Friday Puzzler

Friday Puzzler: Why Support the Taliban?

By Barbara F. Walter

2005 portrait of a woman in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. UN photo by Evan Schneider.

2005 portrait of a woman in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. UN photo by Evan Schneider.

Madiha Afzal, an economist at the University of Maryland, has conducted a fascinating public opinion survey in Pakistan. She found that uneducated women were much more likely to support the Taliban than equally uneducated men, and that while women’s support for the Taliban decreased as they became more educated, men’s increased.

So today’s puzzler is this: How do you explain these two surprising findings?


Answer to last week’s puzzler:

Last week I asked why any government would choose to warn their enemy via Twitter, as the Netanyahu government did during the recent fighting in Gaza.

Whenever I see a politician making public statements I immediately ask who the intended audience is, and what information the politician is attempting to communicate. The next question: is the politician up for re-election any time soon? In this case, Taylor Marvin makes a very good point about the intended audience of IDF tweets warning of imminent attacks on Hamas targets. If the IDF was intending to communicate solely with Hamas and Palestinians living in Gaza, why would it post in English? The fact that some tweets were in English tells us that the intended audience was, as Taylor pointed out, likely the outside world. But Boaz Atzili points to a second audience: Netanyahu was facing a tough election and, therefore, would be looking for ways to communicate with undecided voters. My guess is that Netanyahu wanted to signal to his American audience that he was somewhat compassionate — he would give his enemy a head start running for cover — but more importantly wanted to signal to potential voters that he was strong against Hamas, but not entirely merciless. The question then becomes, why not simply post the tweets in Hebrew? That, I believe, would be too obvious. Had the IDF tweeted in Hebrew, potential voters would have known that they were the intended audience (and not Hamas), and this knowledge would have undercut the message Netanhayu wanted to send.

Thanks all for the excellent comments.

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  • With a quick look at the distributions and sampling procedures, the entire effect seems to be limited to illiterate women who are a clear outlier from the bell curve distribution of support across education levels for both genders. I would chalk this up to interviewer effects and the high concentration of illiterate women in rural and traditional areas. When unknown male’s come to conduct interviews with females in rural parts of Pakistan, these interviews would likely be conducted in the presence of a husband or father (and maybe multiple adult male family members with varying sympathies for the Taliban). Under these conditions, I would not take the statements of illiterate women as reflective of true beliefs but as self censoring in the face of uncertainty and social pressure that is less likely to affect male respondents.

  • Previous scholarship has shown Muslim women in patriarchal societies to be more pious than men. As such, perhaps women in the study view the Taliban (which literally means religious students) as being equally devout and therefore driven by virtuous goals. As these women become more educated about the Taliban they will, at the very least, come to recognize the Taliban’s harsh treatment of women. Such recognition could conceivably decrease support. This mechanism holds true if the study includes women who are more educated in general. Simply put, the Taliban will be seen as a threat to women, especially those with a higher education.
    For uneducated men, however, the predominant perception of the Taliban could be that of a remote, violent actor bent upon destabilizing the system, a system in which uneducated men already struggle to exist. Given extant patriarchal norms, new information about the Talibans’ views on women may be less offensive. Moreover, the Taliban’s rhetoric on social justice, egalitarianism, and the dangers of foreign interference may resonate with such individuals. Myriad studies have shown that levels of education play less of a role in the support of political violence than socioeconomic and political dissatisfaction does. As men become more educated they become more aware of the “ills of the world” and, often times, their perceived subordinate position in that world. The Taliban could thus be seen as champions of the impoverished and defenders against foreign invaders. In short, the Taliban become a source of local pride.

  • […] Last week I asked why uneducated women in Pakistan might be more likely to support the Taliban than equally uneducated men. I also asked why women’s support appeared to decrease as they became more educated, while men’s increased. This question received two very interesting responses. Brian Urlacher astutely observed that interviews with females in rural parts of Pakistan were likely to be conducted in the presence of a husband or father, and that under these conditions women had incentives to appear more supportive of militants than they actually were. I think these interviewer effects almost certainly exist, but this doesn’t explain two patterns. Why would illiterate women claim to be more supportive than illiterate men? If you assume that many of these women’s husbands and fathers were also illiterate (which might be a strong assumption), why wouldn’t their level of support be different? It also doesn’t explain the pattern we see more generally, which is that less educated women tend to support more conservative forms of religion even when these religions significantly impinge on women’s rights. […]

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