Middle East Studies Association
November 18 – 21, 2006
Then and Now: Afghan Women Emerging and Disappearing
The Quest for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan:
Comparison of the 1960’s Feminist Movement with Now
By: Nasrine Gross
Telephone: 0700281694 (Kabul), 703-536-6471 (USA)
My objective in this paper is to understand the culture (or cultures) of Afghanistan in order to understand the dynamics of change. Afghanistan has to come up to speed with modernity or it will die of obsolescence. So, processes such as development, progress, modernization are very important to its survival as a country and as a people. But first I must understand the culture to see how change occurs among Afghans to ensure Afghanistan’s success. This means how to help Afghans keep their identity and major components of their culture while at the same time comprehend twenty-first century expectations and conditions, and become part of it.
In this respect, I believe the condition of Afghan women today is a major deterrent for success. I believe we can learn from the past and from what is happening today to perhaps chart a road map that will work for Afghanistan.
In this paper I talk about some salient points of the women’s movement before the Communist coup of 1978, when Afghanistan was enjoying not only its nation-statehood and independence but also a long period of peace and stability. I then describe the situation today. Finally, I propose some ways of studying the problem to better accommodate the culture of change.
I have to caution that my remarks do not derive from long term scholarly study. Rather this paper is based on my observation of and meeting with about 75,000 Afghans in the last six years that I have been living there, and from what Afghan experts have written in my own books (1). My hope is that this paper will help identify scholarly pursuits by interested academics and researchers.
B. The Condition of Women from 1930’s to 1978
B.1. Nader Shah’s Period
When I first started to think about this paper I realized that I needed a frame of reference. I needed to know a baseline culture so as to comprehend the changes that occurred later. For this purpose I chose the Afghan culture during Nader Shah’s era, 1929 – 1933. During this period, some areas of Afghanistan were in shock after Habibullah Kalakani’s period. But for the most part Afghanistan had a traditional, rural, illiterate, lower-middle-class to poor society, with a pious and tolerant religion, living more in a community-based environment rather than large urban centers. Afghans lived in small towns or villages and hamlets with small shopping strips filled with mostly their local products. They had no electricity, no paved roads, no major highways, no banks, no radio, and very few and localized press. They used horse-drawn carriages at best but mostly horses and donkeys as means of transportation.
To be sure there was a deep and inclusive culture running throughout most of the country. Cultural celebrations like Nowroz, religious activity and feasts of Id al Fitr and Id al Adha, the prophet’s birth and death ceremonies, funeral and burial rituals, circumcision parties, as well as recitals of great poets in the chaikhanas (tea houses, for men) and poetry competitions at home (with the whole family) served as unifiers and the basis of a larger Afghan culture. The mullahs and the few literate people provided traditional schooling either in the mosque or at home. In some parts, there was a semblance of a civil society such as associations of trades, vocations, poets and writers whose members were only men.
On the whole, though, cultural norms, traditions and values were ethnic, local and tribal practiced in different languages, religions, religious sects with little standardization and many variations even down to each household.
People lived as extended families. Old people, parents and those family members over the age of midlife, men and women alike, were revered and played a major part in society’s smooth running. They participated in family as well as community matters, in reconciliation efforts, in water disputes, in inheritance and marriage matters, in creating consensus in the community, or in keeping the family’s nurseries and granaries.
Men were mostly farmers or farm hands. They were also trades people, small shopkeepers, or day laborers. They were the patriarchs of their families and were trained for this position from a very young age.
Women, in keeping with a traditional society, did the housework inside the house, and, outside worked the fields and tended their animals. They prepared for the cultural and religious celebrations and did many of the handicrafts from the home, thus helping to polish the identity and perpetuating the culture. A woman was married young and preferably up and by her own and the suitor’s family agreeing to unite in marriage, and after the wedding moved to her husband’s or most often her father-in-law’s home. Once there, she was expected to serve the in-laws, cook, do all the housework, tend the fields and the animal herds, and bring forth children especially boys to keep the lineage going and the wealth in the family. She was secure in the Islamic knowledge that the husband (or his family) would take care of her and her children. She also expected that her husband might marry another woman, for fun or for fortune, and so girls were taught how to compete with other females, as the most important threat to a woman’s well-being was the presence of another wife. After marriage, a woman rarely visited her own family and of course traveled rarely outside her own immediate environment. When she ventured outside either going to the field or shopping or visiting, she continued to wear the chadar or large scarf on her head (outside the capital very few families wore the chadari or burqa).
In such a situation, girls (and boys) were brought up not to be choosy. They probably were not aware of the concept of choice or the process of decision making all that much. They accepted and expected decisions to be made by their family elders for them.
