New Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signaled a new day for women in Afghanistan during his inauguration speech with a simple but emotional thank you to his wife for her support and a promise that she will have influence in his presidency.
Ghani’s public acknowledgement of his wife Rula sends a positive message to Afghan women but makes others throughout Afghanistan uneasy.
The most important issues facing Afghan women today are security, health, and education, as well as social and economic empowerment.
Although the country’s constitution guarantees women’s right to be educated and to work, making advances in these areas still means confronting and challenging the conservative nature of Afghan society and family.
If we gauge empowerment as a combination of granted rights and active participation, one area of major success for women has been in education. More women go to and graduate from Kabul University while millions of Afghan girls are being educated throughout the country.
With the constitutionally granted right to vote, Afghan women are also politically active—in record numbers as voters, as activists, and as politicians.
But despite advances in education and political empowerment, Afghan women face a consistent struggle against the fundamentally conservative nature of the country.
Afghanistan has historically been a nation of traditional tribal values and the rise of Islam in the 8th century introduced further conservative beliefs and customs.
‘Women, gold, land’
There is a saying in Afghanistan “zan, zar, zamin,” which translates to “women, gold, land.” It is a battle-cry of those who have opposed government reforms and it essentially means: “Don’t mess with my women, my money, or my land.”
Afghanistan’s modern history is littered with rulers who pushed for reforms that were rejected by the more conservative population.
The monarchy and ruling elite in Kabul have often been leagues ahead of the citizens in terms of progressive ideas and reforms. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Afghan rulers consistently attempted to lessen the restrictions put on women in the country. For the most part, these measures were unpopular and unsuccessful. However, some significant changes were made for the time period.
Considered the first modern ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) was dubbed the “Iron Amir” for his ruthless methods of consolidating disparate tribes and other groups into what we now know as Afghanistan. But he was rather progressive for the time when it came to women’s rights.
Abdur Rahman abolished the tribal custom of forcing a woman to marry her deceased husband's brother and raised the age of marriage. He gave women the right to divorce in cases of cruelty and non-support and the right to inherit property from fathers and husbands. In her 1986 book “Women of Afghanistan,” Nancy Hatch Dupree wrote that Abdur Rahman’s wife influenced him, as she “was the first Afghan queen to appear in public in European dress without a veil.”
King Amanullah Khan (1919-29), in an effort to modernize the country, pushed for the first constitution in Afghanistan and also instituted greater freedoms for Afghan women. He discouraged polygamy, built schools for girls, and challenged the custom of women wearing veils. His wife, Queen Soraya, famously appeared unveiled in public ceremonies. The king’s reforms met with violent opposition, and he was eventually forced to abdicate the throne.
His successor, Nadir Shah (1929-33) bowed to the demands of the tribal leaders and rolled back many of the reforms King Amanullah had implemented. He also banned Jarideh Zanan, the only newspaper at the time published by Afghan women.
During King Zahir Shah’s relatively long rule (1933-73), Afghan women made gradual progress, although careful not to move too hastily in order to keep peace with the tribes. In 1941, the first secondary female school was established in Kabul. During the 1940s and 1950s, women started to enter the work force and were able to become teachers, nurses, and doctors.
With the reform efforts of King Shah’s cousin and Prime Minister, Daoud Khan, women were allowed to unveil. In 1959, the wives of the ruling family and senior government officials appeared unveiled at public functions. Other women soon followed. While Kabul remained calm over this change, Kandahar was not. A revolt, eventually suppressed by the government, left 60 people dead.
In 1964, the Afghan constitution granted women the right to vote and enter politics. Although these were huge advances for Afghan women, they were limited to women living in Kabul and other major cities. Most of the rural areas remained staunchly conservative, and women continued to be subject to traditional and religious codes.
Since the end of the monarchy in Afghanistan, the measures having to do with women’s role in Afghan society have ricocheted between aggressively liberal measures and oppressively reactionary ones.
In its slide toward Communist ideology, the People Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) assumed power in 1978, backed by the Soviet Union. The PDPA implemented massive social reforms, including compulsory education for girls, the marriage dowry was abolished, and the minimum legal age for marriage for girls was raised to 16-years-old.
The backlash against these reforms in the rural areas was intense, eventually forming the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviet-backed central government.
After fourteen years of war, the Mujahideen took Kabul in 1993. Afghanistan went from a Communist government to an Islamic State.
The ensuing four years of the civil war were arguably the most brutal time in modern Afghan history. Kabul was demolished and Afghans, including women, suffered intense abuse and gross human rights violations. Rape, torture, and murder were common. But women were allowed to work and go to school.
The Taliban rose to power as an antidote to the chaos and abuse of the civil war. They held the promise of security and a return to traditional values. But after they took Kabul in 1996, they immediately imposed stringent restrictions on all Afghans.
Women saw any advances rolled back. They were forbidden to work, go to school or leave the house unless accompanied by a man. They could not be treated by a male doctor and had to cover themselves from head to toe.
Members of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, established under the Taliban, would measure the length of men’s beards to make sure that they were long enough and would censure women whose shoes made too much noise while walking. Although it’s true that women were no longer being raped, tortured, and murdered by warring factions, they were nevertheless prisoners, either in their homes or under their head-to-toe veils.
Against this historical backdrop, the gains over the last thirteen years during the administration of former President Hamid Karzai have been immense in terms of the empowerment of Afghan women. Women have the constitutional right to work, to be educated, to vote, and to hold public office. Whether a woman wears a veil or not is up to her.
Both President Ghani and his former rival and now chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, made strong campaign promises to uphold and protect women’s constitutional rights going forward.
But what history shows us is that any progress in the empowerment of Afghan women has to be gradual and participatory. Many rulers have tried to push the countryside into reform, but all such attempts have been unsuccessful.
The full implementation of reform measures requires both time and education. Women in rural areas who are served and protected by these measures, who benefit most, must themselves understand and support these measures.
Social change in the West, whether women’s rights, civil rights, or marriage equality, have not happened top-down, by leaders forcefully instituting reform.
In order for Afghan women to create a future where they are free to learn, to work, and to participate in all facets of daily life, Afghan women themselves, in the cities and also in the villages, need to collectively and actively participate in the evolution of their culture and traditions.