It’s 1970 in the city. You’re out alongside thousands of other women and girls protesting attacks by two nutcases who shot at women for wearing the wrong kind of clothes and for being outspoken. It’s not your first protest either. When conservative MPs in your parliament tried to pass a law stopping you from studying abroad, you and hundreds of your peers went to the streets and called them out. You’re not a common person by any means. In 1970, you were a very select segment of women but you were an increasingly loud and influential one. You might be a member of the large women’s organizations that would come to dominate women’s politics. A number of your friends and the leaders of such organizations would have been known today as “women in STEM”. Your family probably is still traditional but they enjoy the new tunes on the radio and are both amused and perplexed at the hippie tourists who amble about the cafés of the commercial streets. It’s 1970 in the city. The city is Kabul and you are a young Afghan woman.
To be sure, you are not reflective of your country as a whole in that specific year. Though you would have been within the 42% of your urban peers to have a formal education and eventually join the 41% who have jobs outside the home, out of the totality of your country’s population you would actually be among just 4% of the labor force. This 4% grew until 1992, however, and you became a forgotten but crucial component of Afghanistan’s history: in street protests, in political upheavals, in all forms of the nation’s modernization, and—yes—even in armed conflict. Demonstrations by women were just as big but even more frequent in the 80s and all kinds of women— not just your privileged character described above— were entering the fight to influence the course of Afghanistan’s future.
Even the most cursory examination of Afghan history unearths a century of women of all social classes struggling for their own rights, for their idea of their country, for modernity or authenticity. While writers and historians may include these stories in their discussions of the Afghan woman’s condition, it is clear that especially here in the “West”, Afghan women are more often than not considered passive victims, inactive symbols, barometers of the country’s status depending on how dressed or undressed they are to the gaze of Afghan and global men. It is easy to fall into the temptation to look at juxtaposed images of either miniskirts or chadors and accept these as substitute for a real look at Afghanistan’s complexity. The situation of women’s freedom cannot be judged (as too many leaders today somehow do) by whether or not we can see some leg.
This miscomprehension of Afghan women’s struggles is an extension of the miscomprehension of women’s struggles in general. When it comes to the more famous movements of women in Europe and North America, we are possessed of a kind of amnesia. Their active participation since the late-1700s in creating our modern states, our modern revolutions, and our modern economies were not natural outgrowths of nebulously defined “Western culture” or “western” ideas (which, it must be reminded, purported themselves to be universal truths unrestrained by any culture). Those pitchfork and scythe-wielding women who currently pose as the symbols of the French revolution? They were exiled, imprisoned of guillotined by the male-dominated parties of the First Republic. The Anglo-American women’s rights movements of the early 1800s? They took a century to achieve the basics of their agendas. Other European states took even longer than that. Women in Switzerland gained the right to vote in 1971. Intriguingly, it can be noted that historical sources place the first time women in Afghanistan secured the parliamentary vote was 1919— just a year after the women of Britain and a year before the women of the United States. The first law where equal education for girls was made mandatory in Afghanistan was just ten years after that in 1929. In short, in both the West and the East women had to make their mark themselves and fight their way into inclusion by society through organization and social movements.
In the 20th century, Afghanistan was very much an active part of the global wave of women’s liberation which saw women of all classes partake in liberal, nationalist, and socialist revolutions against colonial and traditional orders. Compared to many of those revolutions where women were afforded some basic rewards for their participation but were otherwise quickly blocked by male-dominated revolutionary governments, Afghanistan was remarkable since both reformist monarchies and the revolutionary party of Afghanistan (the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) made women’s rights a core of their agenda to transform Afghanistan into a modern nation-state. A glance at Afghan history reveals that the current conflict for the advancement of women’s rights— tied in a very central way to Afghanistan’s modernization and to the vast urban-rural divide of its society— is one that is now practically a century old. Slowly, haltingly, women were given more and more rights as we progress through monarchies, republics, and people’s republics. Parts of those responsible for the changes were urban elite informed by the liberal, nationalist, and socialist revolutions that rocked the Asian continent. These elites— aristocrats, officials, intelligentsia, or other highly educated specialists— were determined to catch up to the colonial empires that too often encroached on Afghanistan’s borders but also to the success of reforms in Turkey, Iran, and other Asian nations that experimented with combinations of universalist ideals and re-branded national identities. In the 70s and 80s, however, the women of the cities became an equally important driver of change. They rose in great numbers to participate and drive forward the modernization of their still fragile nation-state since the founding of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1965 which made women’s liberation a core principle in its vision of Afghanistan’s future (which already differentiated it a great deal from most other revolutionary parties in the “Third World” and even the “Second World” who treated women’s liberation as a pleasant after-effect of the accomplishment of more important objectives).