Authority rested on lineage, wealth/land, age, wisdom/knowledge/education, experience and reputation. The house of an elder or an influential person (called white-haired, a reesh-safid, white-beard for a man, and a peecha-safid, white-lock for a woman) could be identified by the number of its visitors.
Life outside the home however was limited and simple. There were not many gradations, many different roles and many diverse institutions. Much in society did not change from generation to generation. The change that did come was very slow, gradual and spotty and not uniformly everywhere. Change was introduced through travel of an influential person or pilgrimage travel to Mecca (by both men and women) or talks of a learned person or most often through the traders and business class that offered novelty products. These people were all men.
Local governance was in the hands of malik, mukhtar, arbab and mullah. Mirabs (watermasters) who controlled when stream water would go to what field and for how long had a big position in society. Many localities had their own local council called a shura (consisting of men and women). These local authorities knew everything and were everywhere. Disputes, conflicts, negotiations, sale and purchase of property, all were handled by these local authorities.
The state’s reach and sense of responsibility was limited although perhaps understood. There was always a representative of the government at the district level (consisting of several villages) called hakem or hakem-i ala, and at the provincial level called wali. In the absence of literacy to check identity cards, and in the presence of a universal rural attire by all Afghans called piran-tunban (long baggy pants and long baggy dresses), since the time of Amir Sher Ali Khan in the 19th century, government men were purposefully outfitted with different color uniforms (consisting of pants, a jacket and a hat), for tax collecting, for policing, for army work, for health, for office work, to distinguish them from the populace. Also, in many areas there existed different offices such as the military fort, a courthouse with a judge, and a governor’s house mostly with ‘official, modern’ looking buildings.
In terms of modern education, there were a few thousand (if that) male high school graduates in the country and we had the second generation of these graduates, my father being one of them. There were no female high school graduates as girls’ high schools were not yet in existence. The total number of educated people however was a little higher because of a part of the aristocracy had studied abroad during their exile and/or work. There was a learned class of clergy as well and a number of Afghans were literate having come through the classical, informal system of scribes (at home study of several major books, especially those known as panj ketab or five books).
So in Nader Shah’s era, national government and civil servants were agents of change but the need for contact with them was not felt by most people. Community people who introduced new ways as well as the small educated group were also agents of change, some times more important than the government.
Women’s world revolved around family life; and the men’s was not that much larger. There was complete faith in tomorrow – – perhaps not a better tomorrow but the same as today and yesterday. The worldview remained very small and very local (2).
B.2. Situation of Women from Zaher Shah to 1978
By 1978, although much of this culture continued as before, the Afghan society had also undergone many important changes, most visibly – but not exclusively – in Kabul. The reign of King Zaher Shah (1933 – 1973) brought an unprecedented long period of stability and peace which created across the land more faith in tomorrow – – perhaps better than yesterday. Peace and stability became a silent role model of tolerant behavior. This period also saw a much bigger presence of the state (central government) in many parts of the country. Because the state’s emphasis on modernization of Afghanistan showed strongly in many of its actions, the role of the state as an agent of change became very strong and it became the most important trend setter. Through implementation of five-year plans, Afghanistan improved its infrastructures: Roads, electricity, banks, cars and buses, factories, hospitals, radio, print media, telephone, schools, vocational training and such came to many cities and large towns. There was a growing middle class, with many families in Kabul being a two income family. The emphasis on the rule of law, an idea that flows from Islam, but was institutionalized in the modern ways of a state with division of power, was in evidence in most areas of the country although not with the same vigor everywhere. Through promotion and development of several institutions (public education, communication, national symbols) Afghanistan was building a homogenous national identity (3). Sustained development of the education sector had produced a cadre of educated people whose presence was felt everywhere and in every endeavor. There was also a growing group of activists/dissidents dissatisfied with the pace of change, which means Afghans were confronted with alternatives and choices. A small but active group of Afghan high school graduates who were sent abroad to gain a university degree had returned and together with King Amanullah’s society (his brothers, sisters, cousins and many of the people not related to him but with him during his reforms) were having an impact. Also, in 1973, for the first time in its history Afghanistan gave up a system of government based on lineage to one that was based on ability, i.e. moved from a monarchy to a republic, which empowered the non-tribal Afghans and threatened the tribal Afghans. There had developed, slowly but unmistakably a critical mass of Afghans with a common vision of Afghanistan for progress and modernity, for being part of the twentieth century, for change. All these changes also made people more adept at changing; not being afraid of change and of the unknown, more accepting of diversity.
Among these changes, in my view, the women’s participation in nation-state building that started in the 1920’s and continued in the 1930’s and on, and the women’s emancipation that began in the 1950’s and continued throughout stand as one of the deepest events affecting the culture of change (4). (This aspect has yet to be studied and appreciated either by researchers or by Afghan decision makers.)
