SEATTLE — Hiding books, notebooks and pencils underneath their burqas, young girls in Afghanistan covertly slipped away from their homes, silently dreaming of an education. Like their teachers, who set up their underground schools under the guise of sewing classes, they risked execution if caught by their militant oppressors, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; the Taliban.
After gaining power in 1996, the Taliban, an extremist Sunni political and military organization, banned women from more than just education, but fair access to health care and employment as well. The Taliban publicly flogged and executed women and essentially placed them under house arrest or forced them into marriages at a very young age. And while the worst of gender discrimination left with the crumbling of the regime in 2001, to this day women continue their fight for equality.
Gains have been made, but the battle for equality for women in Afghanistan is still an uphill one.
A Brief History
Feminism in Afghanistan has been a long time coming; as early as the 1920s, Afghan rulers were seeking to expand women’s rights in an attempt to modernize the country. King Amanullah, who ruled from 1919 to 1929, encouraged such progressive reforms as the sending of daughters to school, the unveiling of women and the abolishment of forced marriage and child marriage.
His successors also pushed for similar changes, hoping, in general, to break free from the cut-throat, conservative Islamist tradition of treating women as second-class citizens. But these measures proved difficult to enforce in such a deeply-rooted patriarchal culture. He made small successes here and there in education and employment opportunities, but no one saw notable progress until 1968.
That year saw the enacting of the new Constitution of Afghanistan, which granted women equal rights and universal suffrage, as well as the opportunity to run for office. Just 10 years later, Masuma Esmati-Wardak founded the Afghan Women’s Council (AWC), an organization under the Afghan government that provided social services for women.
Before the AWC disappeared in 1992 with the shifting political winds, 230,000 girls were studying in schools around Afghanistan and around seven thousand Afghan women were receiving higher education in accredited institutions. There were around 190 female professors and 22,000 female teachers.
Of course, the Taliban government quickly shattered all of the progression for equality for women in Afghanistan. People could now see those women, who once held respectable positions, wandering the street in their burqas, begging to survive.
A Current Look and How Inequality Influences Poverty
Since the United Nations formed a new government in late 2001, they have reestablished women’s rights to their pre-1990s levels. Still, however, the patriarchal fabric of the country threatens the security of women to this day; 90 percent of them experience physical, sexual or psychological abuse and honor killings still occur. Additionally, women make up just 16 percent of the workforce.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, and while there is a range of factors for this, gender inequality plays a significant role. People in the country frequently bind women to child marriages and traditional gender roles to discourage them from getting an education, which means fewer economic opportunities for them.
Thomas Gouttierre, director of Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha, explains to The Borgen Project that poverty in Afghanistan is just being exacerbated by the pervasive sexism.
“Afghan women have proven to have remarkable creativity, courage, initiative, competitiveness, and industry over the past decades, under the worst of conditions,” he says. “Not taking greater advantage of this talent pool reduces Afghanistan’s prospects to increase growth and GDP.”
According to Trust In Education, a nonprofit providing educational and economic assistance to villages in Afghanistan, 85 percent of women have no formal education and are illiterate. It is, therefore, no surprise that Gouttierre argues that education reform is one of the most crucial places to start.
“The keys are: more educational advances, sustaining the current constitution and its protection of the freedoms it provides women, and the continuing presence of NATO as a guarantor of Afghan women’s aspirations and freedoms.”
The Road Forward
Women in Afghanistan are working against thousands of years of culture and the stakes are high, but equality does not just have positive economic implications; more importantly, it would mean that women finally achieve the equal rights, status and opportunities that they deserve.
Currently, organizations like U.N. Women are actively helping protect and promote the rights of women in the country and have achieved successes like the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan and “laws and policies to combat violence against women and girls at the national and local level.” Meanwhile, education remains one of the most important issues for female Afghan politicians, activists and international organizations to address.
Afghan women are strong. Female teachers and students risked their lives under the Taliban over 20 years ago and women are still fighting against a strict social climate for their liberties. Even though there is a risk of death, women’s determination allows them a sense of unstoppable hope.
– Bill Coz