The Women of Afghanistan

     The rights of women in Afghanistan have been on a rollercoaster since the 1960s and women have been protesting since then. In 1964, Afghanistan ratified an equal rights amendments act to the constitution. This was when women were officially granted equal rights, though there was still a long way to go. Women no longer had to veil in public, at least officially, but they still faced discrimination. Some women ran businesses, and there was even a group of women who wore miniskirts in public. This was extremely radical. Some girls went to school with no veil, and the fact that women could go to school at all was a huge stride towards progress in the country. These things may seem normal to us because we live in a country where we’ve had these basic rights for over fifty years. However, in many other countries, women can’t even leave their houses without a man’s permission. Today, Afghanistan has become one of those countries. Women aren’t allowed to leave their houses anymore.

     The rapid decline of women’s rights in Afghanistan began when Daoud Khan took power and banned all political parties besides his own. This was a major blow to the Soviet-backed political party; the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (The PDPA). Daoud Khan sought to reduce the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and shortly after this, was assassinated with the PDPA taking over the country. They used women’s rights as a tool to gain more support for communism and made superficial gestures of support while they were undermining women’s rights and making women more dependent on men. Before this time, when married, a man was required to give money to his wife, money that was in her name for whatever purpose she saw fit. This was called a Mehr. The PDPA set a limit on the amount allowed to be given and this was reduced further over the years. Although more women did receive higher education, this was used as a ploy to distract the world from the suffering of the people, and no real further rights were given to women. 

     On Christmas Eve of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. They intervened on behalf of the government, which had been fighting against anti-communist guerillas since 1978. Their occupation in Afghanistan lasted until February ten years later. Their main goal was to keep the government that they considered a Soviet State, even though it was not technically a part of the Union. The US saw this invasion as a threat to take over the Middle East since the US had recently pulled back involvement in the area. The PDPA government was not popular with the people, and the United States started backing a rebel group of ​​mujahideen, or freedom fighters, by sending them weapons and other supplies. This essentially became a proxy war between the US and the USSR. During this time the mujahideen also started to use women’s rights as a ploy to gain support, except they used it to support an Islamic government. The country was in an economic crisis, while financial, food, and water insecurity spread. Some families even had to sell their daughters into marriage to make ends meet. Some women and girls were also kidnapped by soldiers and raped or forced into marriage. Afterward, they were often not allowed to return to society or even to their families because of the social stigma. Women received the brunt of the violence. The mujahideen used this to their advantage, promising to secure Afghanistan and its women. 

     The brutal war continued and six million sought refuge in Pakistan but there was little aid for them. Men were sent to religious madrasas, and since almost all of the aid was given to men, the women didn’t even have access to bathrooms or medical clinics. The war dragged on for ten long years until 1988 when an agreement was reached for both the US and the USSR to cease involvement in Afghanistan. The last of the Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan in February of 1989. The civil war lasted until 1992.  Not much changed for women in those three years. The mujahideen won the civil war and took over the country, but there was still a struggle for control and a central government. 

     In 1994, the Taliban entered Afghanistan to establish an Islamic government with supreme authority. They took the capital, Kabul, in 1996, and women’s rights took a turn for the worse. They enforced strict oppressive laws based on their interpretation of Islamic law. They closed all universities open to women and made it illegal for any girl to attend school. Sometimes homeschooling was tolerated, but usually, it too was forbidden. They also forced women to leave their jobs and banned them from going to hospitals. A small number of women were allowed to continue as doctors and nurses because women were not allowed to receive treatment from a man who is not related to them unless the woman was fully covered. Due to these restrictions on education and medical care, women had little to no access to qualified doctors or nurses. They were brutally beaten if they left their homes in search of medical care, and one woman had to give birth on the streets while her husband was beaten beside her for trying to get her to a hospital. Through all of this, Afghanistan was second in the world for maternal mortality rates. In 2001 the Taliban raided a closed foreign-funded hospital because there was a rumor that men and women were sometimes in the same dining and operating rooms. In addition to not being able to receive medical care, fifty thousand women who lost their husbands to the war and had no source of income were forced to beg or sell all of their possessions to feed their families. One Afghan woman said, "The life of Afghan women is so bad. We are locked at home and cannot see the sun." The Taliban required all homes to paint over the windows so no one could accidentally see a woman inside. 

     Women were required to wear a burqa, a tent-like full-body veil so thick it is difficult to breathe in. There is a small mesh panel to allow the woman to see, however, sight is so limited that it would be nearly impossible to cross the street safely without assistance. Many women were unable to afford a burqa and were forced to stay home, or in some cases, one burqa is shared by an entire village, meaning each woman had to wait for days or weeks for a chance to go outside. Even with a burqa, women could only leave the house when accompanied by a male relative. If a woman accidentally showed her feet or ankles she was beaten severely. Nail polish, make-up, and white socks were all strictly prohibited as was any clothing that made a sound, as it was illegal for a woman to make noise when they walked. One woman who was seen with an unrelated man on the streets was publicly flogged one hundred times. Had she been married, she would have been publicly stoned to death. Women were punished for everything. For just being. 

     In 2001 the US intervened; this was mostly because of the outrage from the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. The Taliban was harboring Osama bin Laden, the person who orchestrated the attack. The invasion was mostly successful, and although the leaders of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden both remained elusive, the overall state of Afghanistan improved greatly, especially in the women’s rights sector. Women were able to attend university again, get jobs, and have access to basic healthcare necessities. Women were allowed to leave their houses again, without a man and a burka. There was a lot of hope for the future. The Afghan people were able to write their own constitution and establish a democracy. In 2003 the US got involved in the Iraq war, stretching our resources over both countries. In 2005 the Taliban regrouped and started to fight for control of Afghanistan again. This sparked violence in the country, and for the next decade and a half, the US and the Taliban fought for control of the country. During this time, women’s rights remained much the same. The country was war-torn, and in places with more Taliban presence, women had virtually no rights, and in places with a strong US presence, women had access to most of the same things as men in the area. 

     With the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, women’s rights are under more duress than ever. The Taliban insists that they will treat women fairly, however, the more we see, the more women’s rights injustices are occurring. The rollercoaster ride of women’s rights has not ended yet.

Bo Miller