Over the last decade, Afghan women have become symbolic barometers for the sociopolitical success or failure of international intervention in Afghanistan. Journalists, some academics, and many policy analysts from the West portray Afghan women as oppressed by local social, political and cultural conditions, only in the process of emergent liberation through international intervention. Such descriptions of Afghan women fail to provide a nuanced portrait of their lives and they do not address the diversity of their experiences. Furthermore, the extensive role of Euro-American liberal feminism is part of US-led imperialism and neocolonial aid and development in Afghanistan. Such feminism is imperialist because it links women’s rights with US-led military operations in Afghanistan, rather than questioning the scope and scale of military occupation and international development interventions.
Much gender-based liberation through development connects women’s power and authority to their ability to earn. While earning an income can improve the overall wealth of a family, women’s economic labour alone will not improve their lives or status within their homes or communities. Women throughout Afghanistan have historically earned income through carpet weaving and other handicrafts, and continue to do so. Such paid labour fits within existing patriarchal structures rather than subverting them.
International funds channeled into Afghanistan from 2002 have facilitated new opportunities for Afghan women and men, unavailable under the earlier Taliban regime. However, the role of international aid and development is also fraught with US-led geopolitical interests associated with Afghanistan’s strategic location within both Central Asia and Southasia, and economic interests through the country’s extensive and largely untapped mineral resources.
Afghan women experience extensive war-related hardships along with entrenched patriarchy and corresponding gender-based discrimination. Yet the US-led geopolitical framing of Afghan women’s ‘liberation’ or ‘saving’ by international militaries and development is rife with contradictions and inaccuracies that rely on narrow representations. Geopolitically-driven development projects rarely take into consideration the specificities of Afghanistan, and the many diverse societies within it. Gender-based development projects tend to focus on women rather than incorporate a nuanced understanding of gender roles and relations.
Many policy and international non-government organisation (INGO) reports on Afghan women identify their social and political gains since the fall of the Taliban, coinciding with the US-led international military, aid, and development effort. Other accounts criticise these efforts for stifling the potential of Afghan women, and point to the increasing backlash against them throughout the country. Some researchers suggest that Afghan women are regularly caught between the social engineering efforts of international organisations and the gendered expectations of their own communities, which can at times run counter to internationally-driven vicissitudes.
Evaluations of Afghanistan by English-language authors tend to attribute women’s oppression, exclusion from public life, and economic and political participation to the country’s cultures and entrenched patriarchy. Much of the scholarship on Afghan women since 2001 adheres to five major themes: health, education, economics, law, and politics. This article provides an overview of research on these themes, in order to contextualize how Afghanistan is understood or analysed by international donor organisations and countries. Such research is significant in informing international policy, assistance and development funds for Afghanistan. These areas of assistance are not without challenge and critique, and I address them in an effort to provide a more complicated picture of international interventions in Afghanistan.
Statistics about gender in Afghanistan do not adequately illustrate the diversity of women’s experiences, sociopolitical status and influence, education levels, beliefs, and access to opportunities, law and justice. For instance, the United Nations’ 2013 Gender Inequality Index (GII) measures gender-based inequalities in three categories: reproductive health, empowerment, and economic activity. Maternal mortality and adolescent fertility rates are used to calculate reproductive health. The share of parliamentary seats held by men and women, as well as the level of secondary and higher education, are the measures of ‘empowerment’. Economic activity is gauged by ratio of women to men in the labour market. Afghanistan’s 2012 GII placed it 147th out of the 148 countries included in the UN’s GII scale. These statistics paint a generally bleak picture of women’s roles and rights in Afghanistan, but by aggregating the data so generally the figures do not illustrate the diversity of women’s experiences.
Focusing on Afghan women as if they are a homogenous group, as such statistics tend to do, limits a richer understanding of the disparate life experiences, modes of thinking and beliefs within Afghanistan’s diverse communities. Women living in rural spaces, for instance, with less access to education, healthcare, and public or political participation have significantly different knowledge of their place within society to women working outside the home, urban educated women, or those actively participating in formal legal or political structures. Elite women with strong family and political connections experience their gender and place within society differently to women outside the social or political elite. The complexities of Afghan women’s lives, experiences, beliefs, and resilience must include the complex array of intersecting social, political, economic and ethnic identities that frame their daily lives and experiences.
