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Women's rights in Afghanistan

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Women's rights in Afghanistan

Women's rights in Afghanistan
Women of Afghanistan in 2006
Gender Inequality Index
Value 0.712 (2012)
Rank 147th
Maternal mortality (per 100,000) 460 (2010)
Women in parliament 27.6% (2012)
Females over 25 with secondary education 5.8% (2010)
Women in labour force 15.7% (2011)
Global Gender Gap Index
Value NR (2012)
Rank NR out of 136

Women's rights in Afghanistan have gradually improved in the last decade under the Karzai administration. Through different rulers such as the mujahideen and the Taliban in the later part of the 20th century, women had struggled to gain freedoms and reform a society that is primarily male dominant. Violence against women in Afghanistan remains high, and international observers noted improving as the country slowly progresses,[1] though rights groups have expressed renewed concerns in 2014.[2][3]


Afghan women in the 1920s.
Afghan women in Kabul during the 1950s

Afghans lived in Afghanistan for thousands of years. Of all of the ethnic groups, the Pashtuns are the largest followed by Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others. From the 19th century and through the twentieth century the rulers of Afghanistan consistently attempted to lessen women's restrictions in the country. For the most part, these attempts were unsuccessful; however, there were a few leaders who were able to make some significant changes for the time period. Among them was King Amanullah, who ruled from 1919 to 1929 and made some of the more noteworthy changes in an attempt to unify as well as modernize the country.[4]

King Amanullah, along with other rulers following him, promoted freedom for women in the public sphere in order to lessen the control that patriarchal families had over women. King Amanullah stressed the importance for young girls and women to receive an education. Along with encouraging families to send their daughters to school, he promoted the unveiling of women and persuaded them to adopt a more western style of dress.[5] In 1921, he created a law that abolished forced marriage, child marriage, bride price, and put restrictions on polygamy, a common practice among households in Afghanistan.[5] However, over time these restrictions became nearly impossible to enforce.

Modern social reform for Afghan women began when Queen Soraya made rapid reforms to improve women's lives and their position in the family. She was the only woman to appear on the list of rulers in Afghanistan and was credited with having been one of the first and most powerful Afghan and Muslim female activists. Her advocacy of social reforms for women led to a protest and contributed to the ultimate demise of King Amanullah's reign.[6]

Throughout the 20th century, Afghanistan continued to be a country dominated by tribes and men continued to have ultimate control over women. In 1973 the state was declared a republic and throughout the 1970s and 1980s a communist group called the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took over and attempted to once again reform the marriage laws, women's health laws, and encouraged women's education. During this time it made significant advances towards modernization.[7] Minorities of women were able to hold jobs as scientists, teachers, doctors, and civil servants and had a considerable amount of freedom with significant educational opportunities.[8] The majority of women, however, lived in poverty and were excluded from these opportunities. In 1977, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was founded by Meena Keshwar Kamal in Kabul but her office was moved to Quetta in neighboring Pakistan where she was assassinated in 1987.[9] RAWA still operates in the region of Pakistan and Afghanistan.[10]

Mujahideen and Taliban era

In 1992, the peace and power-sharing agreement Peshawar Accord established the post-communist era Islamic State of Afghanistan. It was signed on 24 April 1992 by a number of the major Afghan anti-Soviet resistance parties except for the Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The accord established an interim government for a transitional period to be followed by general elections.[11] War in Afghanistan continued into a new phase when Gulbuddin Hekmatyar started a bombardment campaign against the Islamic State and the capital city Kabul. It is reported that in 1970 Hekmatyar had thrown acid into the faces of women and shot them at Kabul University.[12]

The restrictions imposed when the Islamic State was established were "the ban of alcohol and the enforcement of a sometimes-purely-symbolic veil for women".[13] Women, however, remained in the workplace and the liberal provisions of the 1964 constitution were largely upheld. Women began to be more restricted after Hekmatyar was integrated into the Islamic State as Afghan Prime Minister in 1996. He demanded for women who appeared on TV to be fired. During the violent four-year civil war a number of women had been kidnapped and some of them raped. By the time one of the factions became victorious many people welcomed this new leading force known as the Taliban.[4]

Taliban religious police beating a woman in Kabul filmed by RAWA on August 26, 2001.

