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File:Women of Afghanistan.jpg

Women of Afghanistan in 2006 waiting to meet former First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush

Women's rights in Afghanistan have suffered through tremendous turmoil in the last three decades or in the last quarter of the past century. Through different rulers such as the Mujahideen and the Taliban in the later part of the century, women have struggled to gain freedoms and reform a society that is primarily male dominant.


Template:History of Afghanistan

Before the 1978 revolution

Since Afghanistan was officially declared a country in the mid eighteenth century, it has suffered from weakness due to the different tribal groups and ethnicities.[1] Of all of the tribal groups, the Pashtuns are the largest and then followed by Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth century’s the rulers of Afghanistan consistently attempted to lessen women’s restrictions in the country. For the most part, these attempts were unsuccessful; however, there were a few leaders who were able to make some significant changes for the time period. Among them was King Amanullah Khan, who ruled from 1919 to 1929 and made some of the more noteworthy changes in an attempt to unify as well as modernize the country.[1]

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Life of Afghan women in Kabul during the 1950s.

Amanhullah Khan along with other rulers following him promoted freedom for women in the public sphere in order to lessen the control that patriarchal families had over women. Amanhullah Khan stressed the importance for young girls and women to receive an education. Along with encouraging families to send their daughters to school, he promoted the unveiling of women and persuaded them to adopt a more western style of dress.[2] In 1921, he created a law, which abolished forced marriage, child marriage, bride price, and put restrictions on polygamy, a common practice among households in Afghanistan.[2] However, over time these restrictions became nearly impossible to enforce.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Afghanistan continued to be a country dominated by tribes and men continued to have ultimate control over women. In 1973 Afghanistan was declared a republic and throughout the 1970s and 1980s a communist group called the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took over and attempted to once again reform the marriage laws, women’s health laws, and encouraged women’s education. During this time Afghanistan made significant advances towards modernization.[3] Minorities of women were able to hold jobs as scientists, teachers, doctors, and civil servants and had a considerable amount of freedom with significant educational opportunities.[4] The majority of women however, lived in poverty and were excluded from these opportunities.

Mujahideen and Taliban era

In April 1992, Afghanistan erupted into a civil war when the Mujahideen took over. The Mujahideen was split into seven different factions who all vied for power leading the country into a violent bloodbath.[3] The Mujahideen declared that all women were to wear a veil and demanded that women who appeared on television were fired.[1] violent civil war continued over four years and included kidnappings and rape of many women. By the time one of the factions became victorious many people welcomed this new leading force known as the Taliban.[1]

The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns who are almost entirely educated in Wahhabi schools in Pakistan.[1] Immediately after coming into power, the Taliban declared that women were forbidden to go to work and they were not to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male family member. When they did go out it was required that they had to wear an all-covering burqa. Under these restrictions, women were denied an education and were refused health care.[2] Many women were unable to leave their households at all because they couldn’t afford a burqa or they no longer had any male relatives. These women were forced to stay at home and paint their windows so that no one could see in or out.[4] During the Taliban’s rule, women in Afghanistan were essentially put under house arrest. Under the Taliban’s rule, women who once held respectable positions were now forced to wander around the streets in their burqas selling everything they owned and begging in order to survive.

These restrictions ended up putting an immense strain on the education of both boys and girls because there was lack of teachers to educate the boys since teachers were primarily women before the Taliban took over. Although women were banned from most jobs, like teaching, women in the medical field were mostly allowed to continue working.[4] This is due to the fact that the Taliban required that women could only attend female physicians. However, this came at a price because these women who were doctors and nurses were often beaten or had to watch their female colleagues being beaten.[2] On the other side, it was difficult for women to seek medical attention for multiple reasons. It was extremely frowned upon for women to have the need to go to a hospital and were often given beatings if they tried and even if they were able to make it to a hospital it was not guaranteed that they would be seen by a doctor.

