Let me begin with two stories.
In April of this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai threw his support behind an astonishing and repressive law that would make it illegal for women of the Shi'i minority (approximately 10 percent of the population) to refuse their husbands' sexual advances and would require, among other things, that women get their husbands' permission even to step outside of their homes.
In response, a group of some 300 Afghan women gathered to protest this law and demand that the government repeal it. As one protester lamented to a New York Times reporter: "Whenever a man wants sex, we cannot refuse. It means a woman is a kind of property, to be used by the man in any way that he wants."
They encountered a much larger group of mostly male counter-protestors who responded violently and branded these women "whores." Forcibly chased away by the men, they exclaimed "We want our rights! We want equality!"
One is left to wonder how a protest against a law that recognizes a form of rape as legal could evoke such a visceral response.
In 1996, while living in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, three friends and I were fortunate enough to be granted permission to visit northern Afghanistan. We were an unlikely group to be traveling in Afghanistan at that time: four young Americans, one a woman with light blonde hair, and the country was in the midst of a civil war.
Just two months before we crossed the "Bridge of Friendship" over the Amu Darya River and entered Afghanistan, the Taliban had advanced northward and taken the capital city of Kabul. We were in the territory of General Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who had very recently joined forces with the celebrated Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud to establish the "Northern Alliance" against the advancing Taliban.
Crossing the bridge, we had passed from a relatively peaceful post-Soviet republic into a war-torn wasteland. Sand dunes were left unchecked to take over entire stretches of the road, which in many places seemed to be more pothole than pavement. Young boys from nearby refugee camps shoveled dirt into some of the potholes, hoping to earn a bit of money from the few Iranian truck drivers brave (or foolish) enough to transport merchandise to Uzbekistan.
We passed by a number of bombed-out Soviet tanks rusting in the desert, monuments to the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country that lasted from 1979 into 1989. After a couple of hours my friends and I arrived in Mazar-i Sharif, the largest city in the region, and excitedly began to explore the city, meet people, and collect nervous reports of Taliban activities in the south.
With few exceptions, what we did not see were women in public. The majority of those that we did encounter were destitute victims of the war, forced to spend their days begging to feed their families. These were the only women with whom we interacted, and even then it was only to place a few bills in their calloused, outstretched hands—no conversation, and no eye contact.
Even though this was not Taliban territory yet, these women wore the full chadri, or burqa, a long shapeless gown that hangs from a hat to completely cover everything from head to toe. To our eyes, they moved about the city as powder-blue ghosts—there, but not really there.
One evening, my friends and I went out for dinner to a little neighborhood restaurant near our hotel. The four of us were the only obvious foreigners in the place, and our companion the only woman, in a room otherwise filled with men sitting in chairs at old tables in the front and on woolen rugs on an elevated platform in the back.
For a few moments we stood quietly at the entrance, unsure where to go from there, as conversation halted and all heads turned silently toward us. After a long, uncomfortable pause the hum of conversations resumed and we found seats at a table not far from the door.
I was struck by the hospitality of our hosts. They treated us with a deliberate respect, referring to our female companion as our "sister" and addressing her indirectly, through one of the men present. Before we could ask, a young boy arrived with a pot of tea and bread, and after the novelty of our arrival wore off a bit the mood lightened and we had dinner and conversations with some of the men seated near us.
At precisely 8:00, the already dim lights of the restaurant shut off completely, except for a single bulb over the kitchen area in a distant corner of the large open room. I assumed that the electricity had been shut off to conserve energy for the following day, and that the restaurant was now closing. As a hush quickly spread across the room, I sat quietly and waited to see what everyone else would do, but nobody moved.
Then an old man slowly exited the kitchen, walked across the room toward a dinosaur of a television attached high up on a wall, reached up, and turned a knob. The vacuum tubes in this remarkable piece of electronic history gradually warmed up and the picture slowly began to take shape.
There before me was the American actress Pamela Anderson in a skin-tight bathing suit bouncing her way across a sandy California beach, signaling the beginning of the show "Baywatch."
I was stunned. Here, in war-torn Mazar-i Sharif, this restaurant had somehow acquired a satellite dish and the men (only a handful of whom could understand the dubbing into Hindi) were eager to watch "Baywatch." Before I knew what I was doing I loudly announced to our new friends, "Hey, that's our country!" and received a roar of laughter and applause.
Women and Men in Afghanistan
These two anecdotes illustrate that for westerners and for Afghans alike, the status of women serves as a barometer by which to measure Afghan society.
For many westerners, nothing demonstrates the essentially "backward" or "medieval" nature of Afghan society more than its treatment of women. For many Afghans, nothing represents the perils of encroaching westernization more than the movement for women's rights.
For Afghans like the diners in Mazar-i Sharif, Pamela Anderson running around in a bathing suit is a symbol for all of American culture and society—scantily clad western women flaunting their bodies and their open sexuality are seen as a foundational (and perverse) value of western culture.
For some this is entertainment, for others it is distasteful, and for still others it is akin to pornography. The men sitting at the restaurant in Mazar-i Sharif that November evening were eager to watch it on the screen, but they would have been horrified at the thought of their wives and daughters presenting themselves to the public in the same way.
And it doesn't take much to imagine that the men in Kabul, who violently berated the 300 women who had gathered to protest a regressive law, saw those women as advocates for a way of life that they believe to be repugnant. The protestors weren't dressed like Pamela Anderson, but in these men's eyes their demands for rights are pushing Afghanistan toward westernization, which they fear to be a dangerously slippery slope.
The debate surrounding the issue of women's rights in Afghanistan is clearly influenced by popular perceptions of westernization—images that are often generated by the global entertainment industry—and what it would mean for Afghan society. But that is only a single feature of a complex debate. In order to better appreciate the nuances of the various tensions involved, it is useful to place this issue in its historical context and turn to the long history of Afghans' own efforts to improve women's rights within Afghanistan.
Women's Rights Before the Taliban
The struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan has a history that goes back into the nineteenth century—long before the rise of the Taliban in the early 1990s. It involves sustained tensions between different ethnic groups, between urban and rural populations, and between the people of Afghanistan and the outside world.
On the one hand, today's activists can point to a long tradition of successful Afghan reformers, including such figures as Mahmud Beg Tarzi (1865–1933), who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and was the father-in-law to the ruler of Afghanistan, Amanullah Khan (r. 1919–29).
On the other hand, the movement has been in conflict with a proud cultural heritage that deeply values female modesty and chastity as a part of a family's honor. In Afghanistan, as in much of the world, one's family is the most important part of an individual's identity in larger society, and a family's honor is a critical element in how other families assess its social position. For these reasons, many Afghans, even those who vehemently oppose the Taliban, find westernization to be an offensive and extremely dangerous cultural trend.
In some important ways, the women's rights movement in Afghanistan began during the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901), a brutal military dictator renowned as the "Iron Amir" for his tyrannical method of rule.
In his autobiography, Abdur Rahman Khan described the despotic measures he used to subjugate his many rivals and put down numerous rebellions. In the process, he brought the whole of Afghanistan under his singular rule—all the while holding at bay the expansionist imperial interests of the Russians in Central Asia and the British in India.
He exiled or executed many of the local nobility, forcibly relocated many tribes across the country, and defeated the last "Hindu" Afghans of Kafiristan ("Land of the Infidels") and had them converted to Islam (after which their province was renamed "Nuristan," "Land of Light").