When we are hungry, nobody listens, but when we are fighting, they send us loads of firearms and artillery. Why? — Zubaida (April 1998)

The US bombing of Afghanistan, indiscriminate by its very nature, was partly justified as an attempt to free Afghan women from the shackles of the Taliban. As First Lady Laura Bush, delivering the weekly radio presidential address, said: “Life under the Taliban is so hard and repressive, even small displays of joy are outlawed. Children aren’t allowed to fly kites, their mothers face beatings for laughing out loud.” She concluded that “the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists” and that the Taliban’s treatment of women and children is a clear picture of “the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.” Shortly thereafter, the State Department issued a nine-page report on what it called “The Taliban’s War Against Women.” George W. Bush reinforced the same theme almost a month later: “For several years the people of Afghanistan have suffered under one of the most brutal regimes in modern history —  a regime allied with terrorists and a regime at war with women. Thanks to our military and our allies, and the brave fighters of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime is coming to an end.”

Omitted from this lofty discourse was the fact that Northern Alliance soldiers, those “brave fighters of Afghanistan,” have a reputation for looting and rape that makes Afghan women distinctly uncomfortable. Ignored in Bush’s celebrations of victory was the fact that over the course of just one month, the US dropped over half a million tons of bombs — approximately 20 kilograms of high explosive for every man, woman and child in the country. Forgotten in the US media is the fact that Afghan women experienced various patriarchal controls emanating from the government before the Taliban took over. Such controls began to tighten in the refugee camps in Pakistan more than 20 years ago. In Afghanistan this process commenced when Kabul was conquered by the US-backed mujahideen.

Slow Progress

Almost 100 years ago, Afghanistan’s monarch Amir Abdur Rehman Khan decreed that women should receive the rights granted to them in Islam. His decrees included attempts to outlaw child marriage and forced marriage and to protect women’s and especially widows’ right to inheritance and second marriage, a woman’s right to divorce, and the right to claim her mehr (dowry). However, the monarch “denied women full freedom of expression and mobility by decreeing that men were entitled to full control over women because ‘the honor of the people of Afghanistan consists in the honor of their women.’” [1] When Queen Surraya removed the veil and came out in public in 1929, the issue of purdah (segregation) for many urban elite Afghan women appeared to have been settled.

Afghanistan’s constitutions have granted women equal rights with men since 1923. Women got the right to vote with the 1964 constitution. The 1977 constitution, promulgated by a pro-communist government, said that “the entire people of Afghanistan, women and men, without discrimination have equal rights and obligations before the law.” The same government issued a decree that stated that it wanted to remove the “unjust patriarchal feudalistic relations between husband and wife.” These decrees had limited impact, largely because the social relations within which the hold of the family is embedded did not undergo significant change. While women were encouraged to enroll in universities and to take jobs in government as well as business and the service sector, this phenomenon was restricted to the elite in urban areas where women had become visible over the course of two to three decades. By the early 1990s, under the communist-backed governments, women held 70 percent of teachers’ jobs as well as 50 percent of government jobs and 40 percent of medical posts in Afghanistan.

High Cost of War

Although progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan was undeniably slow, it was reversed when the US-backed mujahideen took over in April 1992. This government had no national policy on women’s rights — indeed, it was itself hardly a viable government, as infighting among different factions led to a complete breakdown of order. Under these circumstances of open looting and murder, many refugees who had returned from Pakistan and Iran went back to the host countries, along with new refugees who had previously cooperated with the different communist- backed governments. The internecine fighting was brought to an end in 1996 when the Taliban took over more than 80 percent of the country with assistance from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). The Taliban achieved overnight popularity, initially, because they promised to bring peace and security to a country torn by war. However, the Taliban’s promises came with a high cost for women.

The decrees of the Taliban government regarding the status and rights of women won them no favor with anyone —  not even the conservative Islamic governments. In Pakistan, the conservative Jamiat-e Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed criticized the Taliban’s policy of denying women the right to education and employment. [2] But inspiration for the Taliban’s attitudes and policies toward women came from the 343 refugee camps that had been established across the Northwest Frontier Province and Balchistan province of Pakistan, with the support of various Western countries. In these camps, Afghan refugee men received training and indoctrination from different secret agencies, the most important of which were the CIA and its smaller partner, the ISI. [3] Refugees could only register for entitlement to food and shelter after declaring allegiance to one of the seven political parties crafted by the ISI. In turn, these political parties channeled military hardware, men and financial aid to warlords in Afghanistan. The men who registered were required to go back and fight in Afghanistan after receiving training in a border camp. Extremely strict codes of behavior, enforced through the frequent circulation of fatwas (religious edicts) and ultra-conservative interpretations of Afghan culture and traditions, were imposed upon the women in camps. One fatwa read (in part): “We declare that women, without necessity, do not have the right to go out in the public and in the schools. We ask the leaders to forbid Muslim women, according to the sharia texts, to go to the schools. If this action is not taken, the success of jihad will turn to failure and we will face harsh problems.” [4] The connection between this environment for women and the suc cess of the jihad is clear. The checks on women’s mobility and literacy gave Afghan men psychological assurance that their women would not be interacting with other men in person or in writing in their absence. Given this background, it comes as no surprise that the Taliban, after taking over in Afghanistan, pursued the gender politics they had imbibed in the camps in Pakistan.