Like their spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, the Taliban administrators were poor villagers almost entirely educated in Wahhabi schools in neighboring Pakistan.[4] Immediately after coming into power, the Taliban declared that women were forbidden to go to work and they were not to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male family member. When they did go out it was required that they had to wear an all-covering burqa. Under these restrictions, women were denied formal education.[5] Some women were unable to leave their households at all because they could not afford a burqa or they no longer had any male relatives. Women were usually forced to stay at home and paint their windows so that no one could see in or out.[8] During the Taliban's five-year rule, women in Afghanistan were essentially put under house arrest. Some women who once held respectable positions were forced to wander the streets in their burqas selling everything they owned or begging in order to survive. The United Nations refused to recognize the Taliban government, with the United States imposing heavy sanctions on them, similar as those placed on North Korea. This led to extreme hardship on all the citizens of Afghanistan.

Because most teachers had been women before the Taliban regime, the new restrictions on women's employment created a huge lack of teachers, which put an immense strain on the education of both boys and girls. Although women were banned from most jobs, including teaching, some women in the medical field were allowed to continue working.[8] This is because the Taliban required that women could be treated only by female physicians.[5] Moreover, for several reasons, it was difficult for women to seek medical attention. It was extremely frowned upon for women to need to go to a hospital, and those who did try to go to a hospital were usually beaten. Even when a woman was able to make it to a hospital she had no guarantee that she would be seen by a doctor.

Several Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders ran a network of human trafficking, abducting women and selling them into forced prostitution and slavery in Afghanistan and Pakistan.[14] Time Magazine writes: "The Taliban often argued that the brutal restrictions they placed on women were actually a way of revering and protecting the opposite sex. The behavior of the Taliban during the six years they expanded their rule in Afghanistan made a mockery of that claim."[14]

21st century

Afghan women in 2013

After the removal of the Taliban regime from Afghanistan a new government was formed. The Karzai administration has relaxed policies around women's rights, and in Kabul women can be seen driving cars and engaging in other activities that they would have previously been banned from participating in.[15]

In March 2012, President Hamid Karzai endorsed a "code of conduct" which was issued by the Ulema Council. Some of the rules state that "women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices." Karzai said that the rules were in line with Islamic law and that the code of conduct was written in consultation with Afghan women's group."[16]

Rights organizations and women activists say that by endorsing this code of conduct Karzai is endangering "hard-won progress in women's right since the Taliban fell from power in 2001.[17] The BBC reports that a number of women have reacted to the endorsement with humour. One Afghan woman working in London posted on Facebook "Ladies, you should not surface on Facebook without a male partner."

The overall situation for Afghan women has improved in the last decade, particularly in the major urban areas, but those living in rural parts of the country still face many problems. In 2013, a female Indian author Sushmita Banerjee was killed in Paktika province by militants for allegedly defying Taliban diktats. She was married to an Afghan businessman and had recently relocated to Afghanistan. Earlier she had escaped two instances of execution by the Taliban in 1995 and later fled to India. Her book based on her escape from Taliban was also filmed in a Bollywood film.[18]

Human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch[2][19] and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom[3] have expressed concern at women's rights in the country.

In 2013 the United Nations published statistics showing a 20% increase in violence against women, often due to domestic violence being justified by conservative religion and culture. In February 2014 Afghanistan passed a law that includes a provision that limits the ability of government to compel some family members to be witnesses to domestic violence. Human Rights Watch describes the implementation of the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women as "poor," noting that some cases are ignored. In 2013 four female police officers were killed. The same year, some parliamentarians proposed removing the minimum age of marriage. A 2011 government report found that 25 percent of the women and girls diagnosed with fistula were younger than 16 when they married.[20][21]

In 2015, Farkhunda was beaten to death by a mob on a false accusation of burning a Qoran.

Politics and workforce

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton standing with Afghan female politicians, which includes Fauzia Koofi with the green headscarf on her right and Sima Samar to her left.

