Originally posted December 2009
There are plentiful accounts of oppressed women in Afghanistan in the international media, development reports, and the academic literature. Instances of starving widows, under-age girls forced into marriage, high maternal death rates, rape, murder, incest, abductions, wife-beatings, self-immolation, deprivation of education, burning of girls’ schools, restricted mobility, and, above all, the wearing of the burqa have been recorded in both word and image so many times that Afghan women have become the world’s stereotypical victims of male domination, ignorance, and hide-bound religious belief.
Remove the sensation and it remains true that many Afghan women experience violence, deprivation, and constraints on their freedom of choice and movement. Frequently too, their condition is ignored by the Afghan authorities or taken as the norm. And when Afghan women take action to escape victimization they are often victimized again. Women running away from home can be imprisoned, and rape victims can be convicted of adultery or killed for compromising family honor. At best, they may find refuge in a shelter, but that too is little better than a prison since it puts them in a limbo from which there is no easy exit.
In feminist terms, Afghan society is markedly gendered, in that it makes stark distinctions between the roles of women and men, and is patriarchal and paternalistic. It is permeated with masculine values such as honor, justice, and hospitality, while the roles assigned to women limit their “agency,” or ability to act. The family and tribe are the most important social units, and women are respected as the perpetuators of the family and the holders of its honor. Thus their bodies must be guarded to protect virginity, ensure that their progeny are legitimately fathered, and that they are not abducted or in other ways violated as a hostile act against the family unit. It is estimated that up to 90% of women never leave the home, and certainly the low number of women in public space supports this view. When women leave their homes, they carry their private space with them in the form of the burqa. This renders them taboo, invisible, and therefore secure. Thus the bodies of Afghan women are controlled physically, spatially, and politically by men because of their symbolic importance to the integrity of the family and the tribe. Recently, an eight-year-old girl raped by a neighbour who had been taken into police custody for her own protection. Her family intended to kill her because the shame of her violation had compromised their honor. In other instances, such attacks are never reported. Only recently have some victims and their families sought legal recourse. For most, shame leads to the rejection or elimination of the harmed woman or girl, and also helps save face in suggesting to the despoiler that what was despoiled was not worth much to the family anyway.
There are several problems with presenting a monolithic view of the oppression of women in Afghanistan. First, it tends to ignore what casual observation reveals: that, despite the reports, oppressed women are not the norm. Second, accounts tend to be sensationalized by Western journalists and others searching for “human interest” stories, or attempting to characterize Afghanistan as strange, backward, and different from, if not altogether more inferior to, the rest of the world. Third, descriptions of the situation of Afghan women usually separate them from their social and cultural context and assess them according to feminized Western standards. Their situation also may be falsely ascribed to Islamic belief and practice. Lastly, the numerous accounts have the effect of depersonalizing individual victims by making them stock characters set against a backdrop of Afghanistan as a disturbed, dysfunctional, and failed state. Altogether, the effect is to present a problem so overwhelming that it cannot be wholly comprehended or solved.
The truth is that the treatment of women in Afghanistan is as various as is it elsewhere. It may be that the incidence of violence is higher than in some other countries, but the fact is we do not know exactly the rate of violence against women because there are no reliable statistics. However, observation shows many caring marital and family relationships, indulgent husbands and fathers, daughters encouraged to pursue university education, and women with professional careers or working in offices or village fields alongside men who are not relatives. There are also more women in Parliament than in some Western countries, as well as women elected to Provincial Councils, serving on the community development councils formed under the Afghanistan National Solidarity Program, taking part in local shuras, and giving strong leadership and voice to women’s organizations. Nor are women in the private sphere necessarily oppressed. They own property, choose their sons’ wives, arrange marriages, settle disputes, and manage household resources and family property. Historically, there have been famous female leaders such as Nazoo Anaa, “the mother of Afghan nationalism.” Even today there is at least one female “warlord,” Bibi Ayesha, who led men against both the Soviets and the Taliban.
The question of the burqa and of veiling in general is more complex than the view that it is a cumbersome garment symbolic of the Taliban repression of women. It belongs to a tradition of purdah in the Middle East and South Asia where it predated Islam, included Hinduism, and set gender boundaries for both men and women. While some families may require women to wear it when they enter public space, and it is worn more in the provinces than the cities, it is not a mandatory covering. Nevertheless, it is frequently a means to mobility and an assurance of security for women entering public space.
Wearing the veil on the other hand is an Islamic symbol of modesty, worn to conceal the outer beauty in order to show the inner. While it is regarded as a symbol of repression by Western feminists, recently Muslim feminists have returned to wearing it as a protest against prevailing Western colonialist attitudes. It proclaims that they can be Muslim and equal to men at the same time. Muslim men also are expected to be modest and to cover certain parts of their bodies. Indeed, in Afghanistan, most men cover their heads and bodies for practical if not religious reasons, so covering in both genders might be regarded as much a social as a religious custom.
Examining similarities rather than differences between Afghan women and men could perhaps bring perspective to the question of oppressed women. Life is burdensome for women but equally hard for men. The requirement in a patriarchal and collectivist society to obey the father and assume onerous obligations to an extended family mean that men too have little choice over how they lead their lives. And while remedies are gradually being introduced for the abuse of women, less attention is paid to the frequent instances of boys sold or kidnapped for labor or sexual purposes, or mistreated in other ways.
Charges of colonialist attitudes towards Muslim and Afghan women also may not be entirely misplaced. The gender equality programs introduced into Afghanistan by international organizations and Western women’s groups are frequently based on Western ideology, concepts, and practices. Muslim feminists would argue that the Qur’an should be the starting point, since the Prophet introduced gender equality which, over centuries of masculine interpretation, has been obscured. Returning to original Islamic principles and building on existing practices and structures that support the equality of women might find greater acceptance among both women and men. A more nuanced interpretation of the status of Afghan women and a subtler approach might well yield better results.
. Evidence gathered from police files. See also the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan at for reports of violence against women.
. Palwasha Kakar, “Tribal Law of Pashtunwali and Women’s Legislative Authority,” .
. See for example, Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).