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Never silent - Bold Voices: A Brief History of Women’s Rights Movement in Afghanistan

Wednesday 21 September 2016, by siawi3

part 1:
part 2:

Humaira Saqeb

— Part I

When we analyze Afghan women’s struggle for their freedom in all its glory, we notice one key element. Despite living in a traditional patriarchal society where women are automatically seen as less, seeking equality and rights has been a shared concern for women throughout history.

Despite the status quo of silencing and isolating women, since its inception the women’s movement has become an idealistic venue for demanding equality and seriously questioning the patriarchal customs prevalent in society.

Based on historical narratives, we can trace the start of women’s advocacy from the period of King Amanullah onwards. During his rule, Queen Suraya’s serious and sustained campaign paved the way for future efforts by women. The presence of Queen Suraya and other women at events, ceremonies and trips, and the creation of an open space for women angered the traditional and religious groups of the country. They saw these as contrary to the religious and traditional habits of Afghanistan and began their efforts to presence of women and minimize their role in political and social life.

It was during this time period, a time of accomplishment for women that Mastorad Hospital opened for treating female patients. Following that, a girls’ school was opened in 1928. Probably for the first time in the history of the country, even a number of school girls were sent to Turkey for education on September 29, 1928. Women’s political participation also improved as five women joined the Loya Jirga, the national meetings, after elections. The Mullahs and religious leaders stopped these achievements in their tracks when they worked with foreign forces and overthrew the progressive King’s government. These achievements for women angered and with the help of external/foreign forces, they overthrew the government.
Afghan women in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and licensed through Creative Commons.

Afghan women in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and licensed through Creative Commons.

Although women faced many ups and downs after King Amanullah Khan’s reign, Mohammad Zahir Shah also promoted some efforts to bring women to power. During this time, women won seats in the cabinet. Kubra Noorzai was appointed the first female minister. She was the head of Ministry of Public Health. Shafiqa Ziaeey, and Saleha Farouq Etemadi were also members of the cabinet. Other respected women from affluent backgrounds, such as Roqiya Abu Bakr, Qamar Jan, Shahdukht Belquis and Merman Zarin Noori, created a spark of hope among women in the country. Naturally, the presence of three ministers, four lawyers, two senators and tens of professors who were female was once again scrutinized by conservatives who continued their attacks on women’s participation in social and political sphere.

The war on Afghan women

With the arrival of the Communist regime in Afghanistan, the women’s movement did not change their nature but rather continued their work with a different structure. Women continued to occupy seats in the government, but also began forming organizations.

Anahita Ratebzad and Masooma Esmati were appointed as heads of Ministries and Suraya Parlyka, Hamida Sherzai, Kubra Ali, Momina Basir, and Jamila Keshtmand continued highlighting the political and social demands of women by forming the Women’s Democratic Organization. Given the political atmosphere was still largely violent, some of the women involved in conflicts and rivalries between parties lost their lives. Outside the political parties and events, women participated in media more widely than before and the number of female university students increased dramatically.

On the other hand, misogynists abused religious beliefs to systematically attack women. This trend became more serious during the Mujahedeen. With the assistance of the United States, the Mujahedeen overthrew the Communist regime and enforced strict rules on women around the country. One such law was the “Women’s Supreme Decree,” which included severe restrictions on women’s clothing and outside presence. Girl’s schools were burned and university women were harassed and had acid thrown on their faces. For the first time, the blue Burqas became prevalent in large cities. The civil war that followed Mujahedeen’s short-lived victory, caused the decline of the country’s economic, social, and cultural structures and forced most women back into their houses and far from the movement.

The Mujahedeen regime and the civil war that came with it created the first phase of migration of the women’s rights activists and leaders out of Afghanistan. This wave of the migrants were educated elite women who were forced to leave and take with them the most valuable resource of the country: educated youth. The voices of millions of women who remained inside the country went unheard under the rockets, shelling and terror of internal conflict. Many women became victims of rape or widows, and many still face extreme poverty as a consequence of this war. Despite men doing the fighting in the streets, women were the primary victims of the civil war in Afghanistan.

The dark era of Taliban

After half a decade of war, the Taliban, a sect of the Mujahedeen who felt underrepresented in the government and argued that it was too progressive for women, came out victorious.

Under the Taliban rule, women were faced with even more restrictions. They were virtually condemned to isolation and imprisonment at home. Wearing a burqa became mandatory. Leaving the home without a close male family member became illegal. The presence of women in gatherings and workplace was outright banned. Women’s voices and faces was erased from media. Various laws such as stoning was carried out and girls’ schools were closed and widows were pushed to the corners of their homes. After a short time, these rules were enforced by the “vice and virtue” force, who publicly beat and executed women for “crimes” like wearing nail polish and committing adultery respectively.

