The Taliban Fight for Religious and Cultural Identity

CENTRAL ASIA, 17 Mar 2014

Mathilde Simon – TRANSCEND Media Service

Afghan Women as Symbols of Group Identity and Power Relations


This article studies the Taliban’s emphasis on women bodies as a symbol of their identity, which has been violated several times by foreign occupations imposing their own conception of human rights on Afghan culture. Using collective psychology and Basic Human Needs theory, it argues that the radicalization of their religious identity and the stress the Taliban put on women’s bodies and education is to an important extent a reaction to the development of a collective chosen trauma – developed during the occupations and the wars – to their religious and cultural identities.

I.                  Introduction

From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. From Kandahar in South-Western Afghanistan to Herat and then Kabul in 1996, they progressively took power over the country. In 2001, the Taliban administration fell, but since then the movement has re-grouped, which raises questions and apprehension concerning the post-2014 era, and NATO forces’ military withdrawal.

Taliban’s primary goal consisted of stabilizing and uniting a country that for decades had been in war. Many Afghans welcomed the Taliban at the beginning, seeing them as the only power able to bring peace. However, the immense majority of the people very quickly changed their minds, especially because of the Taliban’s extremely strict application of Sharia[i]. Under the Taliban, the same laws were imposed in 90% of the country, ignoring the multiethnic character of society.

Gender issues have become extremely important during the Taliban regime, as a symbol of their conception of Islam. An over-simplified opposition between the Taliban and the West, often promoted by the West, presents the Taliban as fundamentalists, and the West as advocates of the liberation of women, which has been used to justify the war in Afghanistan.

I argue in this paper that the Taliban have continued – after the British, the Soviets and King Amanullah[ii] – to put so much stress on women’s bodies because, to them, they symbolize Afghanistan’s identity and independence from foreign powers. I will be using psychoanalysis to explain why religious identity and its expression through women’s bodies constitute basic human needs for the Taliban.

II.               The violation of religious identity under the occupations of Afghanistan

Already under British occupation, and then at the beginning of the 20th century, under King Amanullah, numerous laws were enacted concerning women’s rights. Girls’ education was promoted, while wearing the veil, segregation, and forced marriage, were restricted. These reform attempts were very unwelcomed by a very secular Afghan population, especially in rural areas[iii] .

This continued during the Soviet occupation, which started in 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party obtained control over the country, and lasted until 1989. One of the ways the authorities manifested their power was by imposing their own laws on women. These laws explicitly aimed at restricting Islam, which was considered barbaric: “In 1978, the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan […] attempted to institute radical reforms affecting the rights and status of women. These reforms included the prohibition of a number of cultural practices with regards to marriage and family laws that were widely considered ‘Islamic’ within Afghan society”[iv]. This deeply violated many Afghan’s conception of their identity as Muslims, as “In the summer of 1978, a wave of Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan reportedly in part in response to the government’s use of force in the enforcement of its policy of compulsory education for women – a policy viewed by some as a source of dishonor to the family”[v].

By imposing their conception of women’s rights on Afghan society, the Soviets – after the British and King Amanullah – violently attacked what many considered a basic human need, namely the expression of Islamic and cultural-sacred norms. These early reforms established women’s rights as one of the major symbols of the occupant’s power over Afghan society. Fleeing to preserve their honor, many families abroad developed deep resentment, feelings of humiliation and of helplessness.

The decision to escape shows how vital cultural and religious identities were to these families, most – if not all  – of them Pashtuns. Volkan[vi] calls them “core identities” and defines them as “the sense of identity that such individuals are terrified of losing and are driven to replace”. Their violation “is intolerable – it is psychological death”[vii].

Core identities are part of Basic Human Needs[viii], which constitute irreducible and nonnegotiable essentials in human life[ix]. Therefore, by applying their own conception of basic human needs, the successive regimes that ruled Afghanistan until 1989 violated many Afghans’ identity needs. This made it impossible for these groups to keep living according to their principles and be loyal to their ancestors’ tradition, which explains their decision to run away from the country. These families went to refugee camps where a strong opposition to the foreign forces was developed. The opposition developed around the core identities that had been humiliated. Therefore, one of the numerous effects of the occupations of Afghanistan was to reinforce religious identity, as an effect of its negation by the occupier.

III.           The constitution of Taliban’s chosen trauma around women

The hypothesis that the Taliban imposed a very strict understanding of Islam on women as a way of recovering what had been violated over the past decades is only understandable if we develop the notion of chosen trauma.  As defined by Volkan, a chosen trauma is “the collective mental representation of an event that has caused a large group to face drastic common losses, to feel helpless and victimized by another group, and to share a humiliating injury”[x]. The chosen trauma is not only the event itself, but rather the way it develops through History. The numerous violation of Afghans’ basic identity needs during the occupations have been constituted as a chosen trauma, which has been passed on from one generation to the other in refugee camps and madrassas.

As the families who fled had no way to process the trauma, they developed what Volkan calls “reservoirs”[xi], passing their trauma on to the next generation. Feeling powerless, “the parent unconsciously assign[ed] to […] the child specific tasks of reparation that rightfully belong to the survivor: to reverse shame and humiliation, to turn passivity into activity, to tame the sense of aggression, and to mourn the losses associated with the trauma”[xii]. As these families fled together and gathered in the same refugee camps, a common story of the tragedy developed in their children’s minds.

