Women’s rights | Afghanistan

Patriarchal darkness

Education, work, marriage: over the years, the rights of Afghan women have been fiercely contested. A chronology of an eventful history

A woman is seen in front of a building wearing sunglasses and a black head scarf. She has raised her hand in protest and is chanting a slogan. She is surrounded by other protesters.

More than in almost any other country, the lives of Afghan women have been shaped by rival patriarchies and by extreme ups and downs in terms of their roles and their rights. At times, kings or occupying powers have attempted to radically modernise the country; at other times, different rulers, especially fundamentalist Islamic regimes, have brutally reversed these efforts. This applies to access to education and the world of work as well as to property and marriage laws.

Abdur Rahman Khan, who ruled from 1880 to 1901, made the first push towards greater freedoms. The emir abolished in-law marriage, i.e. the tradition that widows had to marry a brother of their deceased husband. Khan raised the age of marriage to 16 for girls and 18 for boys, granted women the right to divorce and introduced schooling for girls. His favourite wife Babo Jan appeared unveiled, learned to ride a horse and repeatedly mediated in clan disputes - which was quite unusual for a woman at the time.

All these innovations met with fierce resistance in the rural areas. When Abdur Rahman Khan's son Habibullah Khan (1901 to 1919) succeeded him as emir and furthered the equality agenda, he was assassinated.

His successor, the Emir and later Afghan King Ghazi Amanullah Khan (1919 to 1929), insisted on girls attending school, further raised the age of marriage to 18, abolished polygamy and granted women the right to choose their own husbands - and to vote. But after opposition tribal leaders forced Amanullah Khan to abdicate and flee, all these advances were rolled back.

“Public executions and floggings were part of everyday life, for example for women accused of adultery”

It would be decades before attempts were made to restore the status of women. From 1964 onwards, under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, there were renewed reform efforts, especially with the introduction of a modern constitution, for example with the guarantee of basic rights for the entire population, including Afghan women, who were now allowed to vote again and even to stand for political office themselves.

The Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 brought empowerment of women through education and employment - partly because the men were fighting in the war that broke out between government and Soviet troops and the mujahideen and partly because women were now considered economically valuable resources. The proportion of girls with a school education increased, and many women from the cities were sent to the USSR, for example to study medicine.

However, during this period, the mujahideen began to take drastic measures against Afghan women in regions where they were gaining influence, based on their interpretation of Islam. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 and the gradual takeover by the mujahideen and the Taliban, the country plunged back into the depths of patriarchal darkness as far as women's rights were concerned.

With Taliban rule from 1996, the “Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” was established to monitor and control women. They banned television and announced new laws and directives daily via Radio Shariat.

Women were no longer allowed to leave the house without a mahram, a male member of the family in front of whom the woman does not have to veil herself; they had to wear a burqa; girls' schools had to close; women were no longer allowed to work and were forcibly married. Public executions and floggings were part of everyday life, for example for women accused of adultery.

“Since 11 September, the situation for urban women at least has improved”

After 11 September 2001 and the US invasion, two decades of weak attempts at reform followed. In Kabul and some urban centres, the situation did improve enormously, with educational opportunities for girls and women, better medical care, new jobs; the creation of a women's ministry, and women working in official positions.

But the measures did not bring about any structural changes and mainly affected urban women; the rural population benefited to a much lesser extent.

Since the Taliban regained power in 2021, even these small successes have been wiped out. The most obvious sign of this in everyday life is the obligation to veil. In addition, women are denied education and their activities are essentially limited to the household.

Despite all this, there is also a history of women's movement in Afghanistan - from the queens who often appeared self-confident including the aforementioned Babo Jan, to women's groups who secretly taught girls in defiance of a ban. This struggle continues - and the world should show solidarity.