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In defence of women’s struggle in Afghanistan

Tuesday 4 April 2023, by siawi3


In defence of women’s struggle in Afghanistan

March 30, 2023

By Zahra Nader 

The prevailing perception in Afghanistan is that politics is a masculine realm and only men are qualified to be in politics. I was reminded of this recently by a tweet from a Canadian university professor. The professor, who himself belongs to the Hazara ethnicity, “advises” Hazara women in Afghanistan that “they should not participate in the demonstrations under any circumstances.” He presents Hazara women as lacking agency for political struggle, and says that some from outside the country are egging them on into participating in street demonstrations. With this tweet, he poses as a worried patriarch who wants to warn the women of his ethnicity about the unpleasant consequences of the struggle against the Taliban and tries to say that for Hazara women, due to facing double discrimination and oppression, the situation is compounded by the Taliban’s animosity and antagonism towards them. 

As a Hazara woman who has lived in Afghanistan, I am aware of the perilous situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan. The Hazaras have faced systematic violence and discrimination since at least the creation of modern Afghanistan. This discrimination in its various forms occurred during the last 20 years and certainly continues under the rule of the Taliban, an extremist and anti-Shia group with a history of ethnic bigotry. Without doubt, the oppression of Hazaras and other religious and ethnic minorities will continue and intensify. I also believe that the position of Hazara women is unique not only in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of religion and gender. The theory of intersectionality is helpful in analyzing the history of women’s struggle in Afghanistan, but that itself requires a separate discussion. 

In this essay, I want to reflect on what the university professor’s tweet says about women’s position in Afghanistan’s society and its politics as it represents the prevalent perception of Afghan society toward women’s political struggles. 

In the tweet, the university professor writes, “Talib considers the Hazara people to be infidels and they look for an excuse to harm the Hazara people. Taliban immediately arrests the protesting women and God knows what situation they will bring upon them while in prison.” The last part of his sentences reproduces the patriarchal and misogynistic narrative of women’s political struggles in Afghanistan. What I take away from the “God knows what situation they will bring upon them while in prison” is that he is concerned about the chastity of Hazara women, which could be tarnished through rape in Taliban prisons. His next sentence more clearly implies this as he offers advice to Hazara women activists: “Life without the right to education and work is hard, but not as much as the mental and physical injuries you will experience in the Taliban prison.” 

Such a widely held view towards women’s political struggles must be criticized. It says that women, because they are women and have female genitals, are at risk of rape. He doesn’t point out to what men might experience in Taliban prison, nor he criticizes men who beat or rape imprisoned women. Instead, all his condemnation is poured onto the females, who bear all the responsibility for what may be inflicted on them in prison. 

Let’s take a deeper look at our society’s view of women’s role in politics. Maybe this way we can put the insulting and misogynist words of this university professor in the context of the patriarchal society of Afghanistan and have a better understanding of it. 

There are two common perceptions in our society regarding women’s political struggles, which can also be seen in the argument of this university professor: 

1) The first and dominant perception is that women engage in political demonstrations to “build asylum cases” so they can escape from Afghanistan and successfully claim refuge in another country. 

2) The second impression is that women’s civil and peaceful struggles will not lead anywhere, because the Taliban “did not come to power through demonstrations, nor will they be removed from power through demonstrations.” 

There are other views, but these two views seem to be dominant. Let us first look at the perception of making a case for asylum. 

When a video of Tamana Zaryab Paryani was posted on social media, showing the moment when she and her sisters were being abducted from their home by Taliban intelligence in January 2022, many accused them of faking their arrest for seeking asylum outside of the country. At that time, I thought to myself, “If it was not for their gender, Afghan social media would be filled with the hashtag ‘Free the Paryanis.’” Unfortunately, the abduction and detention of Paryanis, which was due to their political activism against the Taliban, were mostly received by the silence of our society. Apart from a small number of women’s groups in Afghanistan and some human rights organizations, no special attention was paid to their detention. In the last 19 months, we have witnessed the same indifference to the arrests of many other women activists. That’s a sharp contrast to the widespread condemnation that marks the arrests of male activists and protesters. 

Why does our society have a different attitude towards women’s and men’s political protests? 

This differentiated attitude is formed in the unconscious of the patriarchal society, which, in alignment with the Taliban’s own beliefs, imagines the role and scope of women’s activities as being within the four walls of the house, specifically in the kitchen. No society comes to such a perception overnight since patriarchy has a long history and is not limited to Afghanistan. However, due to the low literacy level in Afghanistan and the weakness of its women’s movements, patriarchy as well as its ideological and cultural reflection and reproduction in society have been less criticized than in other nations. Undoubtedly, in the absence of a critical view that can read the roles and relationships of genders in Afghanistan, patriarchal laws take root in different aspects of society and present their unwritten rules in the garb of pure truth. Why can Iranian men stand by Iranian women in their political struggles, while Afghan men either advise Afghan women not to “protest” or actively sabotage their political struggles? 

In my opinion, the reason for this approach is the patriarchal mentality that defines the place of women in the house. Unfortunately, due to the deep roots of patriarchy and the lack of critical knowledge, the systematic removal of women from society is acceptable and desirable for many Afghan men. Let us remember, the law prohibiting violence against women went to Afghanistan’s parliament in May 2013 but was not approved due to the opposition of the majority of conservative male members. Let me remind you why this law was not approved: it set the marriage age for girls at 16, reduced polygamy from four to two wives, established shelters for victims of domestic violence, punished perpetrators of violence against women, and gave women the right to choose their husbands and opposition to forced marriage! 

