I have got quite addicted to a Turkish television series called Muhtesem Yuzyil, titled ‘Magnificent Century’ in English. The wildly successful show, which aired in Turkey from 2011 to 2014, is a partly-fictionalised dramatisation of the family life of Suleiman the Magnificent—sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566—and his concubine (and eventually wife) Hurrem Sultana.
The show plays up the lure of the harem. As a modern-day viewer, who is both a feminist and a believer in the concept of the ‘natural rights of (hu)man’ and equality, I am predictably struck by the medieval concept of a slave and a concubine. Or the idea that all ‘women’—slave, concubine, queen or ‘free women’ are the property of men—owned by fathers and brothers, if unmarried, and husbands, after marriage.
The show skilfully delineates this textbook patriarchal notion in the narrative using the historically verifiable story of Alexandra, a Ruthenian (modern-day Ukraine) slave girl from the sultan’s harem, who rose to become Hurrem, his wife and queen. More than once as I watched the show, I thanked my lucky stars that I was born in the last leg of the 20th century, and I am an adult woman in the 21st century. Thank God the medieval age is long gone!
But events in south Asia in the last week have showed us that the medieval age exists in our own times, too. On August 15, as India celebrated its 75th Independence Day, the Afghans lost their independence, once again, to the Taliban militia that stormed Kabul as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the American troops fled. Twenty years after the ousting of Taliban from political power in Afghanistan they are back in a ‘not-so-new and not-so-improved’ avatar.
Twitter is flooded with on-ground updates from Kabul, and the usual both-sides blame games. All kinds of first-hand accounts are being circulated; children being returned from schools that remain shut, female students being disallowed from entering university campuses, shops and windows displaying pictures of female models being whitewashed over, and letters from local Taliban commandos directing residents of the cities they have captured to ‘give their girls’—unmarried girls above 15 and widows under the age of 45—in marriage to Taliban fighters.
Tweets suggest that young and educated Afghan women are burning their degree certificates and diplomas, so that they will not be targeted by Taliban fighters who are going door to door. Tweets by expat Afghans pleading for help to get their families out—one female lawmaker threatened in her own house by the Taliban. They said she will be punished. At the time of writing this, Taliban has given assurances of a general amnesty, and have said that women will not be victims.
But, even as the Taliban attempts an image makeover, their statements ring hollow in the face of the desperation of the Afghans. The scenes of panic and the terror of what is to come seem to augur the arrival of medieval despots and have refreshed memories of earlier Taliban brutalities and monstrosities.
Bizarrely though, there are some in India, celebrating the arrival of Taliban 2.0 as the establishment of Islamic justice or as a great anti-imperialist defeat. In truth, it is neither. The Afghans have been thrown to the wolves by the international community, in a sinisterly strategic and ill-thought out foreign policy fiasco, and their helplessness, fear and desperation are evident for the world to see.
What is less evident is the monster that lurks within us. We cannot become a world that justifies one kind of terror and brutality but condemns another based on our identity and ideological convenience. That is precisely a medieval position on principles and ethics. The natural rights of humans must be universal, and our humanitarian and ethical values should not be based on the identity of the oppressor or oppressed.
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.