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Taliban affirms that stoning will be punishment for adulterers — especially women

The Taliban has a history of supporting the use of stoning as a punishment for "moral crimes" — reiterated in a statement this year by their supreme leader. Above: In 2015, Afghan Solidarity members gather in Kabul to protest Taliban militants who stoned an Afghan woman to death in the Taliban-controlled area outside Firozkoh, the capital of central Ghor province. She was accused of adultery.
Wakil Kohsar
/
AFP via Getty Images
The Taliban has a history of supporting the use of stoning as a punishment for "moral crimes" — reiterated in a statement this year by their supreme leader. Above: In 2015, Afghan Solidarity members gather in Kabul to protest Taliban militants who stoned an Afghan woman to death in the Taliban-controlled area outside Firozkoh, the capital of central Ghor province. She was accused of adultery.

"We will flog the women ... we will stone them to death in public [for crimes]," said Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban's supreme leader, in an audio message issued on March 24. .

Akhundzada – who hasn't been seen in public in a decade – reiterated the group's previous stance on public floggings and stonings, particularly against women.

The audio statement, broadcast on Afghanistan's state radio and television networks, appeared to be directed at the Western and democratic governments that frequently criticize Taliban policies. "You may call it a violation of women's rights when we publicly stone or flog them for committing adultery because they conflict with your democratic principles... [But] I represent Allah, and you represent Satan," Akhundzada said.

The statement raises two questions: Is there any basis for this interpretation of Islamic law?

And does it indicate that the Taliban has been – or will begin – administering this consequence to adulterers, in particular women?

A controversial topic

The call for stoning as punishment in Islam is controversial and contested by scholars, Sarah Eltantawi, associate professor of modern Islam in the Department of Theology at Fordham University, told NPR.

"It is not clear-cut," she says. "There are a lot of Muslim authorities that actually for all intents and purposes rule out stoning as a punishment altogether, because the Quran does not mention the stoning punishment at all. The only mention in the Quran is of symbolically stoning Satan," she explains.

Eltantawi added that while stoning as a punishment is mentioned in the Hadiths — which are the records of the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammad that are believed to guide Islamic way of life – the conditions to prosecute for a moral crime like adultery requires "four sane Muslim male witnesses of actual penetration. And as the legal scholars put it, with the precision of a pen in an ink pot."

As for the singling out of women in the Taliban message, Eltantawi says, "There is absolutely no way to justify that Islamically. There is no possible reading of the Quran, of Islamic law, of any school of law that singles out women for this punishment whatsoever."

There are different perspectives on the history of stoning. "Stoning is an actual punishment for adultery. This is a historical fact," says Abdullah Ali, scholar of Islamic law at Zaytuna College, Berkeley, California. He says the words and actions of the prophet Mohammad – a body of work known as the Sunnah – show it was practiced within the prophet's own lifetime.

But like Eltantawi, he says, the burden of proving the act is almost impossible: four upright men witnessing the act of penetration. And if they did witness it, says Ali, "that means this had to be such a public event that that it was so egregious that something had to be had to be done about it."

Ali says that the crime was so difficult to prove that most of the people punished for the crime of adultery during the time of the prophet, confessed to it themselves.

"In a society where there is not much public indecency, then there's no reason to imagine that it would be possible for [stoning as a punishment for adultery] to occur unless people are spying on other people and that itself is haram," Ali says – a term that means forbidden by Islamic law. He also notes that Islam does not sanction the invasion of people's privacy.

Ali and Eltantawi both stress that since religious leaders believe it would be fairly difficult to make a conviction, the law has another purpose. "So [Islamic scholars] think that this punishment originated, as many things in Islamic law, as a deterrent to maintain public morality," she says.

Ali says, "The fundamental goal of Islamic law is to manage society with balance to help the human being to form into a virtuous person. And of course, by extension, society becomes a virtuous society."

Eltantawi urges Muslim countries to reprimand the Taliban for their interpretation, saying that their supreme commander's comments represent an insult to Islamic law.

