When Afghan Women Advance; Religious Bigots Push Them Back

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 20 2021
Columns When Afghan Women Advance; Religious Bigots Push Them Back

By P. K. Balachandran 

If one looks at a contemporary photograph of Afghanistan, one will be struck by the burqa which every woman wears – it’s a huge cloak covering the entire body from head to toe with only a mesh to allow them to see. And this is the 21st Century. But if one goes back to the last century to see a picture taken in the 50s; 60s or 70s, the contrast will be striking – the women are smartly turned out in knee length skirts and sport fashionable Western-style hair-dos. 

At that time, Kabul was the most Westernised city in the Indian sub-continent, resembling Tehran under Shah Reza Pahlavi rather than Lahore in Pakistan or Bombay in India. Afghan women have seen progress as well retardation since the second half of the 19th.Century. But the periods of progress and liberation have always been short.

 Islamic conservatives have invariably risen against the trend and successfully used the Shariah to shove the women from educational institutions and public places into their homes and kitchens. Women were taken out of schools because female illiteracy is considered dangerous. 

Brief Forays into Modernity 

Abdur Rahman Khan, who was the Emir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, was a moderniser. He gave women the right to divorce, raised the legal age of marriage, and gave them the right to own property. His son and successor Habibullah (1901–19) followed his father’s policies. The position of women improved further during the reign of Amanullah (1919– 29) who was inspired by the reforms of Kamal Ataturk in Turkey. 

Amanullah granted civil rights for all Afghans, including women. “Amanullah outlawed strict traditional dress codes, and Queen Soraya set the example by removing her own veil in a very dramatic and public display,” writes Scott Levi in the journal Origins. 

New schools were opened for both boys and girls, even in rural areas; forced marriages were outlawed; and an attempt was made to ban polygamy. But backlash did not take long to appear. Amanullah was overthrown in 1929 by conservative forces led by Nadir Shah (1929-33). Nadir Shah closed girls’ schools and women were put behind veils. 

However, relief came when Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933. His successor, Zahir Shah (1933–73) and his cousin Daoud Khan, restarted women’s liberation. Girls’ schools were opened and franchise was extended to women. 

“In urban areas women attended college, took jobs outside of the home, ran businesses, and some even ventured into politics. Kabul became cosmopolitan,” Levi says. As in the West, urban women were out in skirts. Indeed, Kabul was more Westernised than any city in the Indian sub-continent at that time. In 1978, the communists took over and made dramatic all round social changes touching every class. 

While women gained, communist ideology, marked by a denial of God and sweeping reforms based on an alien Soviet system, did not go down well with the majority conservatives, especially rural folk. But resistance to communist rule led to an unexpected result – the Soviet military intervened in 1979. 

Soviet intervention immediately led to the formation of an Islam-based militant group, the Mujahideen, funded and armed by the anti-Soviet US with Pakistan providing bases. Since the Mujahideen were fighting for a conservative brand of Islam against alien communism, they put women behind the veil again.

 During the movement and also after the exit of the Soviets, acid was thrown on uncovered female faces by the Mujahideen. During their rule, the Mujahideen allowed women to continue attending school, but female news reporters were barred from being visually represented on television. The screen showed only a picture of a rose when women read the news! Later on, females were banned from reading the news all together. US 

Turns Blind Eye 

The US turned a blind to the atrocities against women, as it was mobilising all the Islamic forces for its anti-Soviet war. According to Scott Levi, since men died in large numbers, widows were reduced to begging, rape was commonplace, and suicide more frequent. Rape by armed guards of the various warring Mujahideen factions was condoned by their leaders.

 It was viewed as a way of intimidating vanquished populations, and of rewarding soldiers, Levi says. Fear of rape drove women to suicide, and fathers to kill their daughters to spare them the degradation. Scores of women were abducted and detained, sexually abused, and sold into prostitution, Levi says. 

When they took over from the Soviets in 1989, the ethnically diverse and disunited Mujahideen proved to be incapable of ruling. In contrast, the united Pashtundominated Taliban appeared to be a credible alternative. They propagated law and order and sold puritanical Islam as the panacea for Afghanistan’s ills. Most Afghans, including women, fell for this offer. 

As expected, upon seizing power in 1996, the Taliban blocked girls’ access to education after the age of eight. Women were forbidden from working; They were forced to cover their entire bodies when in public, including their faces. Women were forbidden from seeking treatment from a male doctor unless accompanied by a male family member. It was made illegal to display any images of women, either in public or in the home, Levi says. 

2001-2021 August 

When the US military removed the Taliban from power in 2001, following the 9/11 outrage, fortune began to smile on Afghan women again. Women’s education was re-started and women were admitted to the white-collar work force. Women were appointed to high government posts and began to participate in the Loya Jirga (the Grand Council) also. However, behind the veneer of liberation, there was a tendency to put restrictions on women to keep the militant Islamists at bay. 

When Hamid Karzai was President, he made a law for the Shia minority which allowed a husband to starve his wife if she refused to have sex. President Ashraf Ghani and the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad refused to allow women’s representation in the Doha peace talks with the Taliban. According to Amnesty International, Khalilzad repeatedly said that women’s rights — and other issues relating to human rights, political structures and power sharing — should be resolved through the subsequent intra-Afghan talks and not US-Taliban talks. 

However, the US attitude to women’s rights changed after the Taliban drove it out of the country in August 2021. Washington began to demand that the Taliban ensure women’s rights as a condition for the recognition of their government.

 The Taliban promised to do so, but after the US quit, they made the full burqa compulsory, banned co-education, sacked female office workers, and in universities, male and female students were separated by a curtain. If male teachers were teaching women, the teachers had to be invisible. Females would have rights but only as per Shariah law. 

The Taliban are unlikely to give in to Western demands on women’s rights and the Shariah, because giving up means abandoning their plan to convert Afghanistan into an Islamic Emirate based on the Shariah. The character of the Taliban’s Council of Ministers offers no hope that women will benefit. It has extremist groups like the Haqqani Network.

 The Western powers will ultimately cave in, afraid that their boycott of the Taliban regime will facilitate the entry of their arch rivals, China and Russia, into Afghanistan. Unlike the US and the West, China and Russia have a policy of not interfering with the social and political structures of the countries they interact with.

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 20 2021

More News