Afghan society is consistent in its attitudes toward the underlying
principles of gender. It is the application of these principles
that varies from group to group; and there is a wide range of
standards set for accepted female behavior, as well as differences
in male attitudes toward correct treatment of women. Contradictions
arise between traditional customary practices, many of which impinge
on the rights of women and are alien to the spirit of Islam, the
other functioning canon which emphasizes equality, justice, education
and community service for both men and women. Further, the dictates
of Islam are themselves subject to diverse interpretation among
reformists, Islamists and ultraconservatives. Debates between
these groups can be highly volatile.
Gender reform was central to the contentious issues which brought
about the fall of King Amanullah in 1929. In 1959, the male-oriented
government of Prime Minister Daud Khan supported the voluntary
removal of the veil and the end of seclusion for women. The 1964
Constitution automatically enfranchised women and guaranteed them
the right to education and freedom to work.
For thirty years after 1959 growing numbers of women, most from
urban backgrounds, functioned in the public arena with poise and
dignity, with no loss of honor to themselves or to their families,
and with much credit to the nation. Nevertheless, family pressures,
traditional attitudes and religious opposition continued to impose
constraints which limited the degree to which women could find
self-expression and control their lives.
Except in Kabul where women under the PDPA were encouraged to
assume more assertive public roles, this evolutionary movement
came to a halt in 1978. Conservative mujahidin leaders waging
a jihad (struggle) against foreign encroachment, both
military and ideological, were imbued with the belief that sexual
anarchy would result if women continued to move freely in public;
and that society would fall into ruin as a result. These attitudes
have intensified under the Taliban. Mostly rural Pushtun from
strongly patriarchal backgrounds, the Taliban project ultraconservative
interpretations of Islam and apply customary practices as societal
ideals. In 1996, gender issues are again at the center of heated
All agree that differences between men and women exist and are
best preserved through recognized standards of behavior. None
dispute the centrality of women in the society. Respect for women
is a notable characteristic and few wish to destroy this esteemed
status, nor deny what Islam enjoins or Afghan culture values.
The argument rages over definitions of precisely what constitutes
honorable behavior for women in terms of modern realities, especially
in the light of today's monumental reconstruction needs which
demand full participation from every Afghan citizen.
The current zealous need to protect women's morality stems from
the fact that Afghan society regards women as the perpetuators
of the ideals of the society. As such they symbolize honor --
of family, community and nation -- and must be controlled as well
as protected so as to maintain moral purity. By imposing strict
restraints directly on women, the society's most sensitive component
symbolizing male honor, authorities convey their intent to subordinate
personal autonomy and thereby strengthen the impression that they
are capable of exercising control over all aspects of social behavior,
male and female.
The practice of purdah, seclusion, (Persian, literally
meaning curtain), including veiling, is the most visible manifestation
of this attitude. This concept includes an insistence on separate
spaces for men and women and proscriptions against interactions
between the sexes outside the mahrammat (acceptable male
guardians such as father, brother son and any other male with
whom a women may not marry). These restrictions severely limit
women's activities, including access to education and employment
outside the home. Many are largely confined to their homes.
Such restrictions are deemed necessary by conservative males
because they consider women socially immature, with less moral
control and physical restraint; women's hypersexuality precludes
responsible behavior. Consequently, women are untrustworthy and
must be kept behind the curtain so as not to disrupt the social
order. The need for their isolation therefore is paramount.
Afghan women view their sexuality more positively and question
male maturity and self-control. In reality the differences between
private and public behavior are significant. In private, there
is a noticeable sharing of ideas and responsibilities and in many
households individual charisma and strength of character surmounts
conventional subordinate roles. Even moral misconduct can be largely
overlooked until it becomes a matter of public knowledge. Then
punishment must be severe for male and family honor must be vindicated.
It is the public image that counts.As a result, urban women are
models of reticence in public and rural women appear properly
That a family's social position depends on the public behavior
of its female members is a guiding reality. Stepping outside prescribed
roles and behavioral norms in public results in moral condemnation
and social ostracism. It is the dictates of society that place
a burden on both men and women to conform.
Under such circumstances gender roles necessarily follow defined
paths. Male prerogatives reside in family economic welfare, politics,
and relationships with outsiders; within the family they are expected
to be disciplinarians and providers for aged parents. Female roles
stress motherhood, child socialization and family nurturing. Even
among professional career women, family responsibilities remain
a top priority. Thus women's self-perception of their roles, among
the majority, urban and rural, contributes to the perpetuation
of patriarchal values.
Within the vast store of Afghan folktales covering religion,
history and moral values, many reinforce the values governing
male and female behavior. They illustrate what can or cannot be
done, describe rewards and punishments, and define ideal personality
types. Thus they serve to perpetuate the existing gender order
and through example make it psychologically satisfying.
The status and power of a girl increases as she moves from child
to bride to mother to grandmother. A successful marriage with
many sons is the principal goal of Afghan women, wholeheartedly
shared by Afghan men. Women's nurturing roles are also crucial.
This does not mean that women are confined to domestic roles.
The stereotyping of Afghan women as chattel living lives of unremitting
labor, valued by men solely for sexual pleasure and reproductive
services is patently false.
Women's work varies from group to group. Among most settled rural
families, women participate in agricultural work only during light
harvesting periods, and are responsible for the production of
milk products. Some specialize in handicrafts such as carpet and
felt making. In contrast, Nuristani women plow the fields while
the men herd the flocks and process the dairy products. Nomadic
women care for young lambs and kids and make a wide variety of
dairy products, for sale as well as family use. They spin the
wool sheered by men and weave the fabric from which their tents
are made. Felt-making for yurt coverings and household rugs ia
also a female activity. When on the move, it is the women who
put up and take down the tents. The variations are endless.
Although statistics indicate that by 1978 women were joining
the workforce in increasing numbers, only about eight percent
of the female population received an income. Most of these women
lived in urban centers, and the majority were professionals, technicians
and administrators employed by the government which continued
its strong support. A majority worked in health and education,
the two sectors considered most appropriate for women as they
are extensions of traditional women's roles. Others worked in
the police, the army, and with the airlines; in government textile,
ceramic, food processing and prefab construction factories. A
few worked in private industry; a few were self-employed.
The current revival of conservative attitudes toward appropriate
extradomestic roles for women and the criticism of women's visibility
in public has largely impacted these professional women. Islamic
texts do not delineate roles for women. What they imply is open
to interpretation. What they command is equality and justice guaranteeing
that women be treated as in no way lesser than men. Educated Afghan
women are standing fast in their determination to find ways in
which they may participate in the nation's reconstruction according
to their interpretations of Islam's tenets. This is a powerful
challenge now facing the society.
However, the foreign aid community would do well to examine carefully
their recent aggressive campaign to assure rights for Afghan women
in education and employment. The Afghan community is already sharply
divided over whether assistance to boys' education should be discontinued
because there is a ban on education for girls. Family harmony
must certainly be undermined when women are favored over men in
a declining job market.
Data as of 1997