Does stoning still take place?

The Taliban is not the only governing body that has endorsed stoning. In recent years, some countries have in recent years endorsed stoning as a punishment – Iran, Sudan and Nigeria, for example. Nigeria and Sudan, which both have Islamic law as a component of their justice system, have prescribed stoning as punishment for adultery and homosexuality in the last two years, according to reports in Reuters and the Guardian.

Has the Taliban in fact stoned women to death? And what does this March 24 statement portend?

According to several reports in Afghan news websites like Etilaatroz as well as women's media outlets like Rukhshana Media, the Taliban have frequently conducted stonings of men and women accused of adultery across Afghanistan.

In astatement issued last year, the Taliban's deputy of Supreme Court, Abdul Malik Haqqani, said that since taking over, the court has issued, among other punishments, 37 sentences of stoning, while four convicts were buried alive in a wall.

What makes Akhundzada's latest statement worrisome for activists watching Afghanistan is that he singled out women as future targets of these punishments. And they note that there no longer exists a functioning judiciary system where women can defend themselves.

"Just two and a half years ago, we diligently prosecuted thousands of cases each year involving violations of women's rights," says Najia Mahmodi, who was a chief prosecutor on elimination of violence against women at the Attorney General's Office of Afghanistan. "However, since the Taliban takeover, the entire legal system of Afghanistan has collapsed."

"The absence of a functional legal framework in Afghanistan undermines the rule of law and access to justice for all individuals, but women in particular are at risk in this scenario, as the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law often leads to such discriminatory ways that can be used against women," she says.

If someone were to falsely accuse a woman of, say, adultery, she explains, there isn't any institution or body where she can seek justice – or any lawyers who can defend her since female lawyers are no longer permitted to work.

Since taking over Afghanistan in August 2021, the fundamentalist group has not only introduced many restrictions on women's rights and freedoms but also suspended the constitution, which has sections to protect women, as well as laws against gender-based violence.

Samira Hamidi, a senior campaigner at Amnesty International, recalls that in the past, Afghan women who faced false accusations or were threatened by gender-based or domestic violence could appeal to a number of institutions: the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Elimination of Violence against Women units in the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice, the office of the Attorney General.

"They were providing services and spaces to support and protect women from different forms of violence and discrimination. However, these services do not exist any more," she says.

Currently, every Taliban judge makes his own interpretations of Islamic law for each case – although religious scholars regularly contest their rulings.

In an article in the Euro News on April 3, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League, wrote that the Taliban's policies "that hinges on their purported adherence to Islamic law" are "based on a fundamentally flawed, selective and extreme interpretation of Islamic texts."

Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General, criticized the statement as "disappointing" in a press briefing on March 25. Haq called for the Taliban to ease restrictions on women: "It's extremely disheartening ... we have called for those edicts to be revoked and we will continue to pressure upon that to push for the equal rights of women in Afghanistan and indeed in all countries."

NPR reached out to the Taliban for comment but they did not respond prior to publication.

For one former judge in Afghanistan, the comments from the Taliban supreme leader had a very personal meaning.

M.B. asked to be identified only by her initials, fearing a Taliban backlash. She recalls how as a girl she watched the public flogging of a woman under the last Taliban regime in the 1990s. That experience inspired her to pursue a career in law in the justice system built after the fall of that earlier Taliban regime.

After the takeover, M.B., like her colleagues, lost her vocation when the Taliban suspended the constitution and forbade women from working in the judiciary. "I think about the stoning in the '90s and it feels now like nothing has changed," she tells NPR, the sadness evident in her voice.

The Taliban's interpretations of the Islamic law are "misogynist and baseless," says M.B. "Nevertheless, they have been implementing these punishments increasingly in the last two years" – referring to stonings, floggings, amputations and burying people alive. "This is the worst period, not only in the history of Afghanistan," she says, "but for all humanity."

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ruchi Kumar