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The climate of Women's rights in Afghanistan

A long, divergent history of gender inequality and women's rights impresses the pages of Afghanistan. Beset by countless wars for decades, Afghanistan is a conformist society under the Taliban today. For the more significant part, the status of women in Afghan society has remained stagnant. Stagnant is a relative term here. It is implicative of a precondition, a state of affairs that stripped women of their personhood and considered them auxiliary to the male. The patriarchal nature and pattern of established social relations in Afghan society, mainly in tribal communities, have acted as the primary driving force in contributing to the struggles of the female sex in the country. Rulers who've sought to initiate change, and bring about reparative codes, have either been scarcely tolerated, assassinated, or exiled.


The introduction and promulgation of reform measures for the upliftment of any persecuted community require a definitive understanding of the factors breeding, catalyzing, and perpetuating such despotism. Afghanistan has been governed by a string of monarchs and state runners. Each ruler, of a different disposition, held distinct beliefs and enforced decrees that differed in statecraft. One such King was Abdur Rahman Khan. Known as the 'Iron Amir' during the late nineteenth century, Abdur Rahman was a severe monarch. Prejudiced customs, like those that barred women from divorcing husbands or imposed the burden of lineage, forcing them into marriages after husbands' demise, were struck down. Property rights for women were advanced during his reign. Although he tried to institute laws that gave women more autonomy within domestic spheres, the Amir was a thorough male supremacist at the core.

 One of the critical turning points in the country's social apparatus arrived through the rulers that came after Abdur Rahman. Progressive Afghan society is never without the mention of Mahmud Tarzi. An intellectual with assorted exposures, Tarzi is also called the father of Afghan journalism. A man of collected experiences administering conducive supervision, he returned to his homeland, having remained in exile for over two decades, then offered amnesty by Abdur Rahman's successor, Amir Habibullah. Siraj-ul-Akhbar was a modernist nationalist newspaper founded by Mahmud Tarzi; to exert his views on western imperialism, the need for socio-economic development, and the state's amelioration. He advocated women's education and believed in their fundamental role in the overall growth of the Afghan nation. The newspaper served as a conduit to propagate instruction and values which could usher in structural metamorphosis.

 Here was a dynamic impetuous leader with tremendous ambition. Tarzi's politics heavily influenced Amanullah, the consequent successor to the throne. Determined to modernize the country; the liberation of women, education for girls, and eradication of discriminatory gender norms were some critical issues he campaigned for vigorously. Queen Soraya (Tarzi's daughter and wife to Amanullah) was a woman of great morale with a flair for dramatics. She tore off her veil at the end of the King's speech at an assembly to express support for favouring policies that sought to do away with oppressive norms and conventions detrimental to women. Schools were set up for girls, and women were actively encouraged to pursue education. Members of the royal family also incepted a magazine for women, Ershad - I - Niswan, translated as Guidance for women. Operations were organized to provide women with a station for filing complaints of ill-treatment and oppressive practices. Reorienting the position of women within and beyond domestic spheres through policy and legislation was one undertaking Amanullah and the royal family were passionate about. But proposition does not guarantee integration or tangible change when outfits/private individuals responsible for adopting and enforcing such legislation at different levels of the social hierarchy, those with influence, are unwilling to relinquish their privileges towards the attainment of parity.

 The Loya Jirga, known as the Grand Assembly, an institution in Afghan tradition called upon to preside over decisions concerning the state, resisted. They rejected national schemes that sought to raise the age of marriage for girls or abolish polygamy. Amplifying pressure from mullahs caused Amanullah to trade his libertarian approach for a more traditional discriminatory one. British interference and weaponization of growing discontentment among religious leaders during World War One played a significant role in the abdication of the Amir. A jihad was decreed against the King, prompting all rehabilitation programs to collapse. Given the absence of substantive recourse, the Soviet-supported regime cannot be called conducive for Afghan women. Women's rights and education entered one of its most grim eras under the Mujahideen and Taliban. Systematic and barbaric violations were commonplace. Nearly an entire decade was characterized by brutalities, hate crimes, and inhumane impositions on women. Education had turned into a pipe dream.

 A West-supported Democratic government is the only window since Amanullah's time where upper and middle-class Afghan women found themselves attending schools and colleges, availing job opportunities and pushing for a seat at the table. The Taliban take-over of 2021 is significant of a flagrant grievous doom for women of all classes and communities in Afghanistan. Unimaginable horrors plague Afghan life in the current day. Accounts of rape, torture, and atrocities have surged in the last couple of months. In March '22, the Taliban ordered closing schools for girls above sixth grade, backtracking on promises made while setting up their government founded on a menacing interpretation of the Islamic Shari'a law. LGBTQ+ people are under constant mortal threat in a Taliban-ruled state, shrinking their existence and toiling to keep identities hidden.

International pressure has proved as transient as its efficacy. The pronounced impact of sanctions boils down to civilians, rendering any such course of action toward an already plummeting economy like that of Afghanistan debilitating. Securing and consolidating rights for women and marginalized communities through international intervention should be an urgent priority. Only such a rectification would equip Afghan civil society with latitude for demanding accountability, and effectuating change, perhaps even obtaining requital for cruelties.


Image via The New York Times, picture by Wakil Kohsar - Agence France-Presse

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Tags: Afghanistan The Taliban Gender inequality in Afghanistan Mahmud Tarzi Despotism Sex-based discrimination


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