U.S. invasion and the Karzai administration

After the September 11th attacks on the United States, the U.S. led a bombing campaign on al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and that ultimately led to the overthrowing of the Taliban in November 2001.[4]

Economy and laborforce

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Women working at a factory in Parwan Province

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Newly-trained Afghan Midwives

The most popular traditional work for women in Afghanistan is tailoring, and large percentage of the population are professional tailors working from home.[5] Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 women have gradually begun to work their way back towards being contributors to the economy. However, there are factors that have been slowing this process down. One being that the Taliban continues to inflict violence upon women who defy the laws they had once put into place, it makes it difficult for them to completely take back the freedoms that they once had.[6] Along with this, Afghanistan has a struggling economy overwhelmed with massive unemployment and poverty making it difficult for women to find work where they can receive sufficient pay.[2] An area of the economy where women do play a significant role is in agriculture. While 80 percent of Afghans are employed in the agriculture field or similar occupations, 30 percent of them are women.[2] In some areas around Afghanistan, women may spend as much time working on the land as men do where they often earn three times less wages than men.[2] Due to Afghanistan’s struggling economy many women are being forced to go to work out of desperate need, even if the pay is almost non-existent.

Women also rank high percentagewise in the fields of medicine, media, and are slowly working their way into the field of justice. The high percentage of women in the medical field is because women are highly encouraged to attend a female physician when they go to the hospital.[2] Due to this fact, nearly fifty percent of all Afghans in the medical profession are women.[2] Women having professions in the media is a trend that is rising. Currently there are more than ten television stations that have all female anchors as well as female producers.[2] As women are given more opportunities in education and the workforce more and more are turning towards careers in medicine, media, and justice.

However, even the women that are given the opportunity to have careers have to struggle to balance their home life with their work life. Since the economy is so weak, very few women can afford servants so they are forced to take care of all the household work primarily on their own.[2] Those who choose to work must labour twice as hard because they are essentially holding two jobs.

Women in Afghanistan work in many government institutions, including in the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. Their number is growing slowly as more women are trained to perform their duty on an international level.


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Biology class at Kabul University during the late 1950s or early 1960s.

In the early twentieth century, education for women was extremely rare due to the lack of schools for girls. Occasionally girls were able to receive an education on the primary level but they never moved passed the secondary level.[2] During King Zaher Shah's reign in the mid twentieth century education for women became a priority and young girls began being sent to schools. At these schools, girls were taught discipline, new technologies, ideas, and socialization in society.[2]

Kabul University was opened to girls in 1947 and by 1973 there was an estimated 150,000 girls in schools across Afghanistan.[2] Unfortunately, young marriage added to the high drop out rate but more and more girls were entering professions that were once viewed as only being for men.[2] Women were being given new opportunities to earn better lives for both themselves and their families. However, in the late twentieth century when the Mujahideen created a civil war followed by the overtaking by the Taliban, women were stripped of these opportunities and were sent back to lives where they were to stay at home and be controlled by their husbands and fathers.

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Afghan female students outside Kabul Medical University

During the reign of the Taliban, many women who had previously been teachers began secretly giving an education to many young girls and some boys in their neighborhoods.[4] These women were teaching anywhere from ten to sixty children at a time.[4] The homes of these women became community homes for girls and women and were entirely financed and managed by women. News about these secret schools spread through word of mouth from woman to woman. Each day young girls would hide all their school supplies such as books, notebooks, and pencils underneath their burqas and risk their lives to go to school.[4] At these schools, young women were taught basic literary skills, numeracy skills, and various other subjects like biology, chemistry, English, Quranic Studies, cooking, sewing, and knitting.[4] Unfortunately, many of the women involved in teaching were caught by the Taliban and persecuted, jailed, and tortured.[4]

Since 2001 many children have returned to school despite opposition by the Taliban. Over the years the Taliban has burned down numerous schools and killed many teachers, yet people still want their children to learn and the number of Afghan children in schools rises each year. In the first few years after the Taliban was overthrown, education for girls continued to struggle. In 2006 it was reported that 74 percent of girls in Afghanistan dropped out of school before the finished primary school.[2] This high percentage was due to many factors including marriage, family obligation, and downright fear to the continued presence of the Taliban around Afghanistan.[2] However, as the years move on, the number of students in schools rises because people want their children to learn so that they can earn better professions and support the family. Schools keep being opened in Afghanistan and in 2008 there was an estimated 5.8 million children attending schools, with roughly 40 percent of them being girls.[2] As the number the children attending school rises each year, so does the number of girls who are attending.

