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Towards Women’s Liberation in Afghanistan: Looking into the Past to See the Future

On 20 January 2023, UN Women completed a four-day fact-finding mission to Afghanistan to “underscore UN solidarity with the Afghan people”.

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, Executive Director of UN Women, Sima Bahous, and Assistant Secretary-General of UN Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Khaled Khiari, met with de facto authorities in Kabul and Kandahar to convey alarm over recent women’s rights abuses.

“What is happening in Afghanistan is a grave women’s rights crisis and a wakeup call for the international community”, said Ms. Bahous.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (fourth from left), UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous, Assistant Secretary-General of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Khaled Khiari and the delegation, arrive at Kabul International Airport for a four-day official visit to Afghanistan. UN Photo/Akram Darwish.

The timeline of 2022

The year began with the Taliban’s ban on women’s right to movement. They were prohibited from entering public baths (even female-only ones) in December 2021. January–March marked bans on visiting cafes and health centres and traveling by air without male chaperones. Women could still visit public parks three days a week in April, but even that was prohibited the following month. The Taliban then banned women from public transport and cabs without male chaperones in May–June. Women could no longer get driving licenses either. On 17 June 2022, women were banned from visiting mosques for Friday prayers. The very next day, they were prohibited from going to work and told only ‘the man of the house’ could do so. June also saw women’s prohibition from visiting computer shops to buy music or films without male chaperones.

The Taliban also systematically began limiting women’s rights to work and education. In March 2022, three weeks before the months-long closure, the Taliban announced a ban on girls’ secondary and tertiary education and shut down girls’ schools. Girls were told they could not study beyond the sixth grade. A previous announcement on 21 September 2021 had allowed women to attend universities with gender-segregated classrooms while wearing a hijab, but the Taliban struck this down in December 2022. Another order the same month banned women from working for NGOs, another blow on top of already strict rules for working, buying food and essentials, and seeking medical care without male chaperones.

These prohibitions are driving many women-only households in the economically devastated country to desperate measures. There have been reports of women selling young daughters for dowry and mothers abandoning their children on the streets.

The Taliban abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 2021, a key advocate for women’s rights in the country, leaving it free to force its own interpretation of Islamic law on women without limit. The group re-established the infamous Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the main body deciding women’s rights in the country. The Taliban has now extended its hijab mandate, in effect forcing women to wear full body coverings everywhere outside their households. Female television presenters must report with their faces covered as well.

Another nail in the coffin is that women cannot sue men and must provide young daughters to marry Taliban soldiers.

Additionally, the Taliban version of Islamic law includes arbitrary decisions in trials and punishment for not following its established societal rules. A group of UN experts reported over 100 women and men being publicly punished in several Afghan provinces. Punishments took place in stadiums with the public and Taliban officials present.

Socioeconomic background

Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, with over 90 per cent of the population suffering from some form of food insecurity. Being at war for several decades, experiencing natural disasters like droughts and earthquakes, and being sanctioned after the Taliban takeover in 2021 with frozen bank reserves and dwindling financial aid, the country is at its historic worst in 2023. Despite all this, the Taliban continues to focus its political efforts on curbing human rights, predominantly women’s.

Children attend a UNICEF-supported community-based school in Afghanistan’s western Herat province in 2017. The aim of the school, one of a number throughout the country, was to bring education to children who would otherwise miss out. UNAMA/Shehzad Noorani.

Women’s liberation attempts: The past

Afghanistan saw many rulers before the Taliban. Afghan governments’ past attempts to empower women are worth considering as they can help the search for a solution.

Afghanistan is a vast country, both geographically and ethnically. H. Ahmed-Ghosh, a researcher on Afghan women’s rights, states, “both spatial and ethnic impenetrability has prevented Afghanistan from ever forming a consensual and coherent sense of nationalism”.

Ahmed-Ghosh explains that the country’s polity is largely defined by tribal influences in neighbouring states and interference from western countries.

Afghanistan’s political, economic and cultural landscape is not homogeneous. There was always a perceived divide between large cities like Kabul and the Afghan countryside. Rural Afghanistan was always isolated, both geographically and ideologically, from reform. It always preserved kinship relationships in local communities, largely defined by Islamic texts and enforced by local tribal leaders and mullahs.

