History of Women in Afghanistan: Then and now

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It may be surprising to know that women in Afghanistan participated socially, politically and economically in the life of their societies before the Taliban came into power. In 1880 a woman from a small village played a great role in the battle of Maiwand, she had declared at the top of her lungs, rather mellifluously; “Young love if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, by God someone is saving you as a token of shame”. This not only revitalized the Afghan fighters who had lost morale fighting the British in the second-Anglo war, but sent her down in history as Afghanistan’s very own Joan of Arc.

How did a woman like Malalali die on the battlefield as one of Afghanistan’s greatest heroine but today women in Afghanistan faces difficulty leaving their home without male escort? Interestingly enough, women have played a huge role in the history of Afghanistan. In 1964, women helped draft the Constitution and there were at least three women legislators in Parliament by the 1970′s. Women fulfilled roles as teachers, government workers, medical doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and poets up until the early 1990′s. Moreover, women had constituted 40% of the doctors in Kabul; 70% of school teachers; 60% of Kabul university professors and 50% of the University students and it had not unusual for men and women to casually mingle at movie theatres and university campuses. This is a far cry from little girls heading to schools today fearing an acid attack or 15 year old Sahar Gul who was kept in a basement for six months, tortured with hot iron rods, had her fingernails ripped out all for resisting prostitution by her husband.

One particularly interesting segment in the history of Afghan women is during the 1960′s; the government oversaw various rural development programs where female nurses were sent in Jeeps to remote areas and villages to inoculate residents from diseases such as cholera. The impossibility of this scheme today is almost painful. If it were to be pursued by the government now, the men in rural areas would scoff at the idea of their women travelling freely, entering homes of male strangers, and in some cases, having to touch a strange man in order to treat him. Security concerns alone make such an effort impossible as government nurses (as well as U.N and NGO medical workers) are regular targets for insurgent groups. Who cares if she is trying to save lives? She is a woman!

Girl Scouts is yet another tragic memory in Afghanistan’s history. Students from elementary and middle schools emulated their counterparts in the USA learning about nature trails, camping and public safety. Little girls were encouraged to expand their skills and venture into new areas of study, one ought to imagine a ‘Girl Scouts’ scheme taking place in parts of Afghanistan today; the brutish Taliban would cower at the thought of girls engaging in extracurricular activities which would involve broadening their intellect, never mind being in education in the first place. This delightful scheme disappeared entirely in the 1970′s and is showing no sign of return.

Everything changed for women when the Taliban rose to power in early 1995 and set up a radical Islamic state in Afghanistan in 1996. We know that women and girls were systematically discriminated against and marginalised; their human rights utterly violated. This resulted in deteriorating economic and social conditions of women in all areas of the country and in particular they were continued to be severely restricted in their access to education, healthcare and employment. Women who had led fruitful lives fulfilling roles as doctors and teachers, were now finding themselves destitute- some resorting to begging on the street or even prostitution. In May 2001, a decree issued by the Taliban, banned women from driving cars and women were continuously beaten and harassed for their public appearance. As little as an inch of foot or hand on display, or even the wrong coloured socks would warrant an attack from the Taliban who patrolled the streets. My auntie had once told me of a time she had been wearing white coloured socks outside, the Taliban who had stopped her, beat her with end of an AK47 and told her to go home to change into black coloured socks that were ostensibly less visible to the eye.

The struggle continues for women in Afghanistan today. The country boasts a 14% female literacy rate; contrast this with a 99% female literacy rate in the U.K and U.S.A and it is nothing short an abomination. This is almost unsurprising when 80% of females lack access to an education centre. The Karzai government issued a law in 2009 that legalised rape in marriage as well as denying the right of women to “leave their homes except for legitimate purposes” or “working or receiving an education without their husbands permission”. The law also diminishes the right of mothers to be children’s guardians in the event of divorce and makes impossible for wives to inherit their houses and land from their husbands. How can women be expected to elevate socially, politically or economically under such circumstances? Or even more fundamentally, how is a woman to feel an equal when she she is subject to rape by her own husband? These conditions are somewhat redolent of the abhorrent ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the US in the 1880′s that restricted African Americans in every aspect of their lives.

Women face further adversity at the prospect of birth with a woman dying every 27 minutes due to pregnancy related complications in Afghanistan. There are 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births but in the remote mountainous province of Badakhshan the rate is 6,500 per 100,000- the highest recorded rate of maternal mortality in the world. Thus, it may not be exaggerative to declare Afghanistan as the worst place in the world to give birth. 17% of women have reported sexual violence, 60%-80% of marriages are forced, 8 million women and girls aged between 15-40 are suffering from depression, and need I go on?

The question that remains is; what hope is there for women in Afghanistan and has there been any progress that bequeaths hope for the future?

In 1977, Meena Keshwar laid the foundations for RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan which launched a bilingual magazine titled Woman’s Message (Payam-e-Zan) in 1981 and has organised events in the city of Kabul for several years to mark International Women’s Day. In August 2002 Khatol Mohammadzai became the first female General to serve in the Afghan national Army and from 2005 up until early 2007, Malalai Joya served as a female Parliamentarian in the National Assembly of Afghanistan, substantiating the fact that women can serve in a position of authority. A Body Building club for women was even inaugurated in 2005 along with a female boxing federation by Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee and in the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, female athletes Friba Razayee and Robina Muqim Yaar represented Afghanistan for the first time in the country’s history.

Even more promisingly, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education declared that more than 5.4 million children have been enrolled in schools; 35% of them girls by April 2008. This was however followed in November by an acid attack on faces of school girls in Kandahar with over a dozen injured and left with permanent facial scares. Nonetheless, significant achievements were made in several political aspects, the government appointed its first ever female provincial governor Habibi Sorabi in 2005 and Azra Jafari became the country’s first female mayor in 2009. So what do all these achievements mean for the women of Afghanistan who are suffering under an extremely patriarchal society? Do they diminish the years of turmoil and subjugation? Certainly not, in fact as Malalai Joya states, “To all intents and purposes, the position of women is the same now as it was under the Taliban and in some respects the situation is far worse”. However history has proven that the female population was integral in shaping the course of it- women were needed, they were appreciated, and they were the heart and soul of Afghanistan. To understand their position now, we must look at them, and if women could once constitute a meaningful fraction of society then, they will again.

By Mohadesa Najumi

The report was sent to WeSpeakNews via E-mail.

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