Marriage and parenting

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Mother's Day in Afghanistan

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Mother with her children on Mothers' Day in Kabul

Afghanistan is a patriarchal society where it is commonly believed that men are entitled to make decisions for women. These decisions primarily include engagement and marriage.[7]

Arranged marriages are common for women in Afghanistan and they are done mostly for political and economic reasons. A girl’s father has the ultimate authority over who he believes his daughter should marry. It is not uncommon for girls to be engaged even before they are born. Girls are often married off at a very young age to wealthy men who are much older than themselves. Some reports even indicate that in the rural Afghanistan, the areas that are most struck by poverty, families sell their daughters to much older men in exchange for food. The two families must sign an engagement contract that both parties are socially and culturally obligated to honor. After this contract is signed, the bride is forbidden to marry another man.[8] If the bride dies before the marriage, her family is required to give her sister as a bride or find another desirable replacement.[8]

It is common among low-income families in most areas of the country for the groom to pay a dowry to the bride's family.[7] The price is negotiated among the heads of the family. The bride is not included in the negotiation process. The bride price is viewed as compensation for the money that the bride's family had to spend on her care and upbringing.[7] There have been many instances where a family is so stricken by poverty that a father will betroth his daughters to multiple men and collect the dowry from each of them.[7] Cases like these all went to court and more often than not they ended up in violence. Girls are sometimes also bartered in a traditional method of dispute resolution called baad that proponents say helps avoid violence between families, although the girls themselves are often subject to considerable violence both before and after marrying into a family through baad.[9]

Once a girl is married she becomes the property of her new family and continues to have little to no control over her situation. When it comes to family, the girl's mother-in-law and her husband have the most control. It is the mother-in-law who decides whether or not their pregnant daughter in law should go to the hospital or not.[2]

When it comes to the case of a divorce, men have the exclusive right and don't need any consent from their wife. Due to Islamic traditions and social and cultural beliefs, it is almost impossible for a woman to initiate divorce and it is considered to be extremely shameful to women who desire it.[2] However, if a divorce does take place the husband receives custody of all the adult children and the wife receives custody of the young children only until they reach adulthood and the husband receives custody.[2] Divorce is extremely difficult to obtain and even if a woman is able to acquire it, she faces the fate of being an outcast for the rest of her life.

The Burqa

File:Afghan lady in Kabul.jpg

An 1842 Lithography work by James Rattray showing a Persian (Qizilbash) woman in Afghanistan with a burqa next to her.

The burqa is a long garment, with only a grid through which to see. Early record of this dress is made during the First Anglo-Afghan War when the British were exploring Afghanistan and some officers made lithographs showing the burqa in it. Women in Afghanistan were forced to wear burqas while they were under the influence of the Taliban.[3]

Wearing a burqa is extremely hot and gives off a bad odor inside. It causes women to feel claustrophobic and can lead to illnesses such as asthma.[10] As dust gets kicked up from the streets it sticks to the cloth in from of the mouth that is damp from breathing, giving off a feeling of suffocating in stale air.[10] The mesh opening doesn’t give enough view and women often have difficulty seeing where they are going. It is said to be like wearing horse blinders.

When a burqa is worn, it is impossible to tell whether a woman is smiling or crying or any other emotion. Women say that this gives off the feeling of being completely invisible.[3]

Women were forced to wear the burqa when they were under the influence of the Taliban but reports from 2008 state that many women are still unable to leave their homes without wearing one.[2]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Keddie, Nikki R. (2007). Women in the Middle East. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691128634.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 Skaine, Rosemarie (2008-09-23). Women of Afghanistan In The Post-Taliban Era: How Lives Have Changed and Where They Stand Today. McFarland. ISBN 978-0786437924.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Armstrong, Sally (2003-01-06). Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan. Seal Press. ISBN 978-1568582528.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Rostami-Povey, Elaheh (2007-10-16). Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion. Zed Books. ISBN 978-1842778562.
  5. Afghan women struggle to make ends meet as tailors
  6. Drumbl, Mark A. (January 2004). "Rights, Culture, and Crime: The Role of Rule of Law for the Women of Afghanistan". Washington & Lee Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series (Washington & Lee University- School of Law). doi:10.2139/ssrn.452440. Retrieved 2010-08-13.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Hafizullah, Emadi (2002-08-30). Repression, Resistance, and Women in Afghanistan. Praeger. ISBN 978-0275976712.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Rodriguez, Deborah (2007-04-10). Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. Random House. ISBN 978-1400065592.
  9. Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Afghan Girls Suffer for Sins of Male Relatives, 26 March 2009, ARR No. 317, available at: [accessed 5 December 2010]
  10. 10.0 10.1 Swift Yasgur, Batya (2002-09-30). Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom. Wiley. ISBN 978-0471263890.

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