandalous happenings in Saudi Arabia, for example? Talibanisation is a feared ideology and that is how it should be. But variants of Talibanisation elsewhere have failed to invoke matching collective outrage, often not even fetching an intellectual frown. Why?
Both incidents depict an ugly relic of feudalism that stalks Asia and beyond, never mind that we are in the 21st century. From the pronounced and institutionalised gender bias of Korean and Japanese societies to the brazen subjugation of women in the Islamic world across West Asia it has been an arbitrary and unequal relationship.
An Indian government minister recently described Hindu vigilantes who beat up women in a restaurant as Indian Taliban. A few editorials were written but that was that. The issue has not figured in any of the election manifestos that Indian parties have brought out. Of course, the barbaric underpinnings of a society are not always predicated on the degree of democracy or authoritarianism its practises or accepts. Adolf Hitler and Narendra Modi make classic examples of elected leaders who rode a crest of popularity among capitalists and working classes alike despite, or, as some would argue, because of, their pronounced social atavism. I once interviewed Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, the ‘laughing executioner’ of the Iranian revolution. He had dispatched scores of women to the firing squad simply because they wore jeans, make-up and so on. In his view, therefore, they qualified to be seen as prostitutes. And prostitutes in his religion corrupted people and were unworthy of being allowed to live peacefully.
Khalkhali’s trademark high-pitched laughter was as menacing as his beady eyes were intimidating. He had a penchant for bumping off fellow humans at will. ‘If the people I executed were to return again, I would shoot them again without a doubt,’ he told me. Fortunately, he was eased out over charges of financial bungling before more helpless people were strung up from the neck by the crane, his favourite method of snuffing out life.
As irony would have it Khalkhali was an ardent supporter of the so-called reforms in Iran, with which former President Mohammad Khatami is often associated. Khalkhali was a close confidante of Khatami, who, in turn, was the cynosure of the West.
So what would life be under the Taliban should Mr Richard Holbrooke or someone of his ilk decide to give them legitimacy? Would it be more hellish than living in some of the countries that are indulgently described by their western patrons as ‘moderate Muslims’, but which practise the same zealotry that the fanatics in Afghanistan and Pakistan are berated for? So much depends on who wields the political stick at a given moment.
The diplomatic fallout associated with the televised documentary of the execution of a Saudi princess in 1977 comes to mind. When the British government was unable to stop the telecast of The Death of a Princess, about a young woman executed for adultery, the Saudis threatened to tear up the order forms. The Indian government caved in when the Saudi monarch refused to participate in an important protocol event – visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s shrine – because it was against his religion to pay respects to a fellow human.
By that yardstick Gen Pervez Musharraf should come across as a bleeding-heart liberal because, ignoring his ideological differences with Gandhi’s worldview, he went to the memorial to offer floral tributes to him.
What goes for religious fanaticism elsewhere can easily mutate into caste bigotry in a country like India. Although caste-based zealotry goes largely unnoticed because of its prevalence in under-televised rural areas it works with the brutality associated elsewhere with honour killings and violence against women generally. For instance, we celebrate the romance of Lord Krishna with the milkmaids of Mathura and Vrindaban. Krishna must have lived in a liberal era, for my experience and that of former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Delhi, Mark Fineman, was different.
We drove to Barsana, the village of Krishna’s beautiful consort Radha, on a muggy afternoon. It was sometime in 1993-94. A kangaroo court in the village had just ordered the lynching of a Jat girl and two Jatav boys, one of them her lover and the other who had helped them elope. Jats are a dominant agrarian community straddling much of the region surrounding Delhi. Jatavs are low-caste Dalits who handle dead animals. Many of them became prosperous when the price of leather went up in the international markets.
By the time we reached Barsana the bodies of the three were being brought down from the banyan tree by which they were hanged. The bodies were then dumped into a raging pyre. No one called the police. And when they did show up the senior Jat village elders, who would otherwise celebrate Krishna’s unbridled love of Radha, had fled.
The Taliban are also accused of enforcing a strict dress code for women. They must wear a prescribed veil and can step out only with a male member of the family, one who meets the strict conditions of gaining access to her.
Now sample a few descriptive gems from the memoirs of India’s first President Dr Rajendra Prasad, which he wrote in Hindi. The former head of state was not allowed to see the face of his wife for the first several years he spent with her in his village in Bihar. A maid would accompany him to his wife’s room in the middle of the night, after everyone had gone to sleep.
The hurricane lamp would then be blown out. Before dawn, Dr Prasad had to slip back into his bed with the rest of the family. Can you imagine American tanks rolling through Indian villages one day, barking out orders on the loud-hailer that Indian men and women must henceforth stop observing purdah, which in the case of young women is fondly called ghunghat. Grading good and bad Taliban is to endorse the aphorism: my fanatic is better than yours. Yet the malaise is more widespread than we care to acknowledge.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org