The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

Huma Ahmed Ghosh: the historical background of Afghan women's struggle


September 11th and Afghan Women
By Dr. Huma Ahmed Ghosh
for Afghan Magazine
Lemar-Aftaab January - December 2001

Ever since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., a sense of insecurity, injustice and dread has permeated the 'American' way of life. Along with such sentiments, a new knowledge base has also been added, albeit for the wrong reasons; we now know where Afghanistan is, where Pakistan is and who the pawns in this new great game are.

For Western feminists specifically, there is for the first time a larger debate on Islam and the "woman question", and a curiosity about the lives of women in another continent.

In this paper, I will try to wrestle with questions pertaining to an understanding of Afghan women's lives and issues as an integral part of global politics and international wrangling. An attempt will be made here to frame the "woman question" in a historical perspective.

Afghanistan is a region that is very rugged in its terrain and sparsely populated by various ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. Historically, the differences in the cultures and politics of the various tribes and external meddling have prevented Afghanistan from ever forming a consensual, coherent sense of nationalism. What have existed in terms of a nation-state are sporadic attempts of bringing together as many tribes as the monarchy could.

Therefore, dissent and rebellion have been the hallmark of Afghan politics. Warring factions have fought throughout the history of Afghanistan over land, leadership of the state, and alliances to international superpowers. In Afghanistan thus, the patriarchy is tied to their form of subsistence, which was partially one of pastoralism, nomadism and constant search for greener pastures.

This economic-political scenario combined with an open and varied interpretation of Islam has led to cultures where religious laws pertaining to women in Afghanistan have in many instances been in contradiction to Islam.

Tribal laws and sanctions have taken precedence over Islamic laws in deciding gender roles in the region. Tribal power plays, institutions of honor, and inter-tribal show of machismo has rendered women's position in jeopardy. Tribal laws viewed marriages as alliances between groups; women were pawned into marriages, not allowed to divorce, total obedience to the husband and his family was expected, and they were prevented from getting any education. Women were perceived as the receptacles of 'honor', hence they stayed in the domestic sphere, observed the veil and were voiceless.

Brief History of Afghan Women

For women in Afghanistan, reforms were not just visible but implemented around the 1880s, when Amir Abdur Rahman Khan ascended the throne. He tried to change some of the customary laws that were detrimental to women's autonomy. Women were, after marriage, viewed as the husband's family's property to the extent that if her husband died she was forced to marry his brother or next of kin. Amir Abdur Rahman "Iron-Amir" abolished this custom, raised the age of marriage, and gave women rights to divorce under specific circumstances.

Upon his death in 1901, Amir Habibullah Khan began his reign, which lasted until 1919. Amir Habibullah continued this progressive agenda by putting a ceiling on the extravagant expenses during marriages, which rendered many households into poverty. He abandoned the veil for his wives who were publicly seen in western clothes. Nevertheless, tribal leaders and mullahs saw the opening of a school with an English curriculum that admitted women as going against the grain of tradition.

Upon Amir Habibullah's assassination in 1919, his son King Amanullah and Queen Soraya ascended the throne marking the full-fledged modernization period of Afghanistan. The Amani government led by King Amanullah declared that women may chose not to be seen in public wearing the veil; women were encouraged to go to school and receive an education. King Amanullah went as far as sending some women to Europe for an education. In fact, in 1928 the King and Queen received honorary degrees from Oxford University.

"He planned to open six schools for women, the first being Essmat Lycee which opened in 1921. Later renamed to Malalai Lycee, Essmat operated under the guidance of Queen Soraya. Queen Soraya believed that the education of women would improve their social status and permit them to play a more meaningful role within society. To promote this cause, Queen Soraya and her mother founded the first women's weekly magazine Irshad-i-Niswan (The Guide for Women). Other achievements included the formation of the Anjuman-i-Himayat-Niswan (Women's Protective Association) was headed by Shah Amanullah's sister Kobra" (Sadat, 2001)

This was an era when other Muslim nations, like Turkey and Egypt were also on the path to modernization. Hence, in Afghanistan the elite was impressed by such changes and emulated their development models.

However, the 1920s were also the time that conflicts between the elite modernists and traditionalist tribes began to surface. The main bone(s) of contention was the changing status of women.

What broke the proverbial camel's back for the traditionalists was the institution in 1924 of the freedom of women to choose their own partners and attempts to abolish bride price. Fathers of young women saw such progressive laws as a loss of social status, loss of familial control and a further loss of financial security.

"Gregorian (1969) asserts that 'Amanullah, determined to improve this situation [the status of women] and maintaining that his support of the feminist cause was based on the true tenets of Islam, took more steps in this direction in his short rule than were taken by all his predecessors together.' (P. 243). He sent them to Muslim countries such as Turkey to study in the field of medicine. Shah Amanullah reasoned that this would save women in Afghanistan the embarrassment of being examined by male doctors" (Sadat, 2001).

