The Long, Long Struggle for Women's Rights in Afghanistan

Two Afghan women dressed in bright blue burqas. Today the burqa stands as a symbol of the status of women in Afghanistan, but for much of the twentieth century the history of women in this war-torn country led also toward greater rights and public presence.

Two Afghan women dressed in bright blue burqas. Today the burqa stands as a symbol of the status of women in Afghanistan, but for much of the twentieth century the history of women in this war-torn country led also toward greater rights and public presence.

Editor's Note

In April of this year, a group of some 300 women protesters demanded that the government in Kabul repeal a repressive new law that went so far as to permit marital rape. They were publicly harassed and labeled “whores”. Around the world, many observers were outraged. The law seemed to signal a return to the kinds of policies that the Taliban had instituted when it ruled Afghanistan—when the burqa stood as a haunting symbol of the regime’s subjugation of women. While visitors to the country commonly report encountering a land somehow “lost in time” where women are almost completely absent from the public world, this month historian Scott Levi examines the century-long efforts to improve women's lives in Afghanistan.

For more on the recent history of the region, please see the July 2009 Origins article on Central Asia On the history of Islam, readers may also be interested to see these two Origins articles: Tradition vs Charisma: The Sunni-Shi'i Divide in the Muslim World and The Meaning of 'Muslim Fundamentalist'.

Let me begin with two stories.

Afghanistan, 2009:

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.

Afghanistan, 1996:

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").

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.

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Suggested Reading

Abd al-Rahman Khan, The Life of Abdur Rahman, Amir of Afghanistan, edited by Mir Munshi Sultan Mahomed Khan, 2 vols (London, 1900).

"Afghan Women Protest New Law on Home Life," by Dexter Filkins, New York Times, 16 April 2009.

Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban (New York, 2007).

Robert Crews and Amin Tarzi, eds, The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA, 2009).

Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton, 1980).

Encyclopaedia Iranica

Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and Politics (New York, 2002).

Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan (Palo Alto, 1969).

Willem Vogelsang, The Afghans (Chichester, West Sussex, 2008).