Over more than a decade’s research on Afghanistan I have interviewed numerous Afghans from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and with differing levels of education and work experience. My initial interactions with Afghans were during my PhD research on the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which included fieldwork on RAWA activities in Pakistan. I followed this research with a critical examination of aid and development work and workers in Afghanistan over the course of three years. I am currently examining Afghan and American interactions over the last decade, as well as the impacts of the 2014 political transitions and international troop withdrawals on Afghan women’s organisations. While I cannot speak for Afghan women, the following observations are based on extensive geographic and gender research in and about Afghanistan.
Paths to ‘liberation’
Women’s access to healthcare varies significantly throughout the country. The number and quality of available facilities and medical staff differs by region. In some rural areas, access to hospitals or medical facilities is minimal or nonexistent. Pre- and post-natal care often poses the greatest risk to women’s health. Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rates continue to be some of the highest in the world, though significant decreases in maternal deaths have occurred in recent years. The UN’s 2012 Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) for Afghanistan was 460 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 710 in 2005, and 1000 in 2000. These numbers provide a small insight into the difficulties associated with childbearing in Afghanistan, but do not factor in the differences in maternal mortality for women across different social and economic sectors of society.
Midwifery training and mobile midwife networks have helped to improve maternal health and decrease maternal and infant mortality. Many of these efforts have been supported by various Afghan women’s organisation and international funding agencies. Access to healthcare has increased significantly since 2002 in urban centres, including the growth of both public and private hospitals. However, Afghans with the economic means to do so tend to seek medical care outside Afghanistan, primarily in Pakistan or India.
Due to personal beliefs (religious or otherwise) some groups within Afghanistan reject internationally-sponsored healthcare. The links between such healthcare provisions for women and birth control is one factor fuelling suspicion of foreign assistance. International efforts toward improving women’s health often encourage birth control as a way of spacing childbearing and ultimately decreasing maternal mortality rates. If the use of birth control is not properly explained or connected to material health it can easily be dismissed as an imposition from foreigners, resulting in a lack of trust in internationally-sponsored healthcare for women.
Mobile healthcare teams are used by the US military as a method for encouraging rural and isolated communities to communicate and engage with occupying troops. The US attempt to ‘win hearts and minds’ includes the deployment of medical teams into ‘areas of interest’ to offer basic health care evaluations and medicines. In order to gain access to domestic spaces and speak with women, all-female military units – known as Female Engagement Teams (FETs) – are deployed. The FETs are better able to access women in villages than male troops, but the acceptance of female troops from an Afghan perspective remains unknown. The use of healthcare in this way is manipulative, as it is offered as a mechanism for assisting military missions and intelligence-gathering, rather than addressing or meeting the healthcare needs of women.
There are many environmental factors that negatively impact the health of Afghans: air, water, and soil pollution caused by war-related munitions, reconstruction projects, increased use of diesel fuels, and mineral extraction create both acute and long-term health problems. However, environmental concerns are not of central importance to the majority of government and non-government development organisations. International donor focus is on construction, political and economic development, and mineral extraction, rather than environmental concerns. Such neglect will undoubtedly have long-term effects on the health of the landscape and the people.
Education programs that teach health and hygiene have been implemented throughout the country. Access to all forms of education is limited by location, security concerns, or a family’s lack of interest or trust in educational opportunities for girls and women. Many communities continue to be unconvinced by the link between education and opportunity (economic or otherwise). Women’s illiteracy remains extensive. According to a 2013 UN report, the mean number of years of school attendance for Afghans (both male and female) is 3.1; only 5.8 percent of females compared to 34 percent of males have at least secondary education. Since 2002, access to education has improved significantly in urban areas, with lesser improvement in rural spaces.
The availability of secondary and higher education for girls and women continues to progress slowly. For women seeking higher education, opportunities are limited to major cities, particularly Kabul. Women make up nearly 25 percent of the student body at Kabul University, which provides a women’s dormitory to encourage attendance from outside the capital. The lack of qualified female (as well as male) teachers at various levels remains problematic throughout the country. This is a systemic problem, and will take time and resources to address. Curriculum issues and language differences can also be a barrier to education for girls and women. For example, allowing children to learn in a language other than the one spoken at home creates concerns over the future of the language. Decisions on subject matter and pedagogical methods have been debated at the national level as well as in communities with a profound lack of trust of both the central Afghan government and international interlopers. While security concerns in some locations continue to keep Afghans away from school, for other families curriculum concerns and the intrusion of foreign ideas keep girls (and sometimes boys) from attending. For example, during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, several US and European organisations provided textbooks that incorporated war language and jihad.