By women’s participation in nation-state building I mean studying or working as paid employees outside the home in contrast to women being housewives and handicraft workers and tending family plots of land and animal herds without any monetary compensation. When schools for girls were just opening in the late 1930’s and there was a dire shortage of teachers, the government used four categories of people as teachers: old male teachers from boy’s schools, foreign wives of Afghans, girl students recruited to teach lower grade students, and women who had some literacy and a talent. Because there were not enough people, the curriculum had many sundry subjects such as cooking, ironing, home making, sewing, embroidery, flower making, social etiquette of eating in public, basics of hygiene, etc. In my book Qassrikh, one girl boasts that she was first in her class for ironing – – the iron being a new tool (5). The point was to teach girls discipline, new technologies and ideas as well as socialization in the larger society. For example, they were taught how to use spoons and forks from a plate, a must for hygiene in a group of non-relatives, instead of eating with their hands from a common tray as is customary in the family/rural setting. Or rather than sitting on mattresses on the floor, how to use chairs and tables, a must for reading and writing as humans’ vertebral column cannot function in a prone position for long periods,.
In 1947 Kabul University was opened for girls and in 1950’s the government opened a movie house in Kabul just for women. Female office workers, especially those working for the Women’s Institute where the movie house was located, were encouraged to send their families to fill the hall to encourage other women to come. This soon provided a new vista of the outside world and showed how women were faring in other countries.
During this period, schools moved from the palace and being the enclave of the upper classes to be located in all parts of town and include all classes of society, whoever wanted to send their girls to school could do so. Students at Malalay High School, the first in the country, included daughters of the king and the aristocracy but also political figures, religious authorities, business people, servants and farmers. In my book, Qassarikh-e Malalay, a girl mentions that her farmer father brought her to school on donkey because their farm was too far from school for her to come on foot.
As the ranks of female graduates from high school and university increased around the country, mostly in center cities of several provinces such as Kabul, Herat, Mazar, Faizabad, Kapissa, Kandahar, (in 1973 total enrollment in girls’ schools was perhaps around 150,000) the government employed them to teach, to become nurses, doctors and journalists, to work in offices, in banks, in hotels, as judges in the court system and even several cabinet ministers, delegates to the constitutional process and members of the parliament, the last after the promulgation of the 1964 Constitution. I might mention that the drop out rate after the sixth grade and those who did not work after graduation was very high, mostly due to early marriage. But the employment rate of the graduates was also extremely high. And the overall impact on social norms and traditions was great. Not only many families wanted their girls to go to school because the demand for educated (a status symbol) and/or income generating (economic) wives was increasing, but society was also getting used to women outside the house. A steady culture of accepted behavior with a non-relative woman in the market or work place was emerging. Society, even in the faraway rural areas was accepting professional dress code for women also. This culture was more or less pervasive in all of Afghanistan because the educational system was public and taught the same subjects all over the country.
Women’s emancipation came when in 1959 the government took the non-verbal stand that wearing or not wearing the chadari and the rural/traditional dress was a family decision and not a state law (6). Not having to wear the chadari was literally liberating to women and gave them a lot more freedom of movement and expression because the chadari, the garment that covers a woman from head to toe including her face is confining and restrictive. The government implemented this silent plan first in Kabul by tolerating women who were daughters of non-Afghan mothers such as Maga Rahmany (Russian mother) and by asking some others of them such as Sofia and Nasrine Naim (French mother) to walk in different districts of Kabul without a chadari and even no scarf. Then it asked a few Afghan women to do it, among them Roqia Abubakre (later Habib) and Latifa Kabir Seraj, both nightly announcers on Afghan radio, who were asked to go to work without a chadari but with a small scarf on their head, a short overcoat and gloves over short skirt and nylons. The personnel in the Radio station was alerted and told to welcome them, and they did, some even with clapping.
After a couple of weeks of this, the high school principals talked to families and asked to send their daughters, a few at a time without a chadari but just with their uniform on, which includes a white scarf. When the school was out, these girls were then let go a few at a time so as not to flood the streets. In just a few weeks, a majority of the girls and the teachers were coming to school without a chadari. After a couple of months of this, the King and his cabinet and generals brought their wives to the Independence celebration, of course without a chadari and the emancipation of women was given official – albeit unspoken legitimacy. Much the same strategy was soon followed in the provinces.
It is interesting to note that the first graduates of schools and the university were trained more as conformists and later graduates as people with more of their own ideas. Also, with English as the foreign language of a school, there was more pragmatism, more competitiveness than with French schools although these foreign languages taught in schools by their native speakers were all a window to the western world. By the end of the 1960’s the worldview of some segments of society had changed dramatically. For example, my classmates and I, high school students then, imagined ourselves after graduation as becoming women with jobs and careers outside the home. In the large cities, especially Kabul, there was also an acceptance of marriage by boys and girls selecting their spouse through social encounters although such choice still needed to be sealed through family sanction.