However, by 1928, the traditionalists grew restless and powerful and protested the freedoms women were experiencing in Kabul. It should be pointed out here that women in tribal and rural areas outside of Kabul had still not availed of the opportunities but those in the urban centers who had, were now targeted by the traditionalists.

Yet, the traditionalists were being challenged by many as outlined in Queen Soraya's address to a gathering of women in the 7th Independence Anniversary in 1926:

"Do not think, however, that our nation needs only men to serve it. Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of Islam. The valuable services rendered by women are recounted throughout history from which we learn that women were not created solely for pleasure and comfort. From their examples we learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this can not be done without being equipped with knowledge" (Dupree, 1986, P. 46).

Nevertheless, the Loya Jirga, a group of tribal leaders, finally, put their foot down, when marriage age of girls was raised to 18 years and for men to 21 years and polygamy was abolished. They also opposed the education of girls and by the late 1920s forced the King to reverse some of his policies and conform to a more traditional agenda of social change. Schools for girls were closed down, women had to revert to wearing the veil. As Moghadam (1997) points out, women could not cut their hair, mullahs were given unlimited powers to institute their agendas and the old tribal system was to be reinstated. Nevertheless, pressures on the King mounted and in 1929, the king abdicated the throne. The next two decades saw the Afghan royalty exchange hands with different families and leaders, but not again a leader who would push the reform and women's agenda to the detriment of their rule.

At this point, Afghanistan was also developing a very close trade relationship with the Soviet Union. Because of its strategic location in the Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and lack of interest in their development by the United States, Afghanistan became a close ally of the Soviet Union. This is an important issue in the history of Afghanistan because one could conclude, that despite all the economic assistance that the Soviets gave the region it also sowed the seed for further conflicts that have resulted in the present situation in Afghanistan.

This is not to imply that the Soviets single-handedly are responsible but to implicate the role of the United States (with Pakistan's cooperation) too in playing out their Cold War games on the Afghan playing (killing) fields.

A few decades later in the late 1950's, a need was perceived for women to be economically active to help Afghanistan achieve its targeted development goals. Women's issues were once again given some consideration. "In 1959 members of the royal family and the government appeared at a public ceremony accompanied by their unveiled wives and daughters" (UNESCO Courier, 1975, P.26). In 1959, women were encouraged to abandon the veil, marriage expenses were curtailed, and women were encouraged to participate in the economy. The world was modernizing, industrializing and with Soviet help, Afghanistan could achieve those goals too.

This Soviet economic aid and bilateral trade relations gradually converted into a political and social dependency. The 1960s saw the beginning of a socialist reform agenda in Afghanistan. Over the next 15 years, the Soviet Union had trained around 90% of the Afghan army. Afghan students were going to the Soviet Union for higher education, and on the home front a 'left-wing modernizing elite' was forming.

In 1964 the Constitution allowed women to enter elected politics and gave them the right to vote. The first woman Minister was in the health department, elected to the parliament along with three other women. In 1965 People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a socialist-modernist organization was formed. The same year also saw the formation of the first women's group, the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW). The main objectives of this women's group was to eliminate illiteracy among women, ban forced marriages and do away with the bride price.

"In the '60s women were given equal rights, including the right to vote. In the '70s many women, especially those from the upper class, adopted the Western style of dress" (White, 2001).

The 1970s saw a rise in women's education, faculty in the universities, and representatives in the parliament. Again, a decade of social change caused concern among the mullahs and tribal chiefs in the interiors. Incidents of shooting of women in western clothes, killing of PDPA reformers in the rural areas and general harassment of women social workers increased. 1978 saw the rise to power of the controversial PDPA. It is during the PDPA rule that rapid social and economic change was implemented and mass literacy for women was introduced. "A growing number of women, particularly in urban areas, worked outside the home in nontraditional roles" (US Dept of State, 1995).

While the PDPA served women well, it became a puppet regime of the Soviet Union and elected leaders who flayed all democratic norms and imprisoned and assassinated opposition leaders. The April 1978 Revolution saw Nur Mohammad Taraki at the helm. "Taraki instituted drastic social and economic measures, including land reforms, women's rights and education, thus continuing to offend those with vested interests" (Sadat, 1979:6). The United States recognized the regime and started sending in foreign aid.

However, Prime-Minister Amin created terror in Afghanistan by arresting and killing opponents. In 1979 Amin, while Taraki was in negotiation with the Soviets in Moscow, seized power, and on Taraki's return had him executed. Amin's term was short-lived and Afghanistan saw a new leader in Babrak Karmal. In December 1979, what is popularly known as the Christmas Gift, Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan.

Interestingly, or more ironically, it was during this turbulent 'democratic' Soviet supported regime that women's issues were center stage and implementation up to a point was enforced. White (2001) points out that about 50 percent of college students, teachers and government workers were women. Only 40 percent of doctors were women, but the glass ceiling was beginning to break in professional fields as well.