These reservoirs opened after 1989 because of the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal, giving them hope to reconquer their ancestors’ humiliated identities.

IV.           The symbolism of women’s bodies in the Afghan context

In society’s collective unconscious, women constitute symbols of the groups’ reproduction. By carrying the future of the group in their belly when they are pregnant, women symbolize the reproduction of this group. When outsiders rape women, this unconsciously means that the group is no longer able to defend and preserve itself. Therefore, imposing laws on women, as the Soviets did, meant to many men that they could not preserve their identities anymore and constituted an immense threat to the future of their group. This illustrates Coomeraswamy’s theory that “a community’s honor, especially at times of conflict, often rests on the bodies of women […]. Women’s bodies become the battlefield, the point of communication between men”[xiii].

Once the reservoir opens, an expected manifestation of the chosen trauma consists of reacting to the violation of the symbol by re-imposing one’s own laws and identities. In the present case, the symbol of the chosen trauma is women’s rights in education and their bodies. Indeed, the Taliban issued edicts forbidding women and girls to go to school and to leave their houses without being accompanied by a close male relative. In addition, unless wearing burqa, they could not appear in public. As a consequence of these laws, a system of gender apartheid was imposed on the territories under Taliban rule[xiv].

This use of women as symbols of power and identity in Afghanistan has been possible only because of the extreme isolation of the Taliban from women while growing up in refugee camps. While living there, most of the future Taliban studied in madrassas, where a hard line form of Sunni Islam was taught. As Rashid writes: “the Taliban uncompromising attitude was […] shaped by their own internal political dynamic and the nature of their recruiting base. Their recruits – the orphans, the rootless, the lumen proletariat from the war and the refugee camps – had been bought up in a totally male society”[xv]. This upbringing isolated them from women’s feelings, and therefore from considering them as human beings. They easily came to consider women as abstract objects, making it easier to impose laws on them and seeing them as symbols rather than as human beings.

V.               Conclusion

The Taliban’s emphasis on protecting women’s bodies appears as a reaction to the chosen trauma developed during the occupations of their country. Reinforcing this chosen trauma has been made possible by historical circumstances, namely the formation of refugee camps and the spread of madrassas in Pakistan. According to psychoanalysis, their impositions of new laws on women symbolize a vital impulse to protect a country and identity that had eventually been won back through their military victories. With women obeying their laws, it signified to them that they had taken the power back, and that the country could finally be independent from foreign imposition, and get many of their Basic Human Needs eventually fulfilled.

This is very important when it comes to future policy making in the region. Indeed, this example shows that the imposition of laws, which the occupant considers as human rights, can easily lead to very damaging consequences, especially when those laws relate to the basic human needs that are core identities.


[i] Sharia consists in “the code of law derived from the Koran and from the teachings and example of Mohammed”. Farlex clipart collection. ©.2003-2012 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.

[ii] King Amanulla (1919-1929) led Afghanistan to independence from the United Kingdom. Based on Westerns models, he tried to modernize the country and conducted large social & political changes. However, this was stopped by a popular uprising, which eventually led him to abdicate.

[iii] Cortright, D. and Wall, K. (2012). “Afghan Women Speak; Enhancing Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan”. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, p. 11. Retrieved from:

[iv] Minakshi, D. (2006). “Taliban’s War on Women: Live Experiences of Afghan Women in Transit on Ethnicity and their Identity”. London, UK: London School of Economics & Political Science. Retrieved from:

[v] Idem

[vi] Volkan, V. (2004). “The Seven Threads of Large-Group Identity”. Blind Trust. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, 23-55.

[vii] Idem, p. 33.

[viii] Johan Galtung defines four classes of Basic Human Needs, namely “security needs”, “welfare needs”, “identity needs” and “freedom needs” (p. 303).

[ix] Galtung, J. (1990). “International Development in Human Perspective”. Conflict: Human Needs Theory. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, p. 303.

[x] Volkan, V. (2004). “The Seven Threads of Large-Group Identity”. Blind Trust. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, p. 47.

[xi] As defined by Volkan (2004), reservoir consists in “the end result of mostly unconscious psychological processes by which survivors deposit into their progeny’s core identities their own injured self-image” Volkan, V. (2004). “The Seven Threads of Large-Group Identity”, p. 48.

[xii] Volkan, V. (2004). “The Seven Threads of Large-Group Identity”. Blind Trust. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, p. 48-9.

[xiii] Coomeraswamy, R. (2010) « Women’s Leadership, Gender and Peace ». Gender and Peace. USA : Ford Foundation, 10–17

[xiv] Hanford, C. (2001). “Women’s lives under the Taliban”. Retrieved from:

[xv] Rachid, A. (2010), “A Vanished Gender: Women, Children and Taliban Culture”. Taliban (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 111.


Mathilde Simon: After studying political and social philosophy in Europe, both at the Sorbonne and at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I worked with women and migrants in Mexico and Colombia. I am now studying a Master of Arts in Peace building and Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training in the United States, focusing on collective psychology and identities in conflicts.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Mar 2014.

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