Posted by: Christian | March 11, 2007

Conflict or Culture? Which Factor is More Important in the Denial of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan?

March 11, 2007.

At the center of journalists’ attempts at analyzing social issues in Afghanistan is often the subject of gender and women’s rights. And usually, journalists go for the tabloid-type stories of pre-pubescent girls being sold into marriage to some old white-beard while pretty much ignoring stories such as the one where a man journeyed across the country searching for his missing daughter. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t object to the media running stories like the one where a girl in northern Afghanistan was traded for a fighting dog. I object to the media portraying Afghans as being OK with this kind of treatment of women.

Stories like the man searching for his daughter show that there is not a monolithic social norm regarding women in Afghanistan. In fact, there are thousands of Afghan men who know that their daughter, sister or wife was raped. In some cases they were forced to watch at gunpoint. And yet extremely few have killed their loved ones in order to “regain their family’s honour” as the sensationalist western media suggest they are compelled to do in accordance with their “cultural traditions.”

Furthermore, the media never look at all the variables when analyzing gender and women’s rights in Afghanistan: Rural or urban? Nomadic or Sedentary? Sufi/Hanafi or Deobandi influenced or Hazara Shia or Ismaili or etc…? Pashtun or Hazara or Tajik or Uzbek or etc….? Educated or uneducated? Grew up in Pakistani refugee camp or in Kabul? The variables go on and on. Yet the media seldom mentions them.

So what’s my point? That the news media is sensationalist and inaccurate? Everybody knows that. I’m concerned that the news media encourages westerners’ perception that whenever a female is treated horribly in Afghanistan it is just a manifestation of normal Afghan social rules for women. This viewpoint plays into the hands of the Taliban and their ideological fellow travelers. Journalists may occasionally acknowledge that conflict and insecurity have exacerbated the situation, but I believe they still put too much emphasis on culture.

Anyways, the gist of the journalist’s argument is that the people of Afghanistan have, as one of their primary concerns, usually superficial yet symbolically important traditional social restrictions in regards to women. But I doubt that Afghans are going to rebel against the current administration if women start driving around in cars and Tehrani-style Hijab coverings. As for the burning of girl’s schools, they are simply an easy target and a symbol of the government. The Taliban also destroy bridges. Are they anti-bridge as well? Women’s education is not the reason for the Taliban/anti-government element’s continued resistance to the Afghan government and the foreign troops.

So, how do I back up my argument? Well, the factors that are uniformly ignored are the historical precedents for an attempt at liberalizing society’s restrictions on women. During the rule of Amanullah in the 1920s there was an attempt at a Turkish style campaign of social reform. In regards to women, Amanullah intended to encourage women’s education, loosen the rules of purdah, allow western style dress in Kabul, introduce a minimum age for marriage and eliminate polygamy for government employees. And most shocking of all, Queen Soraya was photographed in a scandalous state of undress. Yikes!

Queen Soroya

This of course led to an angry population eliminating Amanullah, right? Well, the Pashtun Shinwari tribe rebelled and took Jalalabad, which was followed by a Tajik by the name of Habibullah (AKA “the water carrier’s son”) capturing Kabul. In a panic, Amanullah jumped in his Rolls Royce and escaped Indiana Jones-style with Kohistani horsemen pursuing close behind his car. But did all this resistance arise from his attempts at women’s social reforms? Not really. I would advise reading Leon Poullada’s book Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929. (Cornell University Press, 1973). In this book you will get a sense of the full range of policy changes (primarily economic and power structure changes) that angered the local power elite. An increase in land taxes is what actually caused the first incident of rebellion. I have no survey data from late 1928 but I’m quite confident that the battle cry was not “No to women’s rights!”

