Many suffered during his reign, but at the same time Abdur Rahman Khan was interested in modernizing his young state. His methods included embracing new technologies that he considered to be advantageous and implementing certain social reforms, including improving the position of women in Afghan society. Specifically, Abdur Rahman Khan granted Afghan women the right to divorce, he raised the legal age of marriage, and he gave women the right to own property.

The path to change was charted during the late nineteenth century, and it was advanced significantly during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan's eldest son and successor, Amir Habibullah (r. 1901–19), who followed his father's military achievements with an impressive agenda for social reform.

At that time, some intellectuals in the Islamic world were engaged in a vibrant discussion regarding the relationship between "traditional" Islam and modernity. Far to the west, in the territory of the Ottoman Sultan, the reform-minded Young Turk nationalist movement gained in popularity and influence.

It was there, in the Ottoman Empire, that Mahmud Tarzi, the most important figure in Afghan reform in this period, drew his inspiration. Tarzi's father had been a member of the ruling family of Qandahar (Kandahar), until he was exiled by Abdur Rahman Khan and fled Afghanistan in 1882. Mahmud Tarzi was then seventeen, and he spent some twenty years in Ottoman territory, moving between Damascus and Istanbul. During that time, he encountered the Young Turk movement and he soon became convinced that the future of the Islamic world in general, and Afghanistan in particular, demanded a reformist and progressive approach to modernity.

Early in his reign, Amir Habibullah permitted the return of those who had been exiled under his father and, in 1905, Mahmud Tarzi brought his family back to Afghanistan. Tarzi began disseminating his ideas through an aggressive publishing campaign, and he became the center of the "Young Afghan" nationalist movement. Central among his initiatives was the advancement of education as an engine for social reform. Afghanistan's first girls' schools were opened during Amir Habibullah's reign.

The position of women in Afghan society improved further during the reign of Amanullah (r. 1919–29), Amir Habibullah's son and successor. Since his youth, Amanullah had been an ardent follower of Mahmud Tarzi. Indeed, he was much more than that: he later married Tarzi's daughter, Queen Soraya.

Following the example set by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Amanullah crafted a new constitution for Afghanistan that endeavored to guarantee civil rights for all, both men and women. He outlawed strict traditional dress codes, and Queen Soraya set the example by removing her own veil in a very dramatic and public display.

New schools were opened for both boys and girls, even in rural areas; the legal age for a woman to marry was raised; forced marriages were outlawed; and Amanullah endeavored to end the practice of polygamy. Queen Soraya even began Afghanistan's first women's journal, Ershad-e Niswan ("Guidance for Women"), which advocated gender equality. Other women's journals followed.

These achievements earned Amanullah international acclaim as a forward-thinking reformer – he and Soraya were both granted honorary degrees from Oxford University—but they also provoked a backlash at home.

Tarzi had advised his son-in-law to proceed cautiously, but Amanallah was impatient and his aggressive agenda provided fodder for a traditionalist revolt. He was overthrown in 1929 and forced into exile. Before long, Muhammad Nadir Shah (r. 1929–33) and his traditionalist supporters saw to it that the schools for girls were closed, women were once again veiled, and many other reforms were repealed.

The backlash did not last long. Muhammad Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933, and many of Amanullah's initiatives were gradually implemented during the long reign of Muhammad Nadir Shah's son and successor, Muhammad Zahir Shah (r. 1933–73). Once he managed to wrench the authority to govern from his uncles, King Zahir Shah and his cousin Muhammad Daoud Khan set a reformist course for the country.

The Afghan government enlisted foreign advisors, they again established girls schools, funded a new university, and later instituted a new constitution that introduced a democratic framework and granted Afghan women the right to vote. In urban areas women attended college, took jobs outside of the home, ran businesses, and some even ventured into politics. Kabul became cosmopolitan.

From a Modernizing State to the Taliban

It was in the late 1970s, as the women's movement gained ground in the West, that the era of progress for Afghan women came to an abrupt halt.

When Afghan communists took over in a 1978 coup, Afghanistan became caught up in the Cold War politics of the time. At first, the communists advanced an even more dramatic campaign for social reforms, which included making education for girls compulsory and (again) implementing a minimum age for girls to marry.

But it did not take long before efforts to impose communist ideology provoked a widespread rebellion. Then, on December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan in support of the faltering communist government. Within a few months the country was flooded with more than 100,000 Soviet troops.