Certainly, the members who strongly opposed this law and believed it was against religion now see the manifestation of their desired society in the shadow of the Taliban. 

In the last 20 years, a system existed, albeit an ineffective one, which allowed some women to follow their desires. From their first days back in power, the Taliban dismantled this system in order to eradicate all avenues where women could seek their demands. Afghanistan is not the first Muslim country in the world that allows a religious justification of violence against women and imposes it on the people. For at least in the last 40 years, the reins of power in Afghanistan have been held mainly by groups that have interpreted women’s social and political participation as apostasy. 

In the context of such a society, removing women from public life and taking away their human rights is met by the absolute silence of the majority. Women’s struggles to attain their rightful demands are not supported. Furthermore, they are delegitimized with accusations of seeking asylum. One of the conditions of asylum is that a person is threatened, persecuted, or punished because of their identity. Today, approximately 20 million women in Afghanistan do not have the possibility of a normal life. They cannot access basic human rights due to their gender identity. This is enough to make a case for asylum. They don’t need to also go fight the Taliban in order to successfully escape from Afghanistan. Although some people may unknowingly promote this perception, others do so deliberately, with the aim of delegitimizing women’s struggles. 

Now we look at the second perception of women’s struggles: that women’s civil and peaceful struggles will not lead anywhere. This approach can be pondered upon from two angles. On the one hand, the people of Afghanistan have become accustomed to expecting change in quick dramatic incidents, in part due to their history, which is full of such sudden and overnight changes. On the other hand, the history of Afghanistan means that many in society see change possible only through guns and violence, typical male values. They do not value civil and peaceful struggles. In addition to these two factors, according to what was discussed above, the patriarchal mores in Afghanistan define the position of women at being in the home and cannot accept the presence of women as political actors who have a salient role in the struggle against the Taliban. This is why they advise women activists to stay at home or delegitimize their activities by associating it with the West and those in exile in the West. 

For men who are doubtful about women’s struggles and advise them to stay at home, the idea is that women are “safe” at home and it’s only in Taliban prisons that they may experience “physical and psychological” harm. This perception is rooted in ignoring the reality and objective experience of women – the experience of those who not only lost their right to education, work, professional identity, social status, and hope for the future overnight, and also those who experience hunger and domestic violence at home. This is the reason why women’s struggles, even in Afghanistan’s intellectual circles, have either been accompanied by silence and disregard, or doubted, questioned, and delegitimized. 

The women’s struggle against the Taliban turns a new page in the history of Afghanistan; a page on which women, regardless of ethnic affiliation or religion, with or without the support of their families, break the thick chains of patriarchy for their human rights. Being a woman in Afghanistan has never been easy, and now it is more difficult than ever. They are facing a regime that proudly and openly embraces the hostility towards and exclusion of women from society, and have tried to close all venues of social and political life to women. 

It is foolish to imagine that women living in Afghanistan do not understand their situation as well as a male university professor living in Canada. Contrary to dominant ideology, women activists know the Taliban. They are aware of the threats, dangers, and costs of their struggle. They know the dangers of struggle against a group whose most obvious characteristics are misogyny and hostility towards women. These women are aware and know that the cost of fighting the Taliban can be death. Contrary to the ideas of the university professor, women know that the Taliban may use rape as a weapon against them. As is also apparent in the tone and language of the university professor, Afghan society rejects a woman who is a victim of rape, sometimes killing her to preserve the honor and dignity of the family, tribe, and ethnicity. 

This is where the situation of women in Afghanistan is different from that of men. In the dominant view of Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, if a man goes to prison for his political activities then he becomes a hero, but if a woman goes to prison under the same circumstances, it is considered a disgrace and a source of dishonor for the family, tribe and ethnicity. Why? Why should women always be moulded by the wishes of their family, ethnicity, and country? Why should the courageous struggles of women be targeted, both by the Taliban and by some intellectuals? 

In the end, it must be said that there are those among the intelligentsia, who, in normal circumstances, pose as advocates of “gender equality” and “women’s agency,” but when this agency is realized in such difficult situations, they turn their backs and show that they do not consider women to have the authority to use this will. They want women to seek their permission before taking any action. In practice, such an approach is no different from the patriarchal mores promoted by the Taliban. 

Not seeing the women’s own wisdom, will and judgment, in their struggle is participating in intensifying women’s oppression. Women have full intellectual and moral competence to decide what to do and what not to do. Their courageous and historical protest should be celebrated. 

The women who come to the street these days are turning over a new page, one on which women’s voices promise the hope of creating a bright future in which all citizens of the country have equal rights. Today, women who come into the streets are aware of the dangers of “physical and psychological” harm that they may experience in Taliban prisons, yet want more than just keeping their flesh alive under the Taliban. They know that their silence will be Afghanistan’s silence and if they don’t raise their voices today, the future generations will have nothing for which to live. 

Zahra Nader is a PhD student in Gender, Feminist and Women Studies at York University and is the editor-in-chief of Zan Times.