Afghanistan has been in a constant state of chaos for twenty
years. The Soviets invaded in 1979 and installed a puppet regime.
After they withdrew their troops in 1989, rival mujahideen (tribal)
groups began to fight for the capital. By the time the Taliban
came into the picture around 1994, the country had been devastated
by war. Many Afghanis had fled to neighboring countries like
Pakistan. An estimated 1 million lives had been lost. Now, bad
conditions still persist. Afghanistan has one of the world's
worst literacy rates; only three percent of women and less then
twenty percent of men can read and write (Rashid, 107). A quarter
of all children die before their fifth birthday. Life expectancy
is only 43-44 years (107). Simply, life is hard, especially
Women have been caught in the middle of powerful governments
fighting for control. The issue of their emancipation is not
religious or cultural. It is political. To understand the struggle
of women, we must consider their socioeconomic history, the
qualities of the Taliban, and the reactions of outside groups
to the fate of Afghani women.
The leaders of Afghan government have consistently worked to
reform women's rights. For the past century, emancipation for
women has been an essential part of the image of the nation.
Amir Habibullah, who ruled from 1901 to 1919, stressed that
women should have a role in society beyond motherhood (Dupree,
307). Mahmud Beg Tarzi (1865-1933), a leading reformer of the
time argued for education of women. He believed that intellectual
women in the home would lead to stronger sense of family and
nation. He constantly spoke of the egalitarian Islam, one that
does not deny women the right to knowledge (Dupree, 306-307).
King Amanullah (1919-1929), the son of Habibullah, continued
to emphasize marriage rights and advocated monogamy, removal
of the veil, end of seclusion, and education. At this time powerful
women began to speak out about what they desired. Amanullah's
queen, Suraya, and her sister Siraj ul-Banat both were publicly
vocal about equality. In 1923, Ul-Banat said:
Some people are laughing at us, saying that women know only
how to eat and drink...but knowledge is not man's monopoly.
Women also deserve to be knowledgeable. We must on the one hand
bring up children and, on the other hand, help men in their
work. We must read about famous women in this world, to know
that women can achieve exactly what men can achieve. (307)
Both sisters were strongly influenced by the moderate men around
them. They wished to contribute to their society. They were
passionate and forceful as they urged women to "attempt to acquire
as much knowledge as possible in order that we may render our
services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam" (Dupree, 308). Their genuine intentions however, were not completely
mirrored by the government. Suraya and Siraj were women fighting
for the freedom of others like them. The government consisted
of powerful men fighting to keep a strong appearance.
By the 1970's, many women worked outside the home. Most were
upper or middle class urbanites. In Kabul, 42% were educated
and 41% were employed. Women were secretaries, diplomats, hairdressers,
and factory workers. In the rural provinces, however, most of
the female population did not know about the change in women's
roles. By the end of the decade, women were cynical about the
emancipation movement. Muhammad Daoud made many promises, when
he established the Republic of Afghanistan on July 17, 1983
(Dupree, 310). Most ofthese were seen as a "scam" (311). Women
saw the emancipation movement as something that consisted of
many words, but little execution.
Under the Communists in the 1980's women continued to work in
cities. Their role extended to the fields of law and medicine.
However, this time was also marked by extreme chaos and oppression.
Women felt "disillusioned by the empty rhetoric, shocked and
betrayed by the Soviet invasion" (Dupree, 332). In June 1980,
the women's page of the Kabul New Times remarked:
There is nothing more ridiculous than granting privileges on
paper without pushing them through practically...There must
be an effective lawenforcing apparatus to put into effect each
right granted...so that every man who does not believe in women's
attitudes may be convinced that he is wrong. . .In order to
raise the status of women we must first raise the standards
of their men. (332)
By this point women were completely frustrated with empty promises
and unstable governments who continued to use women's rights
as a platform for their own purposes. Sadly, the situation only
grew worse. Soviet troops left in 1989, leave Afghanistan in
the hands of rival mujahideen (tribes). By 1994, these groups
had begun to lose interest. The chaos of the past two decades
now escalated as an Islamic fundamentalist faction rose to power.
