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What’s Happening in Afghanistan? Evolution and Conflict in Women’s Rights - Part I

*Trigger Warning: This article mentions sexual assault and violence against women; therefore, reader discretion is advised


In this series, ‘What’s Happening in Afghanistan? Evolution and Conflict in Women’s Rights’, Sarah Garde and Chloe Squires consider the historical background, then the immediate cause of events regarding Afghan women’s fight for equal rights. The influences of religion and tradition are fundamental to an understanding of this struggle. Historically, the population has lived in rural communities, where a hierarchical tribal structure dictates day-to-day life. The family unit is particularly valued. Women, considered vessels of honour, are expected to be subservient to men, who, in turn, are the sole providers for the household. Islamic (shariah) law has been used to justify such structures and continues to be the primary influence in Afghan politics. It was not until the late nineteenth century that political leaders, supported by modern urban populations, attempted to amend these practices. Due to their continued influence, religious and tribal leaders often prevented any gender reforms from being universally instituted, leaving progress in the women’s movement uneven and static.

The contemporary legal history of women in Afghanistan begins with the reign of Emir Adbul Rahman Khan (1880-1901), the first Afghan ruler to modernise the country in any way. Under his regime, a law requiring a widow to marry her late husband’s next of kin was repealed. The minimum age of marriage was raised, and women were permitted to divorce. Khan’s son and successor, Emir Habibullah Khan I (1901-1919), continued to reform, specifically focusing on expanding women’s access to education. Habibullah’s advances, however, were perceived as encroaching on traditional Afghan patrilineal culture, leading to his assassination by tribal leaders.


Nevertheless, progress continued due to the determination of Emir (later King) Amanullah Khan (1919-1929). Amanullah was responsible for Afghanistan’s first modern constitution, in which women’s rights were given particular attention. Child marriage was officially banned and purdah (the seclusion of women from strangers) was discouraged. Western dress was allowed, the practice of wearing the veil (to conceal women’s facial features) was made optional, and the jurisdiction of religious leaders in government was technically constrained. In 1921, Amanullah opened Afghanistan’s first girls’ school and in 1928 his government allowed girls to leave Afghanistan to pursue higher education. However, like his successor Habibullah, Amanullah faced substantial pressure from traditionalist leaders. Specifically, tribal and religious authorities took issue with plans to secularise education, ban polygamy, and abolish the bride price (a practice where a bride’s family received payment in exchange for allowing her marriage). While Amanullah attempted to find compromise, he was eventually forced to give in to conservative pressures and abdicate in 1929.

In the half-century after Amanullah, women’s rights struggled to make substantial gains. King Amir Habibullah II (1929) worked quickly to undo all previous reforms, especially in education. He was replaced by King Nadir Shah (1929-1933), who, aware of the power of traditionalist leaders, took a cautionary approach to progress, giving little attention to women’s rights. King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), however, restored women’s rights as a chief issue in Afghan politics. His 1964 Constitution granted all Afghan citizens equality under the law and considered education a basic right. The requirement of wearing the veil in public was again removed. Nadir’s reforms provided such freedoms that, in 1965, the first female Afghan members of Parliament were elected. While still challenged, the 1964 Constitution also made attempts to appease traditional authorities through the reinstitution of the Loya Jirgah (Great Council), a group of tribal and religious leaders with the authority to settle national issues. After ousting Nadir in a coup, President Mohammad Daoud Khan (1973-1978) continued to modernise. Khan made clear that women were expected to contribute to the national economy, actively encouraging them to find employment. In doing so, Khan gave women a previously unknown public presence. Khan’s successor – the USSR-supported People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – continued to support women’s rights by founding literacy programs and officially outlawing the bride price.

However, the USSR’s backing of the PDPA, followed by its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, gave rise to a fear of foreign influence. Specifically, conservative leaders feared that expansions in women’s rights were in conflict with the tradition and Islamic values on which Afghan society was based. As these fears transitioned into anger, the religiously-motivated Mujahideen used the cultural conflict as justification for their successful guerrilla rebellion against leaders in Kabul. Throughout their campaign, Mujahideen soldiers were known for their violence and sexual assault of rural women. With the help of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the Mujahideen eventually became what is now known as the Taliban, who eventually took control of Kabul in 1996. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar then became the de-facto leader of Afghanistan. Omar initially vowed to bring stability and institute a modern government.


That promise was never fulfilled. Immediately, Taliban authorities implemented punishments for the ‘crime’ of being female. Girls were banned from attending school after age eight. Women were prevented from working (except in poppy cultivation), leaving the house without a male chaperone, accessing healthcare provided by men, being involved in politics, or speaking publicly. The burqa (full body veil) was reinstituted, and women were banned from showing any skin in public. First and ground floor Kabul residents were forced to cover their windows to prevent women from being seen uncovered. A ‘gender apartheid’ was introduced and a Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was instituted to oversee its enforcement. Punishments included flogging, beatings, stoning, amputation, torture, and the murder of family members thought to be complacent in crimes. Rape and violence against women became common, raising suicide rates and encouraging mass migration.

The Taliban’s sweeping abuse of women came to a stop in 2001, when a US-led international intervention ousted the regime for their connection to terrorism. At first, there were signs of hope. A 2003 Constitution was drafted and reviewed with the help of women leaders. The Constitution not only bound Afghanistan to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (affirms peace and security efforts concerning women) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, but also legalised domestic gender equality. Plans to enforce education as a ‘right of all citizens’ were outlined and the right to work was ensured. Parliament and Ministry gender quotas were formalised. New President Hamid Karzai (2002-2014) also created a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and appointed a woman as Minister of Public Health.

Despite this progress, Karzai was conservative-leaning and determined to distance himself from Western ideology that was thought to be encroaching on Afghan tradition. Particularly concerned that he was perceived as a US puppet, Karzai allowed anti-feminist laws to be passed, including the 2009 Shia Personal Status law, which permitted Shia husbands to starve their wives should they refuse to have sex. Karzai was supported by an overwhelming conservative judiciary and tribal leaders who neglected to implement reforms in rural areas (where 76% of Afghan women lived).

The history of women’s rights in Afghanistan is long and complex. It is through this lens that current frustration about the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan must be understood. For more than a hundred years, women’s rights have oscillated between extreme progress and substantial regression as reformist leaders in Kabul have battled with conservative religious and tribal authorities that continue to influence the politics and day-to-day life for much of rural Afghanistan. These inconsistencies have both brought hope and encouraged fear for multiple generations of Afghan women and girls.


Next month, Chloe will continue this vital discussion and examine how the immediate conflict in Afghanistan continues to shape the lives of women and girls within the country.


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