Patriarchal Policies

The conservative ideologies espoused in these camps with regard to women fit into socio-political trends in Pakistan as a whole during the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, religion was used effectively to prop up the 11- year military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq, whose self-proclaimed mandate was to Islamize the country, from its economy to its schools. Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, with an estimated population of over 3.5 million by 1992, were excellent breeding grounds for radical conservative ideas. Not only did they produce mujahideen for the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but they also provided the Pakistani military with highly ideological foot soldiers for the struggle with India in Kashmir.

Both Pakistani and Afghan women were surprised at the curbs that were placed on them during the rule of Zia and successor governments. The former faced discriminatory legislation introduced by the military government and the latter faced multiple restrictions ranging from denial of access to equal rights, mobility and education to marriage and divorce. Afghan patriarchal culture was the convenient scapegoat, while the massive donor support that buttressed this “culture” received a free pass. For example, the ten-year $87 million income generation project for refugee areas known as IGPRA did not provide a job for a single Afghan refugee woman (who constitute the majority of the refugee population). The donors — in this case the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Bank — explained this policy by saying that Afghan men frowned upon such ventures. [5]

Ruptures in Repression

It is important to note several ruptures in the Taliban’s repression of women, not to let the Taliban off the hook, but to assert that the agency of Afghan women, if greatly limited, was present even under their rule. Some women doctors were able to negotiate with the more moderate mullahs to continue their work in hospitals. The bestknown example is Suhaila Sidiq, a surgeon, who continued to work in a military hospital where she attended to both male and female patients and organized medical courses for women. [6] Similarly, there were thousands of ghost schools for girls in people’s homes, and the government chose to look the other way. During the latter part of their rule, the Taliban agreed to open formal schools for girls in Kabul and Kandahar, Mullah Omar’s native city. The Taliban were also persuaded by the World Food Program (WFP) to allow Afghan women to run bakeries from which the WFP supplied subsidized bread to Afghans. Afghan women frequently challenged the Taliban’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, implying that it emanated from the funding they received from Saudi Arabia. Women chose to wear the traditional “shuttlecock” burqa rather than the Arab hijab that some Taliban attempted to enforce. Instead, many women told the Taliban to don Arab-style dress themselves. [7]

Throughout the Taliban’s grip on the country, some Afghan women continued to be employed, some continued to attend school and some negotiated with the ruling clergy to continue their professional work. After the Taliban, the veil has not been abandoned by many Afghan women who feel more secure with it than without it. “Give me security and then I will remove my burqa,” said Nasreen. [8] Some women assert that Afghan women’s problem was not so much the veil but the rule that they needed to be accompanied by a male relative when they stepped out of the house. This rule, now officially lifted, created many practical problems for them — in public transport, for instance — and sowed a fear of beatings from the police. Despite the clear linkage of the veil in real Afghan women’s lives to wider social mores and issues of personal safety, the veil continues to be simplistically associated in US discourse with the Taliban.

The agency of Afghan women, under the Taliban and after their fall, has not always been appreciated by their self-proclaimed international champions. In their report following the visit to Pakistan of the UN Gender Mission headed by Angela King, the Afghan Women Network (AWN) — made up of professional Afghan refugee women in Pakistan — stated that they were left “confused, insulted, hurt, angry and substantially ignored… [A]part from the Taliban, no one else has humiliated Afghan women as Ms. King has.” The AWN noted that “this is not an unusual situation — neither within our society, nor within the UN agencies where we work,” and goes on to state that they would not be prepared to accommodate such missions in the future. [9] Despite appearing unwilling to spend time with actual Afghan women, and despite the AWN’s adverse reactions to her, King has continued to speak for Afghan women after September 11 in her capacity as special adviser to the UN on gender issues and the advancement of women. Before a UN Security Council meeting in December 2001 on reconstruction aid, King was quoted as saying: “Between myself, [Lakhdar] Brahimi, the UNIFEM leaders, as well as the other ambassadors, international NGOs and prominent women leaders who have written in support of these women’s issues, there is a very good chance that [Afghan women’s] voices will be heard.” [10]

White Man’s Burden

Women have frequently been used as pawns in colonial and neocolonial discourse, and the recent example of Afghanistan is no exception. The British pointed to practices of child marriage, sati and purdah, to indicate the uncivilized treatment of Indian women by Indian men and to justify their colonization of India. British colonial decrees introducing these subject populations to “civilized” norms — the White Man’s Burden — purported to be rescuing brown women from brown men. In a throwback to this thinking, US discourse on Afghan women, with its implicit claim to know all Afghan women and children, advocated bombing them in order to liberate them. The US representation of Afghan women as a hapless illiterate lot who were not even allowed to laugh out loud, stripped of rights and by extension of consciousness, is as colonial as the British idea of the White Man’s Burden. Furthermore, the betterment of Afghan women’s lives is no longer a central theme of Bush administration pronouncements, as the Taliban and the strengthened patriarchal culture in conjunction with the war were perceived to be the problems. While no one contests that Taliban edicts denied women their rights across the board, the root causes of Afghan women’s oppression, personified for a few years by the Taliban, reside elsewhere. Women’s needs and priorities are hardly ever fulfilled by the kind of politics and policies that are entrenched within the current system of unequal social relations, a system that every so often requires masculinist violence disproportionately borne by women to right itself.

