The Great Tribulations of Women in Afghanistan
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
An analysis of the historical struggles, progress, and setbacks faced by women in Afghanistan over the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as an examination of their current situation and plight under the new Taliban regime.
Afghanistan - a landlocked mountainous country of endless war and conflicts. It borders Eurasia, the Middle East, and South Asia. While Afghanistan might be easy to invade, the country’s vast array of diverse ethnic tribes and regional leaders makes the nation nearly impossible to rule over.
Due to Afghanistan's highly patriarchal society, women have traditionally been subjected to an inferior existence and lower quality of life, compared to that of men. Despite contributing little to the country’s conflicts, Afghan women have become fierce political targets, with politicians using their states to claim legitimacy and popular support.
A Glimpse into the History and Plight of Afghan Women
An Era of Hope
The position of women in Afghan society improved during the reign of Emir Amanullah Khan (r. 1919–29), Emir Habibullah Khan's son and successor. After Afghanistan’s independence from the British in 1919, Emir Amanullah Khan tried to modernize Afghanistan by liberating women from their conventional cultural norms and roles. His vision of a modernized Afghanistan was heavily influenced by various European countries, as well as some more liberalized Islamic nations, like that of Turkey and Egypt, where women faced a less subjected existence.
Women held the center stage in his socio-political and economic reforms which brought on huge changes in the lives of Afghan Women. For the first time, the cause of women's suffrage was celebrated and pursued in Afghanistan. Polygamy was discouraged and abolished. The minimum marriage age was raised to 18 for women and 21 for men. Still, however, this rapid emboldening and empowering of women faced significant legal and social opposition.
Emir Amanullah Khan’s wife, Queen Soraya Tarzi, one of the world's early feminist leaders, was lauded for breaking with tradition and wearing western dresses outside the royal palace. She played a major role in bringing on the social and political emancipation of Afghan women. Local administrations and regional tribes, however, took Emir Amanullah Khan’s reforms and Soraya’s bold gestures as a threat to their culture and norms. They couldn't comprehend the ideas of female employment and equality and considered them as forced changes that were against the doctrines of Islam. Eventually, following a year-long Civil War, Emir Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya Tarzi were overthrown and evicted from Afghanistan.
Following the eviction of Emir Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya Tarzi, Afghanistan was reorganized into a Kingdom, ruled over by, King Muhammid Nadir Shah, who was a general under Emir Amanullah Khan, came to power. The change in leadership meant a turn in women’s rights. He very quickly abolished most of Amanullah's reforms endorsed the traditional supremacy of men in Afghanistan. The social, economic, and political progress and freedom gained by Afghan women over the past decade were swiftly repealed.
Women could no longer attend schools. They couldn't dare to be seen in public without wearing a hijab. The clash between the progressive thought process of Emir Amanullah Khan and the conservative approach of King Nadir Shah disrupted the continuity of law and order in Afghanistan.
Abolishment of Monarchy
After King Nadir Shah’s assassination, his son, King Muhammad Zahir Shah, would come into power, ruling Afghanistan for the next 40 years, bringing on an era of political stability and progress. He tried to restore law, order, and peace in the nation, as well as improve the political, social, and legal status of women, passing various pieces of legislation aimed at establishing and protecting woman’s rights. Under the leadership of Muhammad Zahir, women once again enjoyed the liberty to go out of the home to work. Numerous female universities and educational institutions were developed. Women were no longer required to cover their bodies when in public. . Afghan women were even granted political power, being extended both the right to vote and the ability to enter government and run for elected positions.
In addition to improving the social, legal, and political standing of women, King Muhammad Zahir Shah’s sought to modernize Afghanistan's economy by enhancing the nation’s infrastructure, building highways, airports, hospitals, schools, and more.
Like those of Emir Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya Tarzi, King Muhammad Zahir Shah’s progressive social and economic reforms, and policies sparked a furious backlash from local tribes and regional leaders. Ultimately, many local tribes chose to simply disregard King Muhammad Zahir Shah’s reforms, resulting in the continuation of female subjugation in Afghanistan.
In 1973, taking advantage of public outrage, Mohammed Daoud Khan, the first President of Afghanistan, launched a coup against King Muhammad Zahir, formally abolishing the monarchy. He established an autocratic one-party system, singlehandedly declaring himself the President of the Republic of Afghanistan without holding an election. . Although President Mohammed Daoud Khan was of the personal belief that women should be allowed to contribute to society, he chose to walk with caution so he wouldn't face public opposition from the nation’s deeply orthodox regional tribes, like that of Emir Amanullah Khan and King Muhammad Zahir Shah.
Despite President Mohammed Daoud Khan’s cautious approach, he still managed to institute a multitude of reforms and political firsts that significantly expanded the freedoms, liberties, and status of Afghan women. Women were once more permitted to be seen unveiled in public. It was during President Mohammed Fraud Khan’srule when Afghanistan saw its first female government minister, Kubra Noorzai, serving as Afghanistan’s Minister of Public Health. Female representatives were also elected to parliament. In the private sector, women were able to hold prestigious roles at the nation’s top firms and corporations. Large investments were also made in female education, and female faculty members were, for the first time, hired, in various capacities, at the nation’s universities and educational institutions.
Ultimately, in 1978, President Mohammed Daoud Khan would himself be overthrown in the Saur Revolution by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), turning Afghanistan into a communist, Soviet-aligned state.