Under the direction of the Ministry of Education, the language of instruction in most schools is both national languages, Dari and Pashto. Languages of ethno-linguistic minorities may be taught as a separate subject, though some languages are not well-represented in schools. This can cause concerns for families who wish to limit daughters’ access to foreign influences and by extension to educational opportunities. Foreign influences can be considered an imposition of an outside ethno-linguistic community into Afghanistan. Because women are generally associated with domestic life they are expected to preserve family and community identity through linguistic, social, and cultural reproduction. Therefore, national and foreign influences by way of formal education in some communities present a challenge to the sanctity and future of local culture and language for minority groups. Furthermore, although representatives of over 50 countries have been operating in Afghanistan, English dominates as the language of development. An ability to speak English can increase one’s ability to access higher paying jobs with INGOs, leading many young urbanites to prioritise English-learning above other Afghan languages.
In addition to increasing educational opportunities for women, many international economic development programs view women’s income generation the best (if not only) path to ‘liberation’. This is largely due to the belief in the capitalist ‘free’ market economy, and the value placed on income-producing labour. Economic programs designed by foreign countries and organisations are helping develop Afghanistan’s infrastructure, with the goal of more effectively mining the country’s rich mineral resources and incorporating a low-pay labour force within the global capitalist economy.
Women from various communities have a long history of working in industries such as carpet weaving and handicrafts. These vocational skills are passed from mother to daughter within families, and the work is largely conducted at home. Home-based employment neither disrupts nor challenges women’s expected placement within the domestic sphere, but neither does paid labour in or outside the home alleviate women from the unpaid domestic labour expected of them. For some women, paid labour adds additional burdens, yet in other cases, particularly in many extended and multi-generational households, chores will be shared among women.
While women’s economic labour can provide significant economic contributions to household economies, it does not in and of itself provide women with the authority or autonomy expected of many international economic development projects. Paid labour remains part of, but certainly not the entire measure of, women’s value and position within families, communities, and society at large. Improving one’s status or position in society through participation in the capitalist economy runs the risk of placing undue monetary value on one’s productivity. Women and men should have equal access to rights and value within society despite their ability to earn income. Income may indeed be a marker of economic worth and even power, but attempting to create human value through income runs the risk of devaluing a person who has lost his or her earning potential.
These concerns do not, however, fit within most capitalist economic development models. Increasing the number of women working outside the home in factories or offices remains integral to development ideologies. Due in part to the geopolitical mission to ‘save’ Afghan women, international demand for women with the skills, mobility, and ability to work outside the home has increased exponentially over the last decade. In some cases, the cache placed on Afghan women’s labour has become its own form of value to organisations. For example, some will parlay their work with women (or the fact that they have Afghan female employees) as a method to gain funds or attract donors. International workers and agencies often conflate Afghan women’s labour with liberation in order to attract attention to their organisation or solicit donations for particular projects or programs.
Afghanistan’s current constitution guarantees equal rights to men and women, while also identifying Islam and Islamic law as the highest authority. Non-Afghan secular feminist and political analysts critical of Islam see its role in Afghanistan as retrogressive and a steadfast challenge to women’s rights. Islam has a long and complicated history in Afghanistan. Some Afghan feminist organisations, such as RAWA, call for political secularism. They believe that this could actually help to preserve Islam, which they consider to have been sullied and manipulated by political actors. Thus, secular Afghan feminists challenge fundamentalist interpretations that pervert religion for self-interested political gains.
Islamic feminists and development organisations that support or incorporate Islamic beliefs view religion as a vehicle for improving the status of women, and strategically incorporate Islamic tenants into their programs. The Afghan Women Skills Development Center (AWSDC), for one, considers Islam and Islamic education an essential path toward increasing women’s rights and challenging certain sociocultural practices. For example, the practice of baad (the giving of girls to settle debts or offenses committed by family members) is considered haram (forbidden) in Islam. AWSDC further encourages educational programmes that highlight women’s rights within Islam, and working with Mullahs as advocates (rather than adversaries) for increasing women’s rights. Reformers who favour the incorporation of Islam into governance, education, law, and as part of daily praxis argue that sociocultural practices detrimental to women can be more easily challenged through the use of Islamic texts (such as the Qur’an and Hadith), rather than the International Declaration of Human Rights. Illustrating the compatibility of Islam with human rights provides a more nuanced understanding of this religion, both in and outside of Muslim-majority countries. The high level of respect for and belief in Islam within most Afghan societies positions the religion as one path toward women’s rights.
