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50 CULTURE •• Women in Afghanistan


Progress and social change in Afghanistan have long rested on the ‘women question’. It is said that zan, zar wa zameen (‘women, gold and land’) have been the cause of conflict for centuries in Afghanistan. Afghan women’s rights have always been highly politicised and gender politics, as much as geo- politics, has provided the impetus for conflicts. Throughout modern Afghan history, Afghan women have been used as the barometer to measure social change. Afghan women have repeatedly been caught between waves of enforced modernisation and conservative undercurrents. Today – several years after the Taliban – the ‘women question’ remains on shaky ground. In the early 1970s, Afghan women’s rights were included in the national constitution. Women –

working as doctors and engineers – were seen on the streets of Kabul wearing skirts. By the end of that decade, Soviet occupation coupled with a conservative backlash would strip women of these hard-won rights. For the next 20 years, a variety of regimes exercised their influences on women’s rights. The ‘women question’ continued to deteriorate. Both Afghanistan and its women suffered in anonymity until the Taliban – and the activists who opposed them – gained international attention. Organisations such as the Revolutionary Associa-

tion of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA; brought Afghan women’s rights to the

forefront of the international women’s agenda. RAWA’s story is both romanticised and immortalised through their murdered leader Meena, who founded the organisation in 1977. RAWA’s membership is large, and yet members often do not know each other due to the organisation’s secret status. Organisations like RAWA, operating clandestinely in Afghanistan and Pakistan, revealed the

horrors inflicted by the Taliban upon women – including rapes, stonings and confinement. They bravely resisted oppression and persevered through home schools for girls, women’s clinics and a network of underground operations providing support services for women and children.

Post-Conflict Progress?

In the immediate aftermath of the Taliban, Afghan women were hopeful and demonstrated their strength and determination by assuming professional roles, public positions and accessing education opportunities. Afghan women’s rights are safeguarded in the new constitution that was approved by the Afghan constitutional loya jirga, or grand assembly, in January 2004. Afghanistan is also a party to CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. While these rights exist on paper, the battle to bring them into practice is just beginning. The parliament, formed in 2005, is 27% female. One outspoken member, Malalai Joya, gained inter- national attention – and put her own life at risk – when she publicly denounced warlords in the 2003 constitutional loya jirga. She continues to fight for women’s rights despite myriad death threats. Despite select public accomplishments, conditions for women remain challenging. Post-Taliban

Afghanistan remains a place where the lives of women’s rights activists are increasingly threatened, where girls, schools are being burned, and where social indicators – for men and women – remain staggering. Afghanistan faces one of the highest illiteracy and maternal mortality rates in the world. Widows and female-headed households continue to live in dire poverty. Violence against women – particularly domestic violence – is increasing. Self-immolation is becoming a popular exit strategy for women whose lives show no alternative to living in despair. Women’s rights activists are being brutally assassinated. The September 2006 assassination of women’s rights activist Safia Amajan is a case in point. The head of the provincial women’s affairs department in Kandahar, Amajan was murdered to send a message to women’s rights advocates. Today’s Afghanistan might allow more opportunity for women – marginally, in urban areas – but

fewer women appear to be accessing those opportunities. Both men and women are waiting to see how the relatively new parliament – and the proposed revival of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – will fare and what changes this will bring. Recent increases in insecurity in Afghanistan are taking a variety of forms and affecting all aspects of Afghans’ lives. Afghan women and girls are particularly affected by the current climate of elevated lawlessness and violence.

Girls’ Education

Once a highly touted accomplishment of the international community’s reconstruction efforts, girls in school are now increasingly threatened. Schools continue to be burned, and teachers’ lives put

at risk. Shabnameh (Night Letters) are threatening letters left in public places or on the doors of individual homes at night, frequently claiming that those Afghans who are ‘associating with infidels’ are thereby ‘betraying’ Islam and Afghan culture and will be punished. This tactic was frequently employed during the parliamentary elections to intimidate female candidates and is now directed toward teachers who attempt to educate girls. Fear of violence has a profound effect on women both because they are targeted for violence and because of the stigma they face if they are vic- tims. Groups opposed to girls’ education have used threats of violence as a deterrent, keeping an increasing number of girls out of school every year. The forces against girls’ education are stronger than the communities’ will to resist them.

What Next for Afghan Women?

To better understand the situation of Afghan women, it is important to understand the socio-cultural context and the fluctuating history of women’s rights in the country. Throughout modern Afghan history, women have repeatedly found themselves at the centre of conflicts between Western con- cepts of modernisation and Afghan codes of culture. The two are not incompatible. It is a question of approach, not content. Importing an agenda of ‘liberation’ is not the answer, particularly when indigenous roots for human rights and other so-called Western concepts already exist. Afghan women continue to make changes and act on their own behalf as they have always done. There is such a thing as Afghan feminism – it did not need to be imported. Many Afghan women’s groups are working to support women through programs such as rights training, vocational training, job placement, health care, literacy, etc. The Afghan Women’s Network (AWN; is one such example. AWN was created in 1996 and comprises 72 NGOs and 3000 individuals who work to ‘empower women and ensure their equal participation in Afghan society’. Their efforts include advocacy, networking, and capacity building in issues such as gender-based violence, women’s legal rights, civic education, leadership and communication. AWN and many other groups strive to offer women the tools with which they can achieve self- sufficiency, a choice, and a voice. In the words of one Afghan woman: ‘Tell [the world] that Afghan women are very strong and they will do anything for the future of their country and their children’. For more information on women in Afghanistan, try the following books and websites:

 Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep by Siba Shakib  Kabul in Winter by Ann Jones

 Women’s Resistance by Cheryl Bernard

 Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan by Sally Armstrong

 With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan by

Anne E Brodsky

 Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women’s Resistance by Cheryl Bernard  Women for Afghan Women: Shattering Myths and Claiming the Future edited by Sunita Mehta

 Lessons from Gender-focused International Aid in Post-Conflict Afghanistan… Learned? by Lina

Abirafeh (

 Burqa Politics: The Plights of Women in Afghanistan by Lina Abirafeh (


 Afghanistan: Women Still under Attack – a Systematic Failure to Protect (http://web.amnesty.


 Afghan Gender Café (www.afghangendercafé.org)

 Organization for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities (run by Malalai Joya; www.geocities .com/opawc)

 Afghan Women’s Mission (

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