In 1978, the communist government of Afghanistan signed an economic and military mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union, to be activated by either country during a time of need. Therefore, when various US-Backed insurgent groups, collectively known as the Mujahideen, plunged the country into civil war by assassinating Nur Mohammed Taraki, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the People's Democratic Party, effectively acting as the nation’s head of government. To ensure that Afghanistan remained a communist nation, thereby protecting Soviet influence in the region, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan further prompted the United States, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to intervene by funneling billions of dollars in equipment, weapons, and general aid and support to the Mujahideen insurgents to oppose the spread of communism and Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Thus would begin a nine-year guerrilla war between the US-backed Mujahideen Insurgents and the joint forces of communist Afghanistan and The Soviet Union.
During their invasion and subsequent control of Afghanistan, The Soviet Union made numerous attempts to improve the status of women as part of an effort to modernize the country. Ultimately, similar to the previous attempts at such progressive reforms, the Soviet attempts to improve the social, legal, and political standing of Afghan Women were not well received by the general populous, facing significant opposition from regional tribal groups for being alien to Afghan culture and un-Islamic.
For all their positive actions in the area of gender rights and female empowerment, however, The Soviet Union still committed heartbreaking atrocities against Afghan Women. Soviet soldiers, for instance, often physically abused, tortured, and raped Afghan women from local villages. Additionally, the children and husbands of Afghan women were murdered by Soviet troops on a mass level. Additionally, The Soviet Union restricted the communication and work of various woman’s rights groups within Afghanistan.
For nearly a decade the country would remain in a perpetual state of war with various groups, supported by either Soviet or American aid, involved in the conflict. Ultimately, the Geneva Accords of 1998 would lead to the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the fall of Communism in Afghanistan. Without an established central power structure, the nation would fall into chaos and advocacy, with various local Mujahideen groups and other guerilla fighters fighting for power.
That said, Afghan women would face the worst of their abuse at the hands of the Mujahideen insurgents following the withdrawal of Soviet Forces. Often, women who had lost their husbands were forced to join the Mujahideen out of fear of being systematically targeted, raped, or murdered by Muhajideen guards.
The Rise of the Taliban
At the end of 1994, Afganistanwitnessed the emergence of a new political regime The Taliban. They promised to rid Afghanistan of corrupt Mujahideen groups, and to some extent they did. But for most of Afghanistan's population, and necessary for Afghan women, it was out of the blue and into the black. Whilst some degree of order was established in certain parts of the country, this order would be brought along with torture, execution, religious intolerance, and a slew of other atrocities.
The Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sharia law resulted in serious human rights violations. Severe restrictions were imposed on women's freedom. Women were completely barred from working. They were barred from leaving their homes without a male relative accompanying them. They were ordered to follow a strict code of clothing, once again expected to be veiled from head to toe in public. Females have been banned from studying certain subjects and were barred from attending university. Women who broke these strict rules faced human rights-violating punishments ranging from verbal and psychological abuse to physical torture and execution.
As a result, the Taliban lost international and domestic support. As a result of the American invasion of Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom, launched in response to the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban would lose control of Afghanistan by the end of 2001. Despite claiming control of Afghanistan and establishing a relatively stable democratic government, the American forces were never able to successfully eliminate the Taliban threat. Instead, the continual American presence in the region held the Taliban at bay.
Thus, even though American troops had occupied Afghanistan for two decades, it was widely known that an American withdrawal from the nation would lead to a re-emergence of the Taliban threat. Ulitmily as American troops pulled out of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the Taliban were able to swiftly take back control of the nation, toppling the US-supported democratic government in a matter of months.
Since their takeover of the country, the Taliban has promised peace, tolerance, acceptance, and social progressiveness to Afghans and the larger international community. Ultimately, however, the group soon made it clear that such promises were nothing more than talk.
For instance, the Taliban initially vowed to respect women's natural freedoms, liberties, and rights and help them to advance their status in society. In a recent interview, however, a Taliban spokesperson stated that rights, freedoms, and liberties extended to women will be entirely determined by the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law, contradicting its passed vow to respect such natural freedoms, liberties, and rights extended to women.
One female television news anchor was allegedly fired following the Taliban Takeover, soon being replaced by a male anchor. Reports suggest that on the day following their takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city, the Taliban went door to door looking for unmarried women from 14 to 45 to marry off to Taliban soldiers, effectively forcing such women into a lifetime of slavery. During a protest in Kabul, women were beaten by the Taliban for demanding rights.
It's disheartening to see the country reverting into the patriarchal and misogynistic legal, political, and social structures of its past Before the Taliban's arrival, Afghan saw true progress in the area of female employment. A record number of women were attending schools and universities. Many women were able to obtain jobs or even start their own businesses. The nation witnessed a breathtaking rise in female political participation, with women holding close to 30% of all public offices in the nation. But now women's participation in Afghanistan’s educational, private-business, and political structures has become a distant dream.
Women, out of fear for their lives, don't want to leave their homes, let alone go to university, advance their careers, or enter politics. The return of the Taliban has put an end to the dreams and ambitions of millions of Afghan women.
Afghan Women - A State of Constant Suffering
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Afghan women have managed to witness and experience significant social and political progress, only to have such progress snatched away from them following various power shifts, invasions, and coups. Presently, the rights, freedoms, and liberties gained by Afghan women over the past 17 years during the American occupation are in peril. Despite the Taliban’s big claims and promises regarding gender equality, their recent actions have shown that Afghan women are, once more, in grave danger
Whether it’s a war between modernists and traditionalists, a battle for power, or invasions by foreign powers, it’s Afghan women who have suffered and, unfortunately, will only continue to suffer.
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References – The Hindu, Vox, BBC, Journal of International Women’s Studies.
Shipra Swaraj is a Political Science graduate from Patna University, in India. She is also a content writer and activist at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.