There were numerous attempts to empower Afghan women, beginning with the rule of the Emir of Afghanistan, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, at the beginning of the 20th century. Abdur Rahman implemented several legal changes that positively affected women’s status—he removed a clause forcing women to marry their deceased husbands’ next of kin, raised the legal marriage age, gave women the right to divorce in certain circumstances, and even some rights to their husbands’ and fathers’ property. The Emir’s son, Amir Habibullah Khan, continued his father’s efforts and limited mandated marriage expenses. Significantly, he brought Afghanistan exile Mahmud Beg Tarzi back to the country, who promoted full citizenship ideas for women and led the former to open a school for girls with an English curriculum. Unfortunately, Habibullah’s ideas challenged tribal power—he was assassinated in 1919.

Habibullah’s son, Amanullah, took the throne and set an agenda to liberate Afghanistan from the British, defeating them and aiming to modernize the country and free Afghan women from tribal patriarchal norms. Amanullah advocated against the veil and polygamy and for women’s access to education everywhere in Afghanistan. Again, tribal leaders resisted, forcing Amanullah to bring polygamy back and decrease women’s marriage age from 21 to 18. He eventually abdicated and escaped to Europe.

Women’s rights were next brought to the agenda by the USSR via the locally supported government, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA)—women joined the workforce. They were allowed to vote in 1965. Women then formed the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW), aiming to eliminate illiteracy among women, remove bride price and abolish forced marriages.

The 1970s saw women teaching and learning at universities and having representation in Parliament. A 1978 decree granted women equal rights. The PDPA’s speedy changes constituted a new threat to tribal authority in the countryside, resulting in the shootings of women in western clothes and an increase in the harassment of social workers.

This led to the formation of the Taliban’s predecessor, the Mujahideen, an Islamic fundamentalist group. Created in the Afghan countryside, the Mujahideen fought the Soviets for traditional culture and Islamic values, fuelled by the political interest and support of external parties.

Women’s liberation attempts: The future

In January 2023, the UN delegation that visited Afghanistan met with some key representatives of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Islamic Development Bank, groups of Afghan women in the Turkish and Pakistani capitals of Ankara and Islamabad, and a group of ambassadors and special envoys to Afghanistan in Doha. The UN’s role as a bridge builder towards “finding lasting solutions” was emphasized, “as well as the urgency to deliver lifesaving support and maintain effective engagement, led by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)”. The UN reported that a proposal to hold an international conference on women and girls in the Muslim World during March this year “was also considered and agreed in principle”.

Women queue outside a Bamyan polling centre to vote in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections on 20 October 2018. UNAMA/Abbas Naderi.

As Ahmed-Ghosh suggests (and the focus of the last UN delegation’s visit to Afghanistan exemplifies), the main lesson learnt from previous women’s liberalization attempts in Afghanistan is that the Afghan countryside is the centre of an ideology that stifles development in the women’s rights movement. Tribal groups are highly influential, both politically and culturally. Kinship patriarchal relationships in rural Afghanistan form the mentality that women have a certain place in family hierarchies based on local interpretations of Islam.

Women are viewed as receptacles of family honour—their actions reflect on family and their own devotion to Islam. Interference is seen to threaten both tribal authority and women’s self-image.

A woman raised with the role of ‘foundation’ of the family as religious devotion may not absorb egalitarian ideas of individual success easily. The tragedy of past attempts to give women freedoms is that some freedoms were also resisted by women.

According to Ahmed-Ghosh’s study, a possible way forward could be to understand the values that unite all Afghan women (and men)—being part of a community and family is important for Afghan women. Thus, there is the proposition that encouraging women’s economic wellbeing would help strengthen their family status.

Currently, religion is a fundamental part of Afghan life, and the interpretation of religious texts in the framework of key cultural values can hold the key to women’s liberation in Afghanistan…for good.

But as Ms. Bahous stated after her visit, “We have witnessed extraordinary resilience. Afghan women left us no doubt of their courage and refusal to be erased from public life. They will continue to advocate and fight for their rights, and we are duty-bound to support them in doing so”.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha


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