The most popular traditional work for women in Afghanistan is tailoring, and a large percentage of the population are professional tailors working from home.[22] Since 2002 women have gradually begun to work their way back towards being contributors to the economy. Some women became entrepreneurs by starting own businesses. For example, Meena Rahmani became the first woman in Afghanistan to open a bowling center in Kabul.[23] Many others are employed by companies and small businesses.

Female officers of the Afghan National Police.
Female lieutenants of the Afghan Air Force posing for camera in 2010
Afghan women at a textile factory in Kabul.

In the last decade a large number of women became members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan (Afghan Parliament), such as Shukria Barakzai, Fauzia Gailani, Nilofar Ibrahimi,[24] Fauzia Koofi, Malalai Joya, and many others. Several women also took positions as ministers, including Suhaila Seddiqi, Sima Samar, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, and Soraya Dalil. Habiba Sarabi, who belongs to the minority Hazara group, became the first female governor in Afghanistan. She also served as Minister of Women's Affairs. Azra Jafari is a female mayor in Nili, the capital of Daykundi Province.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which includes the Afghan National Police, have a number female officers. One of the Afghan National Army Brigadier generals is Khatol Mohammadzai. In 2012, Lt. Nilofar Rahmani became the first female pilot in the Afghan Air Force pilot training program to fly solo.[25] The number of female military and police officers are growing as more are being trained to perform their duty on an international level. Many believe that this will open doors for other institutions to hire women in the future. Other notable Afghan women include Roya Mahboob, Aziza Siddiqui, Mary Akrami, Suraya Pakzad, Wazhma Frogh, Shukria Asil, Shafiqa Quraishi, Maria Bashir, Maryam Durani, Malalai Bahaduri, and Nasrin Oryakhil.

Because Afghanistan has a struggling economy overwhelmed with massive unemployment and poverty, women often cannot find work where they receive sufficient pay.[5] One area of the economy where women do play a significant role is in agriculture. Of the 80 percent of Afghans employed in the agriculture field or similar occupations, 30 percent of them are women.[5] In some areas in Afghanistan, women may spend as much time working on the land as men do, but still often earn three times less than men in wages.[5]

In terms of percentage women also rank high in the fields of medicine and media, and are slowly working their way into the field of justice. Because women are still highly encouraged to consult a female physician when they go to the hospital, nearly fifty percent of all Afghans in the medical profession are women.[5] The number of women having professions in the media is also rising. Currently there are more than ten television stations that have all female anchors as well as female producers.[5] As women are given more opportunities in education and the workforce, more of them are turning towards careers in medicine, media, and justice.

However, even the women that are given the opportunity to have careers have to struggle to balance their home life with their work life. Since the economy is so weak, very few women can afford servants so they are forced to take care of all the household work primarily on their own.[5] Those who choose to work must labour twice as hard because they are essentially holding two jobs.


Female students using the internet at Herat University in the western Afghan city of Herat.

Education in Afghanistan is very low, especially for women. Approximately 15% of females can read and write but this is now increasing due to the high number of girls attending schools throughout the country.[26] As of 2011, there are around 8 million students in Afghanistan, 37% of them are females.[27][28] About 82,000 students are enrolled in different universities around the country.[28]

Biology class at Kabul University during the late 1950s or early 1960s.

In the early twentieth century, education for women was extremely rare due to the lack of schools for girls. Occasionally girls were able to receive an education on the primary level but they never moved past the secondary level.[5] During Zahir Shah's reign (1933-1973) education for women became a priority and young girls began being sent to schools. At these schools, girls were taught discipline, new technologies, ideas, and socialization in society.[5]

Kabul University was opened to girls in 1947 and by 1973 there was an estimated 150,000 girls in schools across Afghanistan. Unfortunately, marriage at a young age added to the high drop out rate but more and more girls were entering professions that were once viewed as only being for men.[5] Women were being given new opportunities to earn better lives for both themselves and their families. However, in the after the civil war and the takeover by the Taliban, women were stripped of these opportunities and sent back to lives where they were to stay at home and be controlled by their husbands and fathers.