Even under the disastrous regime of Taliban, many women in Kabul and beyond took immense risks and protested. Many started secret schools for girls or secret literary circles. Risking beatings and worse, many brave women continued the fight for equality by educating young girls.

The Taliban caused the second phase of migration of women activists. Fearing assassinations and violence, many educated women left the country once again. Many of them continued their activism in neighboring countries, Europe or the United States. Some prominent activists including Suraya Parlyka, Shafiqa Habibi, General Suhaila Siddiq, and dozens of others decided to stay despite the severe laws imposed on women by the Taliban.

There are many stories of women who confronted the Taliban and there is a need to collect all these stories. There are even narratives of confrontation with the “vice and virtue” police, where women would carry copies of the Quran with them and ask the Taliban to show where the verse is that women are not allowed to leave the house or wear burqas. One particularly famous story in Kabul tells of a woman named Sajida who took off all her clothes in protest of the Taliban’s strict rules on women’s clothes. The Taliban sidelined us, but they could not silence Afghan women- not for long, anyways.

—Part 2

Not a weak willow to tremble with the winds
As the brave poem by Nadiaa Anjuman exclaims, Afghan women lived and protested resiliently through the Taliban regime. With the collapse of the Taliban, the international community at the Bonn Conference announced their support for women’s rights and participation in Afghanistan’s new government. The presence of women in the political arena was among the preconditions set by the international community to continue its assistance to Afghanistan. For this purpose, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established to work towards women’s participation and empowerment in Afghanistan.

The year 2002 was a year of hope, change and a return to public and political life for Afghan women after so many years of repression, violence, and dictatorship. This time, women found their way in offices, universities, businesses and institutions. Support for women especially in the realms of non-governmental organizations became more serious. Women found their way to the parliament and provincial councils and government bodies. The wearing of burqa, isolation at home, and staying away from political and social life for women were no longer legal requirements. Women began partaking in different political and diplomatic roles. Some women were able to join the security forces of the country. The presence of women and girls in the media sparked new hope. They were instrumental in changing public opinion and normalizing women’s presence in public.

The American-led intervention removed political and legal barriers for women and allowed women to once again exist in public spaces, but changing cultural norms is a longer process that requires a grassroots movement. Even today, violence against women, from political and social violence to domestic violence, persists. Women’s ears and noses were cut off by their family members. Many women are killed for attempting to question social norms. There have been several instances of public executions and stoning of women since 2001. Many tribal courts continue to violate women’s rights and sanctify gender-based violence, without any consideration to the law or judicial proceedings. Women’s rights activists and female police officers, journalists and public figures are still subject to threats, terror and killings.

Since 2001, hundreds of organizations defending women have become prominent (some with the monetary support from the international community), the number of female members of parliament, experts and analysts on women’s issues has increased significantly, programs related to women in the media, radio, and print are now common, many women are employed in various government departments and Afghan women are portrayed to the world in a more positive way. However even today violence, injustice, misogyny and gender inequality continue quietly anti-woman laws are being passed as a backlash to women’s accomplishments.

Consolidating a movement to advocate for Afghan women’s basic rights
Compared to the Taliban regime, Afghan women’s lives are considerably better. The agenda to increase women’s rights has been more or less supported by the government during the last ten years and the international community has spent millions of dollars on this issue, a lot more needs to be done to improve women’s situation in Afghanistan. Corruption continues to prevent funding from being used efficiently and transparently and much of the funding spent ends up in the hands of suspicious entities and individuals that see women’s presence as a threat against the patriarchy.
Afghan Women Protest to Protect EVAW

Women protest in Kabul to defend the Elimination of Violence against Women act after the religious right’s attacks on the law created to prevent and prosecute gender-based violence.

Despite the obstacles, the Afghan women’s movement has grown and come up with different approaches to the struggle for gender equality in these recent years. Many women’s rights activists have been carefully following the disturbing events and working collectively and consciously towards solutions in partnership with different women institutions to address the plight of Afghan women.