The events that followed are relatively well known. The Afghan resistance, known as the Mujahidin, retreated to the mountains and for several years fought a fierce guerrilla war against a substantially more powerful Soviet army. In the mid-1980s, the United States (and others) began to supply the Mujahidin with financial support and military equipment. Then, in 1989, after nearly a decade of constant war, the defeated Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.

Instead of peace and the establishment of a new, stable government in Kabul, Afghan society sank into a long, protracted and bloody civil war. Political authority retreated to the hands of regional and ethnic powers: the same groups that had united to fight against the Soviets had now separated and fought against each other.

For Afghan women, this was the beginning of the worst period. The populist warlords used any measure available to appeal to the majority of their soldiers, and the treatment of Afghan women was placed in the hands of poorly educated, rural traditionalists. During the Afghan civil war there was little in terms of the rule of law: men died in large numbers, widows were reduced to begging, rape was commonplace, and suicide among despondent women became ever more frequent.

It was in this chaotic environment in the early 1990s that the Taliban managed to extend their authority across the country. They achieved this through a combination of bribery and force of arms. They promised an alternative that, while distasteful to many Afghans, at least appeared better and more stable than civil war. But this brought little or no reprieve for Afghan women.

Drawing upon notions derived from pashtunwali, the traditional social code of the Pashtun people, many policies that the Taliban advanced (and continue to advance) are more restrictive than even the most rigid interpretations of the Shariah (Islamic law) require. This is partly because, although the Taliban is by no means a "Pashtun" movement, many of the young men who have joined the Taliban are ethnically Pashtun.

As the Taliban became emboldened with their military victories, the plight of Afghan women grew even greater in the territory under their control. Before long, the Taliban had taken the most misogynistic elements of their society and, claiming that they are based in the Qur'an, institutionalized them as law.

Girls' access to education after the age of eight was outlawed; women were forbidden from working; women were forced to cover their entire bodies when in public, including their faces; they were forbidden from seeking treatment from a male doctor unless accompanied by a male family member; they were forbidden from speaking loudly in public; their voices were banned from the radio; and it was made illegal to display any images of women, either in public or in the home.

Untold numbers of educated women, who had previously worked as productive members of the society, were concealed behind burqas and removed from public life. Others were reduced to begging or prostitution in order to provide for their families.

Steps Forward Again?

In the years since the Taliban were defeated in late 2001, there has been a measurable improvement in Afghan women's rights, and their position in Afghan society.

In urban areas, women have better access to education, they have returned to the work force, and some Afghan women have been politically outspoken and active in their nation's governance. There now exists a Ministry of Women's Affairs, women have been appointed to high government posts, they have the right to vote, and women have been elected as representatives to the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan's Grand Council.

These are only small steps in recovering from the damage of the past thirty years, and efforts to move forward continue to encounter vehement resistance. This opposition is partly due to the influence of the traditionalists and partly due to a widespread desire to resist westernization—even among those who consider themselves to be moderates and reformers.

But in thinking about the future of Afghan women, it is important to recognize that there is an established historical precedent for reform within Afghanistan—indeed, for most of the twentieth century the story is one of gradual progress and improvement in women's lives.

In the end, the lesson of the twentieth century may be that, in a country that has suffered thirty years of war, war itself is the greatest enemy to women's rights.


On August 16, as this essay went to press, BBC News reported: "An Afghan bill allowing a husband to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex has been published in the official gazette and become law." The law applies to Afghanistan's Shi'i minority. President Hamid Karzai faced intense pressure to reject this legislation from the international community and from women's rights activists in Afghanistan, who argue that the constitution of Afghanistan ensures equal rights for all citizens, regardless of gender. Nevertheless, with the national elections on hand, Karzai permitted the bill to pass into law in an apparent bid to win the votes of the "fundamentalists and hardliners."

Important Groups

The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising between 40 percent and half of the total population. The current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is ethnically Pashtun, as was the ruling nobility dating back, with only very brief exceptions, to 1747. The Pashtun are the dominant population in the eastern and southeastern portions of Afghanistan and the western stretches of Pakistan. Their language, Pashto, is a member of the eastern Iranian language group.

The Young Turks were a group of progressive Turkish nationalists who rose to prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They advocated a modernist approach to Turkish government and society, and worked to establish a constitutional monarchy that limited the powers of the Ottoman sultan.