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THE society created by the Taliban in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 constantly evoked outrage and reactions of openmouthed disbelief in the Western press. Even the ayatollahs in Tehran issued a statement condemning the Taliban for defaming Islam by confusing it with medieval obscurantism. Since the Islamic Republic of Iran had long been called “medieval” itself by political opponents, this criticism of the Afghan government has a delicious irony. One key to comprehending the somewhat strident bewilderment that the Taliban provoked in many observers is their reconfiguration of the public and the private in their quest for a pure Islamic countermodernity. I use the phrase countermodernity rather than antimodernism because the Taliban adopted some key motifs from high modernism and depended on modern techniques for their power (the state, radio, mass spectacle, tank corps, and machine guns mounted on Toyotas). They put these tools, however, to purposes very different from the goals of the industrialized democracies, especially with regard to the private sphere. The public/private divide as drawn by modern liberalism affects everything from how power is attained and exercised to how women are treated. Did the Taliban strike outsiders as bizarre in part because they drew those lines very differently than most other contemporary societies? The German sociologist Jürgen Habermas argues that the divide between public and private is a feature of modernity. He SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) The Taliban, Women, and the Hegelian Private Sphere* JUAN R. I. COLE *Many thanks to Jamil Hanifi, Shah Hanifi, Najeeb Jan, Rob Gleave, and Jon Anderson for comments that much improved the final draft. reports that the word privat, derived from the Latin, can only be found in Germany from the late sixteenth century, and that it initially referred to someone who was not an officer of the state. He says that institutionally, “a public sphere in the sense of a separate realm distinguished from the private sphere cannot be shown to have existed in the feudal society of the High Middle Ages.” The power of the kings and aristocrats was “public,” not in the sense of a sphere of society but in that of a status position. The lord “displayed himself, presented himself as an embodiment of some sort of ‘higher’ power.” The arena in which power was represented to a wide audience was public, but was not characterized by public participation—it was public the way a stage play is, for a passive audience. The church was likewise “public” in this sense of open display of ritual and authority until proponents of the Enlightenment increasingly coded it as private from the eighteenth century forward (Habermas, 1993: 7, 11). Joan Landes draws attention to Habermas’s emphasis on “features of visibility, display and embodiment, that is, an “aura” that surrounded and endowed the lord’s concrete existence.” She argues that “staged publicity” was fundamental to absolutist society in the early modern nationstates . This re-presentative performance of kingly authority by a royal subject before an audience was not dependent on having a permanent location or on the development of a public sphere of communication (Landes, 1998: 138). Habermas’s use of a binary opposition between the “medieval” and “modernity” and his concentration on select areas of Western Europe create a teleological natural history of the public sphere that remains highly Eurocentric. His account obscures the ways in which power as representation, and religion as public, continued to characterize many societies in modernity. Rather than being conceived of as medieval throwbacks, such societies must be viewed as forms of alternative modernity. Even in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, Lenin’s vanguard theory allowed power to be exercised in the twentieth century by unelected bureaucrats, in part through massive military parades 772 SOCIAL RESEARCH and other spectacles. In Bolivia and Greece, religion remained public, even as it was privatized in Turkey and Mexico. What of the private sphere? Seyla Benhabib notes three meanings of the private sphere in modern political thought. She says, “first and foremost, privacy has been understood as the sphere of moral and religious conscience,” referring to the separation of religion and state and the granting to the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 771-808
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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