During the Taliban regime, many women who had previously been teachers began secretly giving an education to young girls (as well as some boys) in their neighborhoods, teaching from ten to sixty children at a time.[8] The homes of these women became community homes for students, and were entirely financed and managed by women. News about these secret schools spread through word of mouth from woman to woman. Each day young girls would hide all their school supplies, such as books, notebooks and pencils, underneath their burqas to go to school. At these schools, young females were taught basic literary skills, numeracy skills, and various other subjects such as biology, chemistry, English, Quranic Studies, cooking, sewing, and knitting. Many women involved in teaching were caught by the Taliban and persecuted, jailed, and tortured.[8]

The Taliban are still opposed to education for Afghan boys and girls. They are burning down schools, killing students and teachers by all kinds of means, including chemical warfare. For example, in June 2012, fifteen suspects were detained by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) "in connection with the serial anti-school attacks in northern Afghanistan." The NDS believes that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence was behind the idea.[29] During the same period, Pakistan has been refusing to deliver Afghan bound school text books.[30]


In the last decade Afghan females have participated in various types of sports including futsal, football, and basketball.

Marriage and parenting

Mother's Day in Afghanistan
Mother with her children on Mothers' Day in Kabul

Afghanistan is a patriarchal society where it is commonly believed that men are entitled to make decisions for women, include those pertaining to engagement and marriage.[31] A man can divorce without needing his wife's agreement.[32]

Arranged marriages are common for women in Afghanistan and they are done mostly for political and economic reasons. A girl's father has the ultimate authority over who he believes his daughter should marry. It is not uncommon for girls to be engaged even before they are born. Girls are often married off at a very young age to wealthy men who are much older than themselves. Reports have even indicated that in the most poverty-stricken areas of rural Afghanistan, families have been reduced to selling their daughters to much older men in exchange for food.

After a marriage is arranged, the two families sign an engagement contract that both parties are socially and culturally obligated to honor. After this contract is signed, the bride is forbidden to marry another man.[33] If the bride dies before the marriage, her family is required to give her sister as a bride or find another desirable replacement.[33]

It is common among low-income families in most areas of the country for the groom to pay a bride price to the bride's family.[31] The price is negotiated among the heads of the family; the bride herself is not included in the negotiation process. The bride price is viewed as compensation for the money that the bride's family has had to spend on her care and upbringing.[31] There have been many instances where a family is so stricken by poverty that a father will betroth his daughters to multiple men and collect the bride price from each of them.[31] The resulting disputes, although addressed by the courts, often lead to violent reprisals. Girls are sometimes also bartered in a traditional method of dispute resolution called baad that proponents say helps avoid violence between families, although the girls themselves are often subject to considerable violence both before and after marrying into a family through baad.[34]

In many cases, once a girl is married she becomes the property of her new family and continues to have little to no control over her situation. In family matters, the girl's mother-in-law and her husband have the most control. In most cases, it is the mother-in-law, who decides whether or not her pregnant daughter-in-law should go to the hospital or not.[5]

Under the Afghan law, "if a woman seeks a divorce then she has to have the approval of her husband and needs witnesses who can testify in court that the divorce is justified."[32] The first occurrence of a woman divorcing a man in Afghanistan was the divorce initiated by Rora Asim Khan, who divorced her husband in 1927.[35] This was described as unique at the time it occurred, but this was an exception, as Rora Asim Khan was a foreign citizen, who obtained her divorce by assistance from the German embassy.[35]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c d e
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^ Elizabeth Rubin. 'Veiled Rebellion', National Geographic Magazine. December 2010.
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Afghan women struggle to make ends meet as tailors
  23. ^ In Kabul, a bowling center offers respite from war
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Rising literacy in Afghanistan ensures transition. By Rob McIlvaine, ARNEWS. June 13, 2011.
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ a b c d
  32. ^ a b
  33. ^ a b
  34. ^ Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Afghan Girls Suffer for Sins of Male Relatives, 26 March 2009, ARR No. 317, available at: [accessed 5 December 2010]
  35. ^ a b Rora Asim Khan (Aurora Nilsson): Anders Forsberg och Peter Hjukström: Flykten från harem, Nykopia, Stockholm 1998. ISBN 91-86936-01-8.

External links

  • Afghan Women - National Geographic
  • A Place At The Table: Safeguarding Women's Rights in Afghanistan
  • The World Factbook
  • Women, Afghan Law, and Sharia
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