The Taliban captured Kabul, the capital, in 1996. Their "goals"
were to restore peace, disarm the population, and defend the
integrity of the Islamic character of Afghanistan. A "talib"
is an Islamic student. Most of the Taliban's forces are orphans
and refugees from the war, who were schooled in madrassas, Islamic
schools, in Pakistan. These boys, soon men, had been raised
in a completely male society where control over women is seen
as a powerful symbol of manhood. They are "children of the jihad" and they see themselves as purifiers of the Islamic way of life
that has been corrupted. Ahmed Rashid writes:
In the madrassa milieu, control over women and their virtual
exclusion was a powerful symbol of manhood and a reaffirmation
of the students' commitment to jihad. Denying a role for women
gave the Taliban a kind of false legitimacy amongst these elements.
Simi Wali, the head of an Afghan NGO: 'This conflict against
women is rooted in the political beliefs and ideologies, not
in Islam or the cultural norms. The Taliban are a new generation
of Muslim males who are products of a war culture, who have
spent much of their adult lives in complete segregation from
their communities. In Afghan society, women have traditionally
been used as instruments to regulate social behavior, and as
such are powerful symbols in Afghan culture. (Rashid, 111)
This ideology was incorporated in Taliban psyche to justify
their uncompromising domination. Violations against Taliban
edicts are often enforced on the spot by the police force, also
known as the Department of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention
of Vice. Workers carry whips and long sticks as they patrol
the streets. They are all employees of Maulvi Qalamuddin, the
head of the department. Qalamuddin's orders are broadcast on
Radio Shariat, the Taliban-controlled station.
The Taliban's punishments are largely derived from a social
code known as the Pashtunwali, the law of the Pashtun. The line
between this set of laws and the Shari'a is constantly blurred.
This ideology creates a greater ethnic divide in Afghanistan
because non-Pashtuns wonder why Pashtun code is being applied
to the whole country. This doesn't concern the Taliban or Mullah
Omar, their mysterious, reclusive, one-eyed leader. The Pashtunwali
is part of their background:
The Taliban leaders were all from the poorest, most conservative,
and least literate southern Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan.
In Mullah Omar's village women had always gone around fully
veiled and no girls had ever gone to school because there were
none. Omar and his colleagues transposed their own milieu, their
own experience, or lack of it, with women, to the entire country
and justified their policies through the Koran. For a time,
some aid agencies claimed that this was the Afghan cultural
tradition, which had to be respected. But in a country so diverse
in its ethnicity and levels of development, there was no universal
standard of tradition or culture for women's role in society.
Nor had any Afghan ruler before the Taliban ever insisted on
such dress codes as compulsory beards for men and the burqa.
The oppression of women became a standard of Taliban fundamentalism.
They were purifying society to return it to its "natural" state,
the one from their earlier lives. This idea of superiority also
kept the spirit of their forces high. Finally, the women's issue
was a source of conflict with the West that the Taliban desired.
Compromise would equal defeat. Therefore, Afghani women became
clay that the Taliban could mold to motivate their troops, oppose
the West, and characterize their ideology.
Life under the Taliban is extremely difficult for women. This
radical Islamic group has imposed many restrictions that violate
their human rights according to international norms. Women can't
work outside the home; they have no access to health care, or
an opportunity for education. The inability to work hurts widows,
the disabled, and those without male family members especially.
They have no way to support themselves or their children. Because
women can't attend a general hospital, they must resort to small
clinics run by women practitioners. These clinics have limited
resources. Disease, malnutrition, and depression are becoming
more prevalent. Some schools for girls are run underground,
or in individual homes, but this is dangerous. Boys, too, are
suffering because most of the teachers were women.