Women’s participation in Islamic courts as lawyers and judges of Sharia (Islamic law) provide an important, if not essential, place for women to articulate their rights within Islam. However, according to the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation (WCLRF), corruption within the formal judicial system and negative views of women seeking formal justice remain major challenges to women’s access to political rights and legal justice. Many of the issues brought to courts by women are personal or family related, historically handled within families. Bringing these private matters to public courts challenges existing patriarchal structures for attending to family matters and conflicts.
When considering the role of women and their position within Afghanistan’s many societies, the role of men cannot be overlooked or understated. Afghan women working within the judicial system identified the importance of teaching men’s rights to women at the beginning of programs to educate women about their rights. This proved an important strategy because the women attending the programs would return home and explain that they learned about men’s rights. Consequently, husbands or fathers would be more willing to let them continue the programs knowing that they were included in the discussion of rights. Men can be barriers to change in gender relations, particularly changes favouring women. However, other men are active supporters of women’s education, work, public and political participation. As one Afghan man stated during an interview about women’s rights, “We have a women’s ministry, but really we need a men’s ministry in order to teach men about women’s rights. If you only teach women about their rights and they go home and demand them, this will lead to conflict. Men must learn women’s rights as much as women.”
Women’s gains and success in Afghanistan predominantly occur in tandem with, rather than in spite of, the support of male and female family members. It is naive to view women separate from their connections with men, and problematic and inaccurate to posit Afghan men as the enemy of Afghan women. This has been done as part of ‘saving’ mythologies generated through international geopolitics. As postcolonial feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously stated, discourses of saving inaccurately portray “white men as saving brown women from brown men.” Like anywhere, there are cases of men abusing women in Afghanistan, but other men work as advocates, supporters, and allies for women’s groups and women’s rights initiatives in various sectors of society, from healthcare to politics. Changing gendered divisions in labour, public and private space, and ideologies, must remain the work of women and men within Afghanistan.
International actors cannot, nor should they, dictate Afghan women’s needs, rights or the parameters for their liberation. Afghan women may attain forms of liberation or power unrecognisable to westerners because they do not meet the latter’s definitions of power, authority, or freedom. Successful and sustainable improvements to women’s lives – including political representation, economic opportunity, legal rights, and especially social and cultural beliefs – should be devised, directed and implemented by Afghan women themselves. They should be at the forefront of decision-making with international funding organisations. The methods for developing and ensuring women’s rights in Afghanistan remains fraught with a diversity of opinions, disagreements and debates: challenging, but ultimately a necessary part of societal change and progression.
As the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan takes place throughout 2014, the country will go through a series of political transitions. Security will remain at the forefront of concern for many Afghans, particularly those working with international organisations. Backlash against projects developed over the last decade to assist women, or to mainstream gender discourse in development, has already begun and will likely increase as foreign military and donors withdraw from the country. Some of this backlash has manifested in the targeted killings of female activists, journalists, and local women’s ministers. A decrease in troops may also decrease the number of attacks on both military and civilian targets.
Since the invasion in 2001 there has been continual, increasing integration between organisations involved in aid giving, development and peacekeeping on the one hand, and military or war making entities on the other. The intersection between military/security and aid/development creates more vulnerability for organisations seeking to assist Afghans. Therefore, international civilian and military operations are equally likely to be targeted by insurgent groups. The transition from international to national and local political power in Afghanistan will not occur without additional bloodshed. The withdrawal may also bring increased presence and influence from Iran, India, and China as each have their own strategic political and economic interests in Afghanistan’s location and geologic resources.
‘Saving’ and ‘liberating’ Afghan women has been the oft-repeated mantra of US political discourse since 2001, and has resulted in various programmes and funds to assist women, with varying results. Any real or sustainable change must come from Afghan women themselves and include support from Afghan men. The post-2014 political and military changes in Afghanistan, plus the influence of neighboring countries, will ultimately have an impact on gender relations in Afghanistan. Influence from countries with similar sociocultural beliefs may prove more beneficial for women’s organisations than feminism and imperialism from the US and its allies.
~This article is a part of Reclaiming Afghanistan: web-exclusive package.
~ Jennifer L Fluri is an Associate Professor of Geography and Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College, USA. Her research focuses on the ways in which international interventions in Afghanistan and Southasia impact gender relations and alter geographic spaces.