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In August, 2021, when tens of thousands of government officials, interpreters, and Westernized élites fled Afghanistan following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, they were joined by nearly the entire foreign press corps. The Times evacuated not only its reporters but also its translators, cooks, and drivers. Amid one of the biggest international news events in two decades, many bureaus stood empty. Gone were the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the major networks. Victor Blue, a photographer who was in-country on assignment, was asked to flee with his colleagues—and declined. He was one of a handful of reporters who stayed behind, and he spent months travelling the country, exploring the dark corners of Taliban rule.
Much of the press saw U.S. troops as defending a pro-Western populace against a deeply unpopular Taliban insurgency. But Blue quickly realized that, in the insurgent heartlands, which lie in rural areas, the story was much more nuanced. To begin with, U.S.-occupied Afghanistan had been a divided realm; Afghans living in areas of relative calm tended to oppose the Taliban, but those living in war-racked regions often saw the Taliban as a better alternative to the corrupt U.S.-backed government. The Western media missed this story. Part of the reason was that the war-torn countryside had been difficult—though not impossible—for foreign reporters to access, so the scale of the crimes committed by U.S. forces and their allies went undocumented. This violence turned many rural Pashtun communities against the Americans; in some villages, nearly every adult had been involved, directly or indirectly, in the insurgency.
Yet there was a deeper reason that the West got Afghanistan so wrong: members of the Western press corps, who are predominantly liberal and secular, had difficulty accepting the fact that much of the country they had devoted years to covering was so deeply conservative and religious. It was the Taliban’s appearance of piety, more than anything else, that gave the insurgency the sheen of legitimacy in rural Pashtun areas. Today, as a government, the Taliban has provided almost no welfare services, no viable economic vision, and little by way of human rights—but it has established religious services that the rural population sees as vital. The most important of these is the Sharia court system.
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Last May, Blue teamed up with the filmmaker Ross McDonnell, who worked for more than five years in Afghanistan during the height of the war, to document a Sharia court in session. To my knowledge, outsiders have never before managed to film such proceedings; “Swift Justice” offers an unrivalled look at the heart of the Taliban’s Afghanistan—and, by extension, at what the West has failed to grasp about America’s longest war.
There are likely to be hundreds of Sharia courts around the country; the courthouse in “Swift Justice” is in the town of Musa Qala, in the rural Pashtun heartland’s Helmand province; during the occupation, it was one of the most heavily bombed corners of Afghanistan. As locals tell it, U.S. and allied forces killed extraordinary numbers of civilians, helping transform the area into a Taliban stronghold. The Musa Qala court has been running for years, operating even before the U.S. withdrawal, and appears to enjoy popular legitimacy. “I was surprised by how much faith people put in the decisions of the judges,” Blue told me. “People see them as good-faith brokers and as being imbued with religious authority.”
To Westerners, the term “Sharia law” may call to mind sword-wielding fanatics with Old Testament sensibilities. Traditionally, though, less than ten per cent of the Sharia—Arabic for “religious law”—relates to criminal injury like murder, rape, or theft. The rest concerns family and marital relations and prosaic matters of commercial transactions and ritual. Sharia courts have existed in Afghanistan for centuries, and during the U.S. occupation they formed one of three distinct legal systems. There were also the official courts of the U.S.-backed Afghan government that were notoriously corrupt and inefficient. Bribery was this system’s lubricant; murderers often walked free, while the innocent languished in prisons rife with torture and other abuses. And there was the tribal system, an informal and sometimes ad-hoc approach to dispute resolution based on rural Pashtun practices. Few rural Pashtuns miss the old Afghan government courts; instead, today the central tension is between tribal and religious law.
The most arresting moment of “Swift Justice” is when we meet Shafia, a twenty-five-year-old widow who is in court to resist her brother-in-law’s attempts to marry her. Her eyes are barely visible behind the netting of her burqa, but her voice is resounding: “These men are vultures,” she says. “They live to take others’ inheritance.” The subtext here is the contrast between the rules that govern marriage in tribal custom and those that do so under Sharia law. According to the Pashtun tribal codes, women are little more than family property. Under the practice of baad, families exchange women to settle blood feuds. Pashtun villages enforce a rigid gender segregation, confining women to the home in order to preserve the family’s honor. Women lack the right to divorce. They are barred from owning property. They are denied inheritance. They are not allowed to pray at a mosque. Adultery is illegal, on pain of death. A Pashtun proverb captures the ethos: “Women are but half-worth human beings.”
Under Sharia, women may own property and receive an inheritance. They may pray at the mosque. They have the right to divorce, upon which they are entitled to the equivalent of alimony. And, in Hanafism, the school of religious law followed by the Taliban, a woman’s consent is required for marriage. According to the Pashtun tribal tradition, though, women have no such right. A widow may be forcibly married to her late husband’s brother, sometimes as a second or third wife. In recent decades, it was not uncommon to hear of women serially married off to one brother after the next as each died in the conflict. As a result, many rural Pashtun women actually saw their lives improve following the imposition of Sharia law. Of course, even Sharia’s meagre rights are a far cry from those enjoyed by women in liberal systems—but such a system never existed in rural Pashtun areas, even during the U.S. occupation. Under the previous Afghan government, rural Pashtun women had many rights on paper, but few in practice. Blue and McDonnell asked Shafia’s father if she would have won her case under the U.S.-backed government. “Forget about it,” he told them. “Under the previous government, they would have deferred to Pashtun tribal custom.”
Women hoping to carve out more rights in Afghanistan might seek to exploit this tension between tribal and religious law. The Taliban government has banned girls from attending high school or university, and women from working outside the home. Yet nowhere in any standard interpretation of religious law does it state that women may not work or get an education. The Taliban’s harsh measures are in fact a reflection of rural Pashtun custom, and their greatest crime is imposing these values on a remarkably diverse country. In the Pashtun heartlands, women may rarely leave the house, but in other regions women work alongside men, and some even run shops or own property. For the Taliban brass, the tribal origin of these laws is a matter of embarrassment; they like to pretend that they govern according to Sharia alone. This might account for a growing sentiment among Afghan women I’ve spoken with, who want to learn their “rights under Islam” and pursue religious education. In far-flung communities, women have even gathered informally to discuss these matters. Afghanistan’s best hope might be these women, living in the sun-blanched mud villages of the countryside, learning to beat the Taliban at their own game. ♦