But for the nation as a whole, it was a period of anarchy and destruction. With the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan was to witness a decade long war fueled by forces, funding and political interest on the part of the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China.

In 1989, when the Soviets left Afghanistan, the country went into disarray and became the site for civil war with the government transfer of power in 1992. "In 1992, and in 1994 women were increasingly precluded from public service. In conservative areas in 1994, many women appear in public only if dressed in a complete head-to-toe garment with a mesh covered opening for their eyes" (US Dept of State, 1995). This was only to be the start of the apartheid against women.

As a result of the power vacuum, a bloody in fighting resulted in the emergence of a totalitarian government as the victors. UNOCAL, a United States based energy company, planned to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, but backed off in 1998 partly because of feminist protests.

Feminist and human rights organizations achieved some minor victories with the prevention of UNOCAL's pipeline. Women in and from Afghanistan are not mere victims of tribal-Islamist traditions but also of poverty, illiteracy and international political wrangling.

Conclusion Afghanistan today is war-ravaged and drought ridden and the United States is now at war with it, dropping bombs and food packets! There is also heightened talk of rescuing the women, their honor and their lives. I see a major contradiction in all of this.

There is no contest to the fact that the situation of women has become abysmal. It cannot be condoned, permitted or excused. "According to research conducted by Amnesty International, a human rights organization, literacy rates for women have dropped to as low as 4 percent in some areas. Afghanistan is ranked at the bottom of the United Nations gender development index" (White, 2001). This is a result of the ban on female education. "The ban on female employment is sure to affect the education of men as well, as women made up almost 70 percent of school teachers before the [1992] takeover" (White, 2001).

However, the consolidation and perplexity of 'women's issues' with the West's animosity with Afghanistan bodes danger for Afghan women. Feminist organizations in the United States and worldwide have to hold their governments and their foreign policies accountable for the conditions of women worldwide.

The 'woman question' in and outside of Afghanistan today is not an issue separate from the politics played out by the "super-powers" of yesteryears; it is the outcome of their politics. Unless feminists and women's organizations start playing an active role in their nations' foreign policies and question their nations' enmities and power plays, women's lives will not change.

Another issue worthy of attention by Western feminists is to what extent is women's status in Afghanistan or for that matter the status of any Muslim woman, rooted exclusively in tribal and religious traditions? There has been a tendency in the West to blame Islam for defining the status of women in its entirety. This interpretation is fraught with problems because it is based on the assumption that in non- Islamic nations women enjoy equality, that women from Islamic nations do not have an agency, that their identity is not determined by their class, ethnicity, kin group, education or indigenous culture.

Feminists in the West should not become slaves to national rhetoric. When we talk of freedom, equality, and human rights, we have to stop and think: freedom for whom and from whom; equality with what and who is defining it; and human rights as defined by whom and when? Why are we letting the very men/patriarchy appropriate the feminist agenda and the "woman question" to further their agenda of disruption, distrust and genocide? Is this Western rhetoric merely a ploy on the part of the United States government to appropriate the feminist agenda to give themselves a leg to stand on, to legitimize their war-mongering agenda, or is such appropriation done to divert our attention away from the inequalities and flagrance of human rights in our own country? During conflict, women experience not only disruption of their daily lives, but also become victims of rape, violence and fundamentalist strictures. However, one has to look into the State structures and global forces that create the conflict that victimize women. Women's experiences during times of conflict must be understood primarily in terms of the patriarchal structures of control and related processes of identity formation. While documents exist on refugee women from Afghanistan, (The Human Rights Commission Reports, United States Reports, etc.) the kind of analysis they present is not based on a conceptual understanding of the complex issues involved nor does it demonstrate any critical thinking on the political forces underlying the humanitarian crisis.

Feminists in the United States have to be watchful. Once again they have to understand what the United States is doing in the sub-continent, which factions are they supporting and where will such politics lead for women?

In the April 1999 issue of Off Our Backs, Hillary Clinton rightly said, "We must speak out against the unspeakable We must use our voices to speak up for women around the world who are still suffering in silence [Women] are begging on the streets to feed their children because they are forbidden to work to earn income to buy the food their children need Think of the woman whose health care has all but vanished, victims of a terrible dilemma in which women cannot be treated by male doctors and the government has banned all female doctors" (P.4).

So, Afghan women continue to be grudging participants in this war and are continuing to pay the price.


Dr. Ahmed-Ghosh is an assistant professor at San Diego State University. She has 15 years experience in teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in Anthropology, Women's Studies, and Asian Studies. Her current research is on cultural adaptation strategies of immigrant Muslim women in Southern California and on Islam and Feminism.
Back to Main (Index) Page
de@daclarke.org
De Clarke