In all of this, religion was used for progress and modernity. When the chadari was dropped, people justified it by saying Islam responds to the requirements and conditions of time and place, and Islam does not cover the face and hands (which was an urban phenomenon anyways). Islam remained a strong guide with family and community discretion rather than a state-imposed ideology. Also, nobody questioned anybody else’s religiosity. Everyone knew the Hindus, Jews and Sikhs that lived in the community. For the rest of the Afghans, there was an awareness of who was a Shiite and who a Sunni, but no allegations of who, either among these two groups or inside each group, was a better Muslim. And never a doubt about the fact that aside from members of these other religions everyone else was a Muslim. Social change was not seen as a choice between Islam and progress. Most people fully believed that it was possible to be Muslim and modern at the same time.
So, Afghanistan before the Communist coup d’etat, had a culture of peace which meant there was faith in tomorrow, more trust and more confidence in its culture, its identity and its religiosity. Afghanistan was less conservative than today and more tolerant. Afghanistan had a critical mass of people who wanted progress, development and even democracy and rule of law. Most of the Afghan society had become accustomed to diversity in the way of life, whether it was multi-dress codes of rural and urban and professional, or different ways of eating and living and working.
Change came from above, mostly from the government, which meant that there was permission to change, i.e., change had legitimacy. Since Afghans look up to authority, authority was the one to emulate. Change came in urban areas first where change and difference are part of urbanity and people are not so scared of the unknown. Change came because people got used to it and understood the process of change, namely that change is not an all altering phenomenon and that change is a process. Change came because of advances in the middle class. Change came with education giving people a unified vision and common goals, a homogenous, national identity.
Change for women came first and foremost with men who saw that a modern society cannot be built without the participation and emancipation of women. So these men worked hard to give women’s role in society social legitimacy and they saw women not as competitors but more as proteges. Change came with women themselves participating in building their society in all walks of life, not bound by stereotypes of tradition and religious interpretation or western divisions of labor.
Therefore, success for the women’s movement in the 1960’s could not be traced to one particular act. But to many changes and perhaps the most important was change itself, sustained peacetime change.
This is not to say that Afghanistan was completely a modern country or that all was well. By no means; only in a general way and in comparison to the 1930’s and to today. Afghanistan then also faced many problems to overcome. For one thing, modernization, a new world phenomenon in those days, was not well understood around the world, much less so in Afghanistan. Internally, the pace of change was very slow as compared to the rising expectations that so many changes bring with them. There were still many traditions of the ethnic groups, such as selling their wives for two rifles, no inheritance for daughters, not sending daughters to school and loyalty more to the local/ethnic group than to the state. The big rural and urban divide, entrenched and official social inequality, and lack of knowledge showing in the high illiteracy rate were among other chief impediments to progress for the country and especially for women.
C. Afghan Women since 2001
C.1. Some Aspects Helping Women
Since 2001 there have been several aspects that are helping Afghan women. Some of these changes are now well-known: For example, the Constitution of 2004 reiterates the rule of law and gives equal rights to women, which makes women feel more secure. Schools have opened and now education is again commonplace, which creates a routine that tomorrow does exist and homework must be done. The two presidential and parliamentary and provincial council elections have empowered each voter and created a feeling that everyone is equal to everyone else. Democracy has given society free press and a rather good media is emerging. The vocal support for Afghan women coming from non-Afghans in the international community has also been a strong and effective catalyst.
However, there are a few other aspects of the society that are helping women as well that may not have had the same attention. Among them are strong family support, spirituality, the demand for equality, and the reemergence of women role models.
First, during the long period of insecurity, Afghans have gone back to their most comfortable and safest zone, namely the family unit, nuclear or extended. This has given Afghans a psychological support system that has helped them withstand the unimagined misery, depravity and victimization. I am always amazed at how well-behaved and unburdened my students at Kabul University are even though a majority of them have lost family members, have experienced internal displacement, external immigration and have gone through several schools to graduate. I am also amazed to hear young men in their thirties call home around seven or eight at night to let their families know that they would be late and will have a safe ride. For Afghans family has become the only social unit that they could trust; it is also the only unit that they know well as, during the war, socializing with non-family people was not desirable or possible. So much so that now, it is almost impossible to invite people who are not family members to the same party at your house. The family remains the most important institution of identity, socialization and moral support. This helps women feel secure about their actions in public; their public action is always with the permission of their family. Although sometimes they have to work hard to get that permission but once granted, the family becomes their pillar of support, their defender and their cheering crowd.