There are many other restrictions as well. Women can't leave
home unless accompanied by a male relative. They must wear burqas
-- long robes and veils that completely cover the body and allow
three-inch square mesh-like fabric for vision. Heeled shoes
are forbidden because they make noise while walking. Furthermore,
women can't laugh loudly, gather publicly, or wear makeup. They
have no legal representation and must paint the windows of their
homes so others cannot see inside.
Penalties for breaking these rules are extreme. They include
stoning, whipping, verbal and sexual abuse, death, amputation,
and torture. There are many stories of women who are beaten
because an inch of their ankle is showing. Basically, the female
gender is meant to not seen or heard outside of the home. Women
are silent and soulless.
The despair that this oppression and chaos creates is quite
evident. Bibi Zohra is a widow who has six children and her
parents to support. Yet, she has donated a piece of her land
to create a bakery where a group of women she leads prepare
nan-bread for those without food. She says:
Look at my face, don't you see the tragedy of our lives and
our country marked all over it? Day by day the situation is
worsening. We have become beggars dependent on the UN to survive.
It is not the Afghan way. Women are exhausted, depressed, and
devastated. We are waiting for peace, praying for peace every
minute of the day. (108)
This is a common sentiment among Afghani women. They have seen
their family members killed, their homes destroyed, their rights
ripped away. And for what? Many struggle to find a reasonable
justification from the Taliban for the conditions they impose.
Nasiba Gul, a 1990 graduate of Kabul University says:
The Taliban just want to trample women into the dust. No woman,
not even the poorest or most conservative wants the Taliban
to rule Afghanistan. Islam says women are equal to men and respect
should be given to women. But the Taliban's actions are turning
people against even Islam. (Rashid, 109-110)
When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, Gul was forced to stop
working and fled, like many others, to Pakistan.
There have been many reactions to the treatment of women in
Afghanistan. The differences in the responses from women's groups,
the United Nations, and the United States give insight to why
women's issues often become thrown into the blender of political
First, since 1977 the Revolutionary Association of Women of
Afghanistan (RAWA) has worked to give a voice to Afghani women.
Based in Quetta, Pakistan, RAWA wants freedom, democracy, women's
rights, and social justice. Before the Moscow coup in 1978,
they mostly worked for rights. Now, however, they have become
anti-fundamentalist. They believe they must fight the fanatical
Taliban directly and make no compromises. RAWA isn't satisfied
with the United Nations' negotiation with the Taliban and they
continue to vocalize the need for the presence of foreign peacekeeping
groups in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, RAWA works with refugees in
Pakistan and establishes schools and hospitals.
Like other women's groups, such as the Women's Alliance for
Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, RAWA strongly believes
in emancipation. They are making an active effort to accomplish
this goal. However, women's groups are in a compromised situation.
They have a relatively small amount of funding or political
power compared to influential governments. To succeed, they
must plead to foreign powers to become involved, financially
and militarily. This aid does not come very often, perhaps only
when superpowers have their own interests in mind.
Secondly, the United Nations, which was "established in 1945
by 51 countries committed to preserving peace through international
cooperation and collective security", adds another perspective
to the women's rights in Afghanistan. Until 1996, when the Taliban
captured Kabul, the UN had a disastrous lack of policy concerning
rights violations against Afghanis. They drew much criticism
from feminist groups who were horrified at the UN's lack of
involvement (Rashid, 114). When the Taliban hung President Najibullah
and began to restrict women, the international media abruptly
awoke from its slumber. The UN had to respond. Finally, they
released a statement that spoke of "maintaining and promoting
the inherent equality and dignity of all people" and "not discriminating
between the sexes, races, ethnic groups, or religions" (114).
At the same time, they said "international agencies hold local
customs and cultures in high respect" (114). It was a classic
UN compromise -- they were upholding their image by recognizing
the need for change and portraying a respect for cultural relativity.