Nothing can justify the bombing of Afghanistan, least of all the so-called liberation of Afghan women. Feminists have long criticized national liberation struggles around the world, whether waged by homegrown nationalists or assisted by outsiders, for using women as a resource to be mobilized against the colonizer; as soon as national liberation is achieved, women are put back under stronger patriarchal controls. [11] Can one say that the case of Afghan women is somewhat similar, if more disappointing, as Afghan women did not even experience the shared moment of triumph? In fact, their oppression intensified with the bombing due to their fear of death and destruction of their neighborhoods and communities. It matters little to Afghan women made refugees by the bombing whether the bombs were manufactured in the US or in the former Soviet Union; what matters to them is that bombs forced them to flee their homes. As one recent arrival in Pakistan explained, “Fighting erupted and it reached Kabul.” Said another woman, with understatement: “The circumstances became unbearable.” These refugee women underscore the need for peace. One respondent, when asked if her son would wage jihad, immediately emphasized that he would only work to establish peace. This response contrasts with those of mothers 20 years ago who were willing to sacrifice their sons’ lives for the war. [12]

The removal of the Taliban has not achieved the liberation of Afghan women; indeed, in many places Afghan women could be more insecure at present than before September 11. Warlords associated with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, deputy defense minister in the Afghan interim government, as well as soldiers of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, are reported to have attacked and raped Pashtun women living in northern Afghanistan with impunity. [13] Dostum protects the attackers from feeble attempts at law enforcement. As the Northern Alliance entered different cities in the wake of the bombing, there were consistent reports of looting and murder wherein Pashtuns were targeted in ugly scenes of violence in reprisal for their alleged support of the mostly Pashtun Taliban. [14] As warlords and deep insecurity reemerge in Afghanistan, many refugee women in Pakistan still refuse to repatriate – but their voices are absent from the news now that US interests have been served.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Lubna Chaudry for her comments on this article.


 [1] Nancy Hatch Dupree, “Afghan Women in the Context of International Women’s Rights Instruments,” Proceedings of the Seminar on Women’s Human Rights in Afghanistan, Mazare Sharif, 1994.

 [2] Interview with Qazi Hussain Ahmed, 1999.

 [3] This indoctrination was possible for a number of reasons. On the one hand, Afghan refugees in Pakistan from rural areas believed that they had left their homeland due to the takeover of the godless Russians whom it was their religious duty to fight. Anti-Soviet governments took advantage of this belief in jihad to create a fighting force of mujahideen where none had existed before. In the 1970s Islam was a handy driving ideology, having appeared to reassert itself in very powerful ways in the Iranian revolution, the success of the PNA campaign in Pakistan on the basis of Nizam-e Mustapha, the emergence of resistance in the Central Asian republics and defiance of the Saudi monarchy in Mecca when a group of disaffected nationals took over the Kaaba.

 [4] The full text of the fatwa is quoted in Khattak, “Militarization, Masculinity and Identity in Pakistan: Effects on Women,” in Nighat Saeed Khan and Afiya Shehrbano Zia, eds., Unveiling the Issues (Lahore: ASR Publications, 1995).

 [5] Khattak, “Refugee Policy Politics: Afghans in Pakistan,” paper presented at the Conference on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South Asia, Rajendrapur, Bangladesh, 1998.

 [6] Catherine Hours, “Afghan Women Return to Power Corridors,” Dawn, December 23, 2001.

 [7] Nafisa Shah, “The War Against Women,” Newsline, April 1998.

 [8] News International, January 31, 2002.

 [9] Cassandra Balchin, “United Against the UN,” Newsline, April 1998.

 [10] Janelle Brown, “Putting the World on Notice,” Salon.com, December 6, 2001.

 [11] See, for example, Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London: Zed Books, 1986) and Valentine Moghadam, Gender and National Identity: Women and Politics in Muslim Societies (London: Zed Books, 1984).

 [12] For a more detailed account, see Saba Gul Khattak, “Violence and Home: Afghan Women’s Experience of Displacement” in Craig Calhoun and Paul Price, eds., Understanding September 11 (New York: New Press, forthcoming).

 [13] Anna Badkhen, “Reports of Rape, Looting by Afghan Militiamen,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 15, 2002.

 [14] For example, Rory McCarthy and Nicholas Watt, “Alliance Accused of Brutality in Capture of Kunduz,” The Guardian, November 27, 2001; Suzanne Goldenberg, “Gun Terror of Kabul’s Liberators,” The Observer, January 13, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Saba Gul Khattak "Afghan Women," Middle East Report 222 (Spring 2002).

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