The rise of the pro-women’s rights and actions taken by them have been largely spontaneous. One of the important movements for women’s rights that can be named is the Committee on Afghan Women’s Political Participation. This committee aims to help women reach the highest offices in politics and government and increase their influence on policies. Formed organically by a group of women leaders and activists, the organization has fought hard to keep quotas to ensure women’s representation in the Parliament and Senate. The organization works based on the ideals of the old movement and has remained independent. In this regards, the committee does accept any financial and political support from domestic and foreign institutions. This is an attempt to establish itself purely on the basis of values and struggles of women’s freedom. Its meetings are held in the offices and homes of its members. According to Dr. Aalema, one of the founders of the committee, the committee started with three women in 2004 as the presidential elections were underway. Soon the membership grew and today dozens are involved in advocacy through the committee.

In recent years, one effort that stands out for engaging at the grassroots level the Fifty Percent campaign designed to increase women’s participation in voting and running for political positions. Their effective tactics to promote equality in the political arena was possible with the cooperation of the Committee on Afghan Women’s Political Participation, National Association of Afghan Women and Armanshahr Foundation. In addition to this grassroots campaign that worked to engage women around the country, many new efforts are giving life to a nation-wide movement for women.

Young women’s groups are now using technology to highlight the power of Afghan women. Protests, letters to the president, collecting signatures for the demands of Afghan women and honoring women who lost their lives for the defense of women’s rights- all these efforts are creating a public voice for women. In addition to the organizations named in the article, many other groups and individuals are also working on women’s rights issues however in a less coordinated way.

Building on the herstory of resilience
Since 2001, Afghan women have come a long way. Now, there is a real effort to create a movement based on the needs of women at the grassroots level. Despite its focus on women’s issues such as gender-based violence or lack of access to education that are shared throughout the country, this movement is not limited to women inside Afghanistan, rather it includes many women in the diaspora. Meetings, events, and international conferences are facilitated and organized Afghan women active in the Americas, Europe, and Asia to support voices inside the country. These platforms allow women both inside and outside Afghanistan to build stronger ties and work closely in the fight for justice.

This collaboration beyond borders has caused the women’s movement in Afghanistan to remain focused on the most fundamental needs and urgent issues facing women instead of suffering from distractions for status and economic gain, efforts to maintain the status quo, or lack of a strong gendered perspective. Another strength of this movement has been its relentless focus on gender issues alone. It has allowed women to stay unified and not fall into the ethnic and regional divides and conflicts that plagues the larger Afghan society. Only because of the ideals of equality, women have put their lives on the line. Some have even lost lives for it.

The movement for Afghan women’s liberation has been through many tumultuous periods. At times it has seemed as if it doesn’t exist, but still it has been powerful. The biggest testimony to the strength of this movement is the attacks on it. There has been a constant war on the Afghan women’s movement because it is considered a serious threat against the misogynists in political and governmental entities as well those in fundamentalists and extremist groups. These patriarchal entities have continued to suppress the women’s movements with name-calling, accusations, violence and other means precisely because they know its power.

Now, at this particular time in the country, women’s movement is taking a more coherent structure. Women’s rights activists, pro-democracy and human rights entities in Afghanistan and outside are trying to consolidate their efforts to prepare for a more serious, sustained, and long-term struggle. These women- and some men- are now utilizing modern means to restructure and provide a comprehensive definition of their demands that align with human rights and dignity. They do not allow their fate to be negotiated in national and international politics. They stand up against all forms of violence against women. Standing up for rights, justice, and equality, they have become the voice for the most vulnerable women in the country.

The history of Afghan women’s movement is as lengthy as the entire history of Afghanistan. Afghan women’s history is full of sacrifices, full of betrayal and violence imposed on us by misogynists who used religion and tradition to aggressively suppress women’s uprising nationwide. But despite all the violence, the movement for women’s liberation from tyranny and dictatorship stood and even in the most restrictive and limited times it continued to break barriers.

Afghan women consistently rebelled against patriarchy in all its forms and despite the ups and downs, the movement still stands strong to fight for the ideals of equality and justice. Today, despite Taliban and insecurity, with increased women working and getting educated, there is nothing but hope for this movement.

There was a time in Afghanistan when only a few women were able to stand and demand equality. Today, during such dangerous times, women in the most rural areas are advocating for their rights. Women around the country are determined to prove to a society that had condemned us to the corners of their houses that we exist, we have identities, and our gender is not a crime. This movement will continue under any circumstance until we have created a society where men and women are treated as equals.

Humaira Saqeb is a journalist and women’s rights activist who has worked in Afghanistan for nearly two dozen years. She is a member Afghan Women’s Political Participation Committee and the head of Negah-e-Zan magazine as well as Afghan Women’s News Agency.

This piece was translated to English by Maryam Laly. A volunteer for Free Women Writers, Maryam is passionate about human rights issues. She has a degree in Government with minors in Peace Studies and Arabic from St. Lawrence University.