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The Uncertain Fate of Women In Afghanistan

American troops are rapidly exiting the Middle East, with all combat troops scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2014. What effect will this withdrawal have on women in Afghanistan? This article will provide an overview of women’s rights in Afghanistan since the rise and fall of the Taliban.*

The history of Afghanistan is vast and complex. Traditionally it was a nation ruled by tribes, which were predominantly controlled by men. Women had very few opportunities to publicly express themselves and were submissive in society. Throughout the 20th century, Afghanistan made great strides in terms of rights for women. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was founded by Meena Keshwar Kamal in 1977. Tragically, she was assassinated in 1987. RAWA still operates in the Afghan region today and describes itself as, “the oldest political/social organization of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women’s rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan.”

The Soviet Union had a long history of aiding Afghanistan by supporting communist regimes that controlled the nation. During the 1970s and 1980s, the nation was ruled by a communist group called the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. During this period, some women were afforded the opportunity to seek higher education and pursue careers. However, as this elite group of women gained noticeable freedoms, the majority of Afghan women were excluded from such opportunities and lived in deplorable conditions. From 1979-1988, the Soviet Union aided the communist group in a quest to maintain control of the region and annihilate the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen (groups of Sunni Muslims who joined together to fight against the Soviets). The Soviets withdrew military forces by 1989, but warring continued between Afghan factions and an exceptionally bloody civil war ensued. After an attempted overthrow by the Mujahideen in 1992, multiple Afghan factions battled continuously for power and control of the nation. During that time, the Mujahideen forced women to wear veils in public. Many women were raped and publicly beaten. Ultimately, an extremist Islamic faction called the Taliban was victorious. Upon taking control of Afghanistan in 1996, women’s rights were completely suppressed and they lost many of the privileges they had gained during previous decades. The Taliban ruled by militant force and imposed an exceptionally strict version of Sharia law on Afghan citizens, which many Muslims claim is a perversion of Islam. Women could not travel in public without being escorted by a male relative. They were banned from driving cars and beaten if their attire violated the Taliban dress-code. This meant that women were required to cover their bodies with a burqa at all times in public. Women were also forbidden to work and were denied schooling, education and healthcare.

In September 2001, shortly after the terrorist attack on The World Trade Center, former President George Bush launched his military objectives for “Operation Enduring Freedom.” One of his stated objectives was to expel the Taliban regime and annihilate the terrorist Al Qaeda organization, which operated from Afghanistan. The United States was joined in this effort by the armed forces of the United Kingdom, Australia and the United Islamic Front (an Afghan coalition aimed at fighting against the Taliban). The invasion began on October 7, 2001 and the Taliban was successfully removed from power within a few short months.

Photo: The Advocacy Project

Since that time, Afghan women have made tremendous strides. In 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected President of Afghanistan and a Constitution was adopted which established important rights for women. Chapter 2 states, “The citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” However, Chapter 1 of the Constitution states, “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Thus, depending on which “interpretation” of Islamic law is adhered to by government officials and which laws are enforced by Afghan police, women could easily be deprived of basic human rights.

Oxfam, an international organization dedicated to human rights, outlined some “key gains” for Afghan women that occurred since the 2001 U.S. led invasion. Specifically, the first female Governor and first female Mayor were appointed to the Bamiyan and Nili Daikundi provinces, respectively. In addition, Afghan women are now afforded the opportunity to participate in Community Development Councils, which provide them with a formal voice at the community level. In 2008, the Afghan government developed a National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan (NAPWA), which outlined a plan to accomplish gender equality. However, according to Oxfam, in spite of women gaining much ground since the Taliban was removed, there has been a recent decline in overall advances. Oxfam found that 87% of Afghan women have reported experiencing physical, sexual or psychological violence, including forced marriages. Oxfam also reported that although multiple laws have been passed to address abuses against women, they are seldom enforced. For example, the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (EVAW) was passed in 2010, but statistics indicate that the law has only been used to prosecute less than 10% of reported gender-based crimes. Even worse, many Afghan women are simply unaware that laws exist to protect them. According to Oxfam, mistreatment of women is common in Afghanistan and could be rooted in long established customs and traditions. Recent acts of violence against women include:

In the province of Kunduz, an Afghan man allegedly murdered his wife for giving birth to a third daughter, instead of a son. The man, who was a member of the local Afghan militia, was allegedly assisted by his mother in choking his wife to death.

In the same region, one Afghan woman, along with her parents and siblings, was doused with acid because her parents refused to agree to her marrying a certain Afghan man.

In the province of Baghlan, a young Afghan bride reported that she was beaten and tortured by her mother-in-law. She claims that her in-laws tried to force her into prostitution and when she refused, she was locked in a bathroom for 6 months and subjected to mental and physical torture.


Oxfam also reported that there are fewer women in public jobs and political positions now than in 2004. Moreover, the current Afghan government is unstable and local law enforcement may not view women’s rights as a priority. Although the Taliban publicly claims that it is interested in supporting women’s rights, Oxfam reported that most Afghans have doubts about the Taliban’s sincerity. According to Oxfam, the Taliban has traditionally been a religious power, seemingly incapable of respecting the rights of women. Additionally, the Afghan government has a history of placing political objectives above women’s rights. If the Taliban is given a portion of authority, or exercises strong influence over the government, the progress women have made during the past 10 years could be abrogated.

On a positive note, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. The organization was created by President Bush in 2002 and is homed at Georgetown University. Its purpose is to support Afghan women and children. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Former First Lady Laura Bush attended the celebration and voiced their concerns for Afghan women. Ms. Clinton said, “We will not waiver on this point — any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It is a figment that will not last.” In spite of Ms. Clinton’s strong public statement of support, this pressing question remains: which interpretation of Islamic law will prevail once western forces evacuate the territory?

Most Americans are so far removed from brutal regimes such as the Taliban, it is difficult to comprehend the concept of a chaotic, militant government, where citizens are publicly oppressed by fear and violence. American women are fortunate to live in a nation where they possess defined rights that are staunchly protected by the law. Unlike Afghanistan, and many foreign nations around the globe, women’s rights in America are not easily surrendered to brute force.

Photo: US Embassy, Kabul Afghanistan


With privilege comes responsibility. In order to develop a full appreciation for the stability of our system of government, American women should take the time to understand other systems and grasp world affairs. In 2001, American-led forces ousted a fierce regime in Afghanistan that treated women in a barbaric fashion. Now those same women face an uncertain future. As western troops withdraw and extremist regimes vie for power, the fate of Afghan women hangs in the balance.

To learn more about the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and what you can do to help, visit: http://gucchd.georgetown.edu/76315.html. For more information about the plight of women in Afghanistan, visit: http://www.afghan-web.com/woman/


* Some of the information contained in this article was obtained from the 2011 Oxfam Briefing Paper entitled, “A Place at the Table, Safeguarding Women’s Rights in Afghanistan.” See www.oxfam.org


Next month’s article will analyze the constitutional challenges to the Arizona Immigration Law.