What am I getting at? Educating women is not going to cause a revolt against the Karzai government. Women driving cars in Kabul is not going to lead to a riot. Nobody attacks NATO soldiers in order to keep their women in purdah. The whole alleged controversy over women’s rights is just a peripheral add-on for militants. Their core grievances lay elsewhere. (It’s the “because they hate our freedom” argument extrapolated onto Afghanistan) So if you are a journalist, maybe you should quit writing that Afghans are being angered over a “forced imposition” of women’s rights. Maybe a small minority is, but don’t present this argument as a uniform social fact.

Need more facts? Try this article: Zulfacar, Maliha. ‘The Pendulum of Gender Politics in Afghanistan’, Central Asian Survey, Volume 25, Number 1-2: pages 27-59. (March-June 2006).

The abstract of Maliha Zulfacar’s article is extremely illuminating:

“In the 1920s women appeared in French style attire on the streets. In the 1930s, women were prohibited to appear unveiled. In the 1950s, to appear unveiled became a choice and education was co-ed. In the 1960s and 1970s, some women worked with men, drove cars and sported mini-skirts. In the 1980s, some women danced in clubs, some worked in factories and the dowry was outlawed. In the 1990s, women were forced to take refuge in the veil from rival ethnic attacks. Thousands of women were abused and raped. For their ‘protection’, in the late 1990s, the Taliban outlawed the public appearance of women and prohibited them from participation in every aspect of public life. In 2003, female students again may appear unveiled on the university campus, but remain veiled out of campus for security concerns. Over all of these years, gender policies have swung like a pendulum, oscillating between the moderate and the extreme. Furthermore, all of the above were taking place in Kabul only—other conditions prevailed elsewhere in Afghanistan.”

Oh my God! Are the greatest restrictions on women primarily a response to conflict and insecurity? It appears that this may be true (Yes, I’m aware of the situation in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Iran the poor status of women is due to rule by an extremist minority that hijacked a popular revolution. As for Saudi Arabia, well, I really don’t have the time or energy to discuss that one. But I’d start with how the first Saudi King made a deal with a bunch of fringe Wahhabi clerics and allowed them to control education and religious doctrine). I don’t deny that women in Afghanistan have been brutalized in the last 30 years. I deny that the brutalization and oppression of women is an unavoidable, unchangeable Afghan/Muslim social practice.

If a person wishes to argue that the restrictions implemented by the Taliban on women are consistent with Afghan/Pashtun rural culture then I suggest that person take into consideration William Maley’s refutation of that belief. He stated that what many people see as conservative Pashtun tribal cultural is actually the Taliban’s warped and uninformed view of village life. In Maley’s chapter of a book that he edited [Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. New York University Press, 1998] he says these beliefs are…

“…not the values of the village, but the values of the village as interpreted by refugee camp dwellers or madrassa students, most of whom have never known ordinary village life…” (pages 21-22).

I strongly believe if NATO and the Afghan government make a stronger commitment to security, many (but not all) social restrictions on women will be lifted voluntarily by the population of Afghanistan in most areas. And don’t be expecting an anti-government revolt in response to this allegedly neo-colonial “social change.” I recognize the importance of culture, but I also recognize when the importance of culture is exaggerated and distorted.

Disclaimer: The subject of women in Afghanistan could only be adequately analyzed if one dedicated at least 20 pages to the subject. This blog entry does not do the issue justice and I acknowledge that fact. For example, I do realize what’s good for Kabul and Mazar is not always good for Helmand, etc…

Note: Related arguments elsewhere include Douglas Northrop’s excellent analysis of how women in Samarqand and Bukhara adopted much more restrictive veiling in response to the Tsarist invasion and the arrival of lonely Russian soldiers and later as a symbol of resistance to Bolshevik reforms in the early part of Soviet rule. Or as one could paraphrase, they first veiled because of insecurity and then as a symbol of resistance. Check out Douglas Northrop’s book Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia. (Cornell University Press, 2004).


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  2. […] At the same time as I was reading Afghanistanica’s latest post where he suggests “if you are a journalist, maybe you should quit writing that Afghans are […]


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