Another aspect that is helping society is the spirituality that I think has deepened. Afghans have become more aware of Islam in their life and society, as a more conscious part of their identity. This belief in God, that there is something that is eternal but larger than human beings and though eternally outside their control is always directly available to them, has helped Afghans keep centered especially during the worst of times. They have no concept of life without God. I am always a little surprised when I congratulate someone on the birth of their child and the response is not ‘thank you; yes we are happy that it is healthy and the mother is in good health’ but rather ‘maal-e Khodas’ (it is God’s property). Or they don’t say they bought a piece of land to build a house on it. They say ‘Khoda mehrabani kad wa yak zaminak dad’ (God was kind and gave a small plot). Or when they get good grades or a prize, they say ‘ba lutf-e Khodwand’ (with God’s grace). Even the die-hard Communists who otherwise flaunt their disbelief of God, return to God when the chips are down; they know you can always go to God. I think Afghans are incapable of having a world view that does not contain a permanent, inerasable Muslim God. The security that this knowledge gives them is immeasurable. This bodes well for women because down deep we know our Muslim God is egalitarian and judges men and women the same way (7).
Then too, during these years of war and perhaps because every Afghan took part in one way or another in the struggle for independence and faith, the sense of equality has become universal. From the smallest hamlet to the large metropolis of Kabul, everyone demands and expects to be treated equally. This includes each province, each ethnic, religious, linguistic, social, political group, and each person. Not only every province wants a university, but every province wants to have an equal share of the reconstruction money or international presence. Not only every group wants to have representation in the Parliament and the government but they demand to be treated equally. In every meeting, it is wonderful to see people from all groups but also, from the same, say linguistic group, representatives of different dialects. Every Afghan, man and woman alike, demands to be paid fairly and very often equally. They all feel entitled to this equality. They all suffered through the wars and are therefore entitled to be treated equally. No sooner something is done about one province or one group or one individual than a chorus of voices are raised enumerating their justifications and demanding their share. This really is very good for the women; they have become very vocal, rural women, Kuchi (nomadic) women, refugee women, professional women, illiterate women, beggar women, crippled women, rich women, poor women, you name it and they are demanding their due. I will never forget when during the Taliban I was meeting a group of women in Gulbahar (about 120 kilometers to the north of Kabul). At the end of the meeting I gave some money to each woman. The last were a very young widow with three kids and her old mother who was living with her. I gave the money for both of them to the young widow. Oh boy, did I hear from the mother right then and there. No matter that her expenses were paid by the daughter, but she was entitled to the same amount and I had better give it to her – – which of course I did enjoying this assertive outburst to the full.
The fourth area that is perhaps helping the most is the return of Afghan women to social view. Afghans are seeing droves of girls of all ages going to school (even in faraway villages), female teachers getting into buses, and women working in offices, whether it is a shop, a hotel, a government bureau or an NGO (non-governmental agency). Afghans are getting used to having women ministers, ambassadors and governors, a ministry of women’s affairs and a woman presidential candidate – – who got more than one percent of 10 million votes and came in sixth in a pool of 18! The presence of so many women activists in civil society working for women, for widows, for families and for children also plays an important role especially in the provinces where activist women may be more numerous than women in other offices.
And what is now truly a wonderful role model and a source of pride for the whole country is the presence of 91 women as members of the Afghan Parliament (68 in the People’s Council, 23 in the Elder’s Council). Each one of these women is turning into an activist, learning the big Afghanistan picture, understanding the role of her own province, establishing her own civil society organization, traveling to foreign countries and absorbing the differences there, getting used to the novelty of sitting next to a man that is not her own relative, coping with responsibilities of divided households, children and an employed husband, dealing with constituents, working with media, developing office etiquette and procedures, recruiting and keeping a staff, and a myriad of other new skills and ideas.
At first these women parliamentarians were expected to just be pawns of the male patriarchy and they did to a large extent. However, they soon learned that one, each one of them has the power of her vote and has a standing in the society that is hers alone. And two, men learned very quickly that to get success on the floor of the Parliament they have to develop true political relationships with these females. The women are learning that they themselves have to learn to build caucuses and teams also and not work just for their person alone. Ah, what a wonderful brave new world of possibilities and growth! Two years ago I had the pleasure of teaching these women when they were candidates and this past summer had an occasion to take 30 of them as parliamentarians to Paris where, although their interpersonal relationships and behavior left room for improvement, their official personas and utterances were outstanding.
C.2. Some Aspects since 2001 Hindering Women
I think that although the Afghan culture today remains essentially the same as before, two other problems also need attention. Because the state of war lasted for almost a generation in which Afghans were introduced to many new things and new experiences, the first question for me is how much the old culture has undergone changes. What new traditions and ways of doing things have emerged, what values and mores have been modified. The second question and equally important for me is understanding those aspects of culture that are a direct result of the war and have a transient nature. Both of these may have a negative (or positive) impact on society and therefore on success in and for Afghanistan.