In effect, the Taliban were allowed to stall. The Taliban leadership
realized that the UN was not prepared to stand up to them. Rashid
As each UN agency tried to cut its own deal with the Taliban,
the UN compromised its principles, while Taliban restrictions
on women only escalated. 'The UN is on a slippery slope. The
UN thinks by making small compromises it can satisfy the international
community and satisfy the Taliban. In fact it is doing neither,'
the head of a European NGO told me. (113)
By October 1996, the UN was forced to postpone eight projects
for women in Kabul. The contradictions of their policy show
how cautious an organization has to be in a political arena.
In order to ensure their own success, they have to cater to
Finally, the reaction of the United States to the situation
of Afghani women is also ambiguous. Former Secretary of State
Madeline Albright called the human rights conditions "despicable"
(Loar, 2). America emphasized that the observance of rights
is one of its highest foreign policy priorities. Also, it continually
cites the aid that is- given to organizations like the Red Cross
to run programs that partially benefit Afghanistan. The United
States refused to give diplomatic recognition to the Taliban
or the Northern Alliance, which opposes them. It takes a neutral
standpoint, but not toward "violations of international norms
of behavior" (2). Karl Inderfurth, the Assistant Secretary of
State for Southern Asian Affairs stresses:
We call upon the Taliban to lift its restriction on the employment
of women and the schooling of girls; we also call upon the Taliban
and all factions to abide by internationally accepted norms
of human rights. (3)
Statements similar to this have been repeated many times. However,
this is completely ineffective. "Calling" on the Taliban to
do anything is ridiculously useless. The U.S. is simply declaring
its position, nothing more. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton
We cannot allow these terrible crimes against women and girls
-- and truly against all of humanity -- to continue with impunity.
We must all make it unmistakably clear this terrible suffering
inflicted on the women and girls of Afghanistan is not cultural,
it is criminal. And we must do everything in our power to stop
it. (Women and Girls in Afghanistan, 3)
Perhaps Clinton's statement comes form her heart. Yet, there
are other objectives behind this promotion of human rights.
The U.S. has to take this position because it is beneficial
for the West to promote democracy. As Fatima Mernissi concludes:
If choking civil society and investing in fundamentalism was
a profitable strategy up to the mid-1980's, recent dislocations
resulting from demographic pressure, unemployment, skyrocketing
debt, the closing of Europe's immigration doors, and the IMF-induced
state withdrawal from social services have made democratization
in the Arab world the only feasible scenario for the twenty-first
century. The key factor shaping the future will be whether all
states, Eastern and Western, will accept 'global' responsibility
for promoting freedom, pluralism, gender equality, and democracy,
with the richest nations taking the lead. If Fukuyama's thesis
that universalization is a compelling inclination of liberal
democracies is correct, perhaps liberal bankers and arms producers
may yet magically shift gear and begin funding Muslim women's
free initiative to unveil, after having invested for decades
in veiling pluralism in the Middle East. (45)
Mernissi illustrates the shift between supporting fundamentalism
and encouraging democracy. Now, in the 21st century, the West
must change policy to benefit itself and the world. Perhaps,
Mernissi argues, Muslim women will finally receive the financial
and political support they need to establish rights.
There are so many perspectives and contradictions within this
issue of women's rights in Afghanistan. Islam is interpreted
differently. The Western obligation to interfere presents theories
of cultural relativism and activism. The Taliban's suppression
of women stimulates their goal. The West fights for women in
the name of democracy for their own success. And where does
this leave women? They are trapped in a spinning ball being
thrown violently back and forth between opposing teams. No matter
what they do to puncture that suppression, it persists. They
are flung, spun, and shot in different directions in a battle
to win control. Whether universal human rights exist or not,
they are stuck in a pressured vacuum. Perhaps, one of these
teams will realize that a respect for the ball will fuel their
success. When a partnership is finally established between political
powers and the female population of Afghanistan, women will
be able to take effective leaps toward their freedom. Until
then, they are caught hopelessly bouncing.