A History of Women in Afghanistan: Then and Now

October 31, 2013
Written by Mohadesa Najmi

It may be surprising to know that women in Afghanistan participated socially, politically and economically in the life of their societies before the Taliban came into power.

In 1880 a woman called Malalai from a small village played a great role in the battle of Maiwand. She declared at the top of her lungs: “Young Love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, by God someone is saving you as a token of shame.” This not only revitalised the Afghan fighters who had lost morale fighting the British in the second-Anglo war, but sent her down in history as
Afghanistan’s very own Joan of Arc.

How did a woman like Malalai die on the battlefield as one of Afghanistan’s greatest heroine but today women in Afghanistan face difficulty leaving their home without a male escort? Interestingly enough, women have played a huge role in the history of Afghanistan. In 1964, women helped draft the Constitution and there were at least three women legislators in Parliament by the 1970’s. Women fulfilled roles as teachers, government workers, medical doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and poets up until the early 1990s. Moreover, women had constituted 40% of the doctors in Kabul; 70% of school teachers; 60% of Kabul University professors and 50% of the University students. It was not unusual for men and women to casually mingle at movie theatres and on university campuses. This is a far cry from little girls heading to schools today fearing an acid attack. Or 15-year-old Sahar
Gul being kept in a basement for six months, tortured with hot iron rods, her fingernails ripped out, all for resisting prostitution.

One particularly interesting segment in the history of Afghan women is during the 1960. The government oversaw various rural development programmes where female nurses were sent in Jeeps to remote areas and villages to inoculate residents from diseases such as cholera. The impossibility of this scheme today is almost too painful to consider. If it were to be pursued by the government now, the men in rural areas would scoff at the idea of their women travelling freely, entering the homes of male strangers, and in some cases, having to touch a strange man in order to treat him. Security concerns alone make such an effort impossible as government nurses (as well as UN and NGO medical workers) are regular targets for insurgent groups. Who cares if she is trying to save lives? She is a woman!

Girl Scouts is yet another tragic memory in Afghanistan’s history. Students from elementary and middle schools emulated their counterparts in the USA learning about nature trails, camping and public safety. Little girls were encouraged to expand their skills and venture into new areas of study. Imagine a ‘Girl Scouts’ scheme taking place in parts of Afghanistan today; the brutish Taliban would cower at the thought of girls engaging in extracurricular activities that would broaden their intellect, never mind being in education in the first place. This delightful scheme disappeared entirely in the 1970s and is showing no signs of return.

Everything changed for women when the Taliban rose to power in early 1995 and set up a radical Islamic state in Afghanistan in 1996. We know that women and girls were systematically discriminated against and marginalised; their human rights utterly violated. This resulted in deteriorating economic and social conditions of women in all areas of the country. They were severely restricted in their access to education, healthcare and employment. Women who had led fruitful lives fulfilling roles as doctors and teachers, were now finding themselves destitute – some resorting to begging on the streets or even prostitution. In May 2001, a decree issued by the Taliban banned women from driving cars and women were continuously beaten and harassed for appearing in public. As little as an inch of foot or hand on display, or even the wrong coloured socks, would warrant an attack from the Taliban who patrolled the streets. My auntie once told me of a time she had been wearing white coloured socks outside. The Taliban who had stopped her beat her with end of an AK47 and told her to go home to change into black coloured socks that were less visible to the eye.

The struggle continues for women in Afghanistan today. The country has a 14 per cent female literacy rate; contrast this with a 99 per cent female literacy rate in the UK and USA. It is nothing short an abomination. This is almost unsurprising when 80 per cent of females lack access to an education centre. The Karzai government issued a law in 2009 that legalised rape within marriage as well as denying the right of women to “leave their homes except for legitimate purposes” or “working or receiving an education without their husbands permission.” The law also diminishes the right of mothers to be children’s guardians in the event of divorce and makes impossible for wives to inherit their houses and land from their husbands. How can women be expected to rise socially, politically or economically under such circumstances? Or even more fundamentally, how is a woman to feel an equal when she she is subject to rape by her own husband? These conditions are somewhat redolent of the abhorrent ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the US in the 1880s that restricted African Americans in every aspect of their lives.

Women face further adversity at the prospect of childbirth with a woman dying every 27 minutes due to pregnancy-related complications in Afghanistan. There are on average 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. But in the remote mountainous province of Badakhshan the rate is 6,500 per 100,000 – the highest recorded rate of maternal mortality in the world. Thus, it may not be an exaggeration to declare Afghanistan the worst place in the world to give birth. I will go on: 17 per cent of women have reported sexual violence, as many as 80 per cent of marriages are forced, and 8 million women and girls aged between 15 and 40 are suffering from depression.

The question that remains is: what hope is there for women in Afghanistan and has there been any progress that bequeaths hope for the future?

In 1977, Meena Keshwar laid the foundations for RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan which launched a bilingual magazine titled Woman’s Message (Payam-e-Zan) in 1981 and organised events in the city of Kabul for several years to mark International Women’s Day. In August 2002, Khatol Mohammadzai became the first female general to serve in the Afghan National Army. And from 2005 until early 2007, Malalai Joya served as a female parliamentarian in the National Assembly of Afghanistan, substantiating the fact that women can serve in positions of authority. A bodybuilding club for women was even inaugurated in
2005 along with a female boxing federation by Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee. In the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, female athletes Friba Razayee and Robina Muqim Yaar represented Afghanistan for the first time in the country’s history.

Even more promisingly, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education declared that more than 5.4 million children have been enrolled in schools, 35 per cent of them girls, by April 2008. This was however followed in November by an acid attack on school girls in Kandahar with over a dozen injured and left with permanent facial scares. Nonetheless, significant achievements were made in several political aspects: the government appointed its first female provincial governor Habibi Sorabi in 2005 and Azra Jafari became the country’s first female mayor in 2009.

So what do all these achievements mean for the women of Afghanistan who are suffering under an extremely patriarchal society? Do they diminish the years of turmoil and subjugation? Certainly not. In fact, as Malalai Joya stated: “To all intents and purposes, the position of women is the same now as it was under the Taliban and in some respects the situation is far worse.” However, history has proven that the female population was integral in shaping its course: women were needed, they were appreciated, and they were the heart and soul of Afghanistan. To understand their position now, we must look to then: if women could once constitute a meaningful fraction of society, they will again.