Some of the problematic aspects for me are the culture of war, the lack of rule of law, lack of knowledge of Islam, emphasis on ethnic traditions, and lack of social legitimacy for either women or modernity.
The depth of the culture of war has been such that it now permeates the whole society. Not only there is a lot of alienation and anomie in the society but also there is no trust and no confidence but an unshakable fear of tomorrow – as compared to the trust they had during Kings Nader Shah and Zaher Shah. This was so apparent to me on May 29th of this year when riots broke in Kabul. People, men, women, young and old were shaken, disoriented and kept saying ‘oh my God, again what would happen to my family’. My own old gardener, who had lost his crippled twins in a Hekmatyar rocket attack twelve years ago, the day after the riots, when I had come home safe, came to me trembling, crying and incoherently talking about his twins as if they were alive. I sent him to the doctor; his blood pressure had skyrocketed and he had had a mild stroke, which affects him to this day. The smallest altercation between two persons in the street brings out a lot of people who start fighting with each other taking one side or the other without knowing the actual problem. At every level of society, the blame game and politics of exclusion are rampant as is suspicion. From the highest layers to the bottom, nowadays when Afghans talk they invariably are trying to say so and so is bad – as if they know themselves only in comparison to others. And most often when they make decisions, it is understood that politics of exclusion is in effect. It is also that they are absolutely terrified of taking responsibility – – good or bad. You cannot make them feel guilty; it is as if they do not understand personal decisions (whenever my colleague is late for work, which is very often, it is always some other thing that prevented his coming on time; never that he went to a wedding the night before and slept late). If you treat one person well and treat someone else equally well, the first person feels threatened and invariably finds a way to say bad things about the other to you to make you abandon that person. If you get distracted by someone talking to you in a crowded party and forget to say hello to another acquaintance, that acquaintance gets totally bent out of shape and will not talk to you for months or start talking badly about you. Afghans have become very other-directed and all dealings in society are based on shame, on what others (family, the baker in their street, their community) will think or talk about them. During the heat of the summer my old and decrepit cleaning lady was getting ready to go out. She was wearing her chadari over her large scarf over a small scarf over her dress over her baggy pants. I told her to maybe take off the chadari as it was becoming a hot house. She told me oh no, what would the neighbors say; they all would think that my husband has no shame and lets his wife go out without a chadari.
This culture of war has increased the sense of patriarchy and intensified patriarchal behavior. Since in the Afghan culture women are the honor of a family and society, men always feel responsible for protecting them; but now it is to an extreme. Not only older male members of the family but also young boys of say even twelve years old, feel entitled to tell the women folk of the house what to do, not do and where to go, not go, but they also feel justified to use force to reinforce their word. Also, the division of labor between men and women has become very strict. All housework such as sweeping, washing clothes and dishes, dung collecting and patty making, water bringing, cooking, latrine and stable cleaning, domestic animal tending, even touching their infants are all viewed as a woman’s work. For a man it is shameful and not mardaana (manly) to be caught doing them even if you get paid for it. The reverse is also true; some work is seen as manly and not zanaana (womanly) and women will not do them. This state of affairs has not only created a taboo-like segregation of life between the women’s space and the men’s space but it has also dramatically decreased women’s access to resources be it social, economic, political or cultural.
In a sense, the worldview of Afghan men no longer contains a woman – – if it ever did. This was reinforced by the fact that women were not in the front lines or in the trenches. The fighters, all men, developed a sense that life goes on without women. And today they feel that they won the wars without women, they can now build Afghanistan without women. In addition, this time around men are not mentors but rather competitors to women taking an office job; this is true even among many of the western educated refugees who have returned. Men themselves are so thirsty for a job and earning regular income that they don’t understand that women also have a right to it. They think since according to Islam they have to support their wife and children, they should be considered first and foremost.
Lack of the rule of law for so long has made Afghans impervious to law and has pushed them to create their own traditions and mores. Most Afghans are unaware of the law and even if it can help since they don’t know about it, they would rather go to an influential family member or a local outsider with authority to solve their problem. They think they are doing the right thing. The fact that there is no application of law (courts and judges are now notoriously corrupt and courthouses are located most often in the center city of a province, far from most of the population) pushes them further to stand by their own norms rather than by the letter of the law or Sharia. What makes it even worse is the inclusion of non-state actors by the government, such as tribal elders, tribal and local councils, which further dilutes the importance of the rule of law.
