One of the most urgent questions raised by the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is whether the radical Islamist group will again impose draconian restrictions on women and girls. Great attention was paid to the statement by a spokesman that the Taliban would respect women’s rights within the framework of sharia, or Islamic law. What could that mean?
It’s a set of precepts rather than a code of law available for application. It’s composed of the principles of Islam, laid out mainly in the Koran and in the record of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Sharia is subject to the interpretation of jurists, clerics and politicians. The body of jurisprudence produced by Muslim scholars since Muhammad’s time is known as fiqh, meaning understanding, and is often spoken of interchangeably with sharia. Competing versions of what the Koran and Muhammad’s teachings mean for daily life have evolved over the centuries and continue to change. When in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban enforced the most extreme of interpretations, barring women from education and work and even from leaving home without a male escort, and requiring them to cover themselves from head to toe in public.