Because during the long war, the rule of law became very local and sometimes non-existent, Afghans reverted to their ethnic and local traditions superseding the law, even the Sharia. Many of the problems of women reported by the media in the programmatic areas are a result of these traditions. Forced marriages (for girls and boys), exchanging a daughter for a murder called badd, denying inheritance to women, marrying several wives without the knowledge of other wives (and of course the government), violence against women, child marriages, not allowing women to go to school or work outside the house, are all claimed to be part of these traditions. None of these is part of Islam or the laws of Afghanistan. Fighting these traditions becomes even more sensitive among the tribal Pashtuns than the non-tribal rest of the country, as the Pashtuns have a very well-defined code of conduct, namely the Pashtunwali. Many Pashtuns have complained to me that their code of conduct is above the Koran, meaning the Sharia. During the presidential elections when a tribe burned the house of one of its members who had voted against their pro-Karzai majority vote, and therefore against the Pashtunwali code of loyalty, even President Karzai could not squarely condemn it.
These traditions and practices have now become stronger. In relation to women’s role in society, men often bring up the matter of traditions. However, explaining these traditions remains vague and nobody can identify even a few of them since you are not supposed to question them. This is why it is almost as if illiteracy among women (86%) is one of those traditions. Or that women are the only upholders of traditions and men have no responsibility in this regard. Men are allowed to do whatever they please since women are the ones to maintain Afghan traditions and hence Afghan culture. In my own literacy classes for adults I bring both husbands and wives together to learn the alphabet. The results of this one year course are phenomenal. They see first hand and up close that change is not their enemy but a friend. They realize that men and women can share the same space with their dignities intact and that they can actually enlarge and polish their identity and traditions.
Obviously presence of traditions gives social grounding to members of a community. But traditions in Afghanistan have also gotten more well defined – – or perhaps even invented – – in the last 30 years. I was amazed at how many ceremonies there were in a wedding when the daughter of a poor and illiterate friend got married in a village near Kabul. The whole affair lasted for more than a month so the bride’s family could finish all their ceremonies and the groom’s family theirs with all the attendant buying of new clothes for themselves, and gifts for the other family, and cooking of specific dishes for hundreds of people at each ceremony – – before and after the wedding night (8).
What makes matters worse is that Afghans’ knowledge of Islam is no longer from schools or their own reading but from Mullahs and family members who may also be illiterate. While everyone knows the general requirements of a Muslim, specific areas of the Sharia and/or the Koran are not common knowledge. I feel it is time to pay attention not just to the appearance of Islam but to its philosophy. The time has come to understand how Islam helps at peace time and especially look at the moderate Islamic philosophies. My book, Women and the Koran that has translation into Dari of the verses that mention women was in such demand that I ran out of copies in the first three months and people from faraway places are constantly asking for the second edition.
Two other impediments are also very central to progress on the women’s front: misunderstanding of the concept of modernity and lack of social legitimacy for either women or modernity.
Afghans seem to have lost much of the familiarity with modernity and urban life (9). Most Afghans no longer know how to eat with a fork and spoon and they don’t; they no longer own and use chairs and tables and sofas in their homes; they no longer wear professional clothes at home (outside it is getting better) but rather wear their piran-tunban and most often it is the same they sleep in; they have forgotten the diversity of cuisine; the repertoire is now very limited. They no longer understand the meaning and importance of a nine-to-five job. It is very common during a day’s work in an office to have several employees who have gone to a wedding, a circumcision, a funeral, a fateha (wake) or a khatm (a Koran recital to give thanks to God). The office does not consider these as unpaid leave and refusing to allow someone to go creates a lot of negativity. Afghans can no longer imagine that work is more important than attending for example a friend’s engagement party.
By the same token most Afghans no longer know other larger groups, such as other ethnicities, languages, religions, religious sects, political groups or localities of Afghanistan. Rather they have developed many stereotypes which they regard as dogma and truth. The fact that Afghans now are not familiar with (or don’t accept) different ways of life hampers women.
Finally, one of the most important problems in women’s development now is lack of social legitimacy for women in society and for modernity. When leaders of Afghanistan meet regularly with provincial elders and tribal leaders who are wearing large turbans, long beards and piran-tunban, and among them there are no women and no men without a beard or with a professional office suit, these leaders are sending an unmistakable non-verbal message that social legitimacy lies only with these rural, traditional people, and women, urban and modern Afghans are not important. When the President and most of the leaders of Afghanistan are rarely seen with their wives in public, they deny social legitimacy for women. When national television shows only women with a scarf and refuses to show those that are not wearing it, it sends a message that different ways of life are not acceptable. Please do not misunderstand, diverse ways of dressing such as turbans, long beards, piran-tunban, chadari, scarf, and diverse ways of living such as rural, urban and others should have social legitimacy as we are a diverse country. In fact, at Kabul University I never advocate a particular dress code for my students and insist that rural and urban people – indeed all human beings – have equal dignity. But there are other sectors of Afghan society that should also have this social legitimacy.
When government does not clamp down on so many absences from office, that sends a non-verbal message that official responsibility is not as important as social obligations towards family and friends. When we are always talking about respecting our cherished traditions and never define and enumerate those traditions, we send a message that whatever any one considers a tradition must not be given up in any way; that nothing new can be added to this pool of traditions. The message is rarely about, say, for example, the fact that most Afghan women in the rural Afghanistan work in the fields, outside the home. The message is rarely about the fact that now a tribal person or a farmer or a villager also needs to have an education. On a couple of occasions that President Karzai has publicly talked about women, the effect has been tremendous. This lack of social legitimacy for women and for modernity is one of the most important reasons that is keeping us confused and preventing us Afghans from moving forward – – men and women, urban and rural, tribal and non-tribal alike.
So, I believe while the Afghan culture has shown a lot of resilience and the situation in Afghanistan since 2001 has created many good opportunities for women that need to be nurtured and sustained, on a societal level, healing and knowledge must also come to make change enduring and reinvigorating. There are still many cultural and social hurdles that continue to keep Afghans vulnerable and reluctant to change. These areas also need to be addressed to realize deep, durable and meaningful success.
This paper is not exhaustive. For one thing, not only each one of the topics presented here can be expanded a lot more but there are also other positive and negative aspects that have not been mentioned.. For another, there are other equally important areas to consider such as rural/urban, educated/illiterate, that due to the limitation of my topic I have not included. I have not dealt with the impact of the Daoud, Communist, Mujaheddin, Taliban and Resistance periods. I also have not included the differences in culture among different ethnic groups or religious philosophies. However, there has been scant study of the culture of Afghanistan. Little research has been done to find common and modern definitions and understanding of Afghan identity and how change occurs among Afghans. More research is seriously needed to document and ascertain the Afghan culture(s) so Afghans and non-Afghans can base their decisions on its results. Finally, we Afghans must partner with non-Afghans in this endeavor to bring their knowledge, tools and detachedness to bear on such an important labor of love, for ourselves and for success in Afghanistan.
( 1 ) These books are mentioned in the bibliography below.
( 2 ) If we do take this culture as a frame of reference, it needs to be further studied.
( 3 ) Qadam-ha-ye Awshti, see below.
( 4 ) May Schinasi has a good detailed discussion of the very early stages of women’s participation. See below.
( 5 ) Qassarikh-e Malalay, see below.
( 6 ) A law or regulation was never passed and no direct official utterances are recorded.
( 7 ) According to the Koran, on the day of judgment, God judges human beings based on their taqwa (good deeds and piety). In reality, Afghans view God as the creator of all universe, so we never think of just a ‘Muslim’ God.
( 8 ) For a fuller discussion of traditions, refer to my article ‘Afghanistan: Being and Becoming’ on my website.
( 9 ) For me the definition of modernity is: Updating your own way of life and values and traditions in order to respond properly to the requirements and conditions of time and place. This is different than modernization, which unfortunately has become synonymous with westernization. For a fuller discussion refer to my article ‘Afghanistan: Modernity or Modernization?’ on the website.
1) Dupree, Louis, Afghanistan, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1973.
2) Elliott, Jason, An Unexpected Light, Picador USA, New York, 2001.
3) Gross, Nasrine, Qassarikh-e Malalay (Memories of the First Girls’ High School in Afghanistan), Kabultec, Virginia, 1998.
4) Gross, Nasrine, Qdam-ha-ye Awshti wa Massouliat-e ma Afghan-ha (Steps of Peace and Our Responsibility as Afghans), Kabultec, Virginia, 2000.
5) Gross, Nasrine Abou-Bakre, Women in the Koran: Dari Translation of Verses in the Koran that Mention Women, Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies and Education in Afghanistan, Kabul, 2003.
6) Women’s Guide to Winning in the 2005 Elections, SUNY/USAID, Kabul, 2005.
7) Schinasi, May, Femmes Afghanes, l’Education et Activites Publiques, 1919 -1929, France, 1998.
8) Skaine, Rosemarie, The Women of Afghanistan under the Taliban, McFarland & Comapany, Inc., North Carolina, 2002.
9) Vogelsang, Willem, The Afghans, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts, 2002.
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- Crisis of Terrorism & the Reconstruction of Afghanistan
- Cultural Look at the Feminist Movements
- Globalization and Women
- Human Rights and Afghanistan
- Literacy Report
- Massoud: An Afghan Life
- Qadam-ha-ye Awshti (“Afghan Identity”)
- Qassarikh-e Malalay
- Return of Afghan Man’s Dignity
- Women and the Constitution
- Women in the Koran: Translation of Verses Pertaining to Women in Dari/Farsi Translation
- Women’s Guide to Elections