Between the first constitution that granted them equality in 1964 and the repression of women in 1992, women became 75% of educators, 40% of doctors, and 50% of civil servants. In 1988, 4 out of 7 of the commanding officers appointed to the Revolutionary Council were women and militia women played significant roles in battles won by the PDPA against mujahedeen. A few women did succeed in becoming members of both the Loya Jirga and more importantly the Central Committee. Women were present in all sectors of the public sphere-- all government departments (including the police), business, and industry. They had their own independent organization parallel to the PDPA— the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW) which sought to address every problem that could affect the female condition in Afghan society and transform women into active citizens. All political organizations under the PDPA had considerable female participation and political demonstrations by women were commonplace in the 80s. The Afghan Women’s Council (AWC) was among the most crucial of these political organizations. Its female leaders ran it as a provider of social services like literacy training, vocational training, organized income generating activities for women, legal advice through female lawyers, and health services for women and children. Total membership in the AWC was reportedly as high as 150,000 and it had offices in all but two provinces.
The remarkable women who populated Afghanistan’s leadership and activist frontlines from the 1920s reformist monarchy to the lawless morass of the 1990s were erased not only by the mujahedeen and Taliban governments but by Afghan conservatives today who prefer a more sanitized (read: traditionalist) version of history. Such major figures include Soraya, the director of the very female-dominated Afghan Red Crescent Society or Massouma Esmaty Wardak, President of the AWC. Even Queen Soraya herself, purveyor of the very first attempts to alter the female condition for the better in her country in the 20s, sees her paintings in Afghan government buildings altered to dress her in more traditional clothes even though her most famous public moment was ripping off her veil in front of the Afghan court and persuading the aristocratic ladies to do the same. Even more eclipsed are the women who populated Afghan radio and television for decades, the technicians, many industrial union workers, even veterinarians (a job that other Muslim countries of the time placed as off-limits to women). When women were forced out of the education system in the 90s, the fact that the crushing majority of teachers and professors at all levels were women harmed the education of boys almost as much as it harmed the education of girls.
Too often, however, rather than seeing the Taliban and their immediate predecessors in the mujahedeen as modern organizations connected to modern arch-conservative regimes and trained by transnational forces, they are often cast as the natural state of Afghanistan and even the region as a whole even if they never would have taken power without foreign training, foreign technology, knowledge of multiple languages, foreign money, and in the case of the mujahedeen the benefit of foreign media helping their PR. To what end do we disown the internationalized nature of Afghanistan’s internal conflicts? Conversely, it is time we saw the organization of the Afghan women’s movement for what they truly are: not a graft of foreign culture but a local chapter in the international women’s movement. If we are to further encourage the advancement of Afghan women, reconnecting them to this history and restoring their place as active pioneers in the developing world’s women’s liberation movement sends a strong message: women’s rights do not need to be imported, they must merely be continued.
It’s fairly rich for Western commentators to say “we gave you so much, where are the results?” when from the very beginning, the Bush administration who launched the war quickly went back on its initially strong promises that “the rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable” (as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stated). Had women’s organizations and female members of the Afghan parliament (the Loya Jirga) not strongly protested, the US government and the Afghan government would have accepted an Afghan constitution where equal rights between sexes were not explicitly stated. Furthermore, much of the early efforts were left to disparate NGOs with different objectives who imported a corporate language of self-motivated individuals detached from social constraints and everyday realities. Couple this with scarce funding for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, scant interest in the Afghan presidency for advancing women’s issues, development goals defined by international donors and financial institutions abroad, and the importation of experts with little knowledge of Afghan society trying to teach through workshops without any follow-up and you have a great recipe for meager progress and encouragement of a corrupt system where the language of development is mimicked and used to hide the actual preservation of conservative norms and shady networking. As soon as the Taliban were ousted from power, the US and its NATO allies were fairly clear that military efforts and security were their primary if not sole concern, especially as the US, mounted its campaign in the UN against Iraq to justify a war that would solidly eclipse Afghanistan.
The Obama years did not see more progress. With NATO allies either strictly reducing their activities to token minimums or withdrawing altogether, the US under Obama was one that was determined to fulfill its promise of ending its occupation and laser-focused on eliminating American enemies and this showed in the lackluster results of its aid to Afghan women. In the three years between 2012 and 2015 of the touted “Promote” USAID project, an announced objective of 75,000 Afghan women employed in jobs, apprenticeships, and internships saw a result of 55 women finding better jobs through the program according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction though even this report stated it was unclear if those small successes could be connected with the efforts of USAID. It instead was criticized from all sides and especially by women’s organizations and the Afghan government for wasteful spending and poor design. European observers and reports are even more grim about what the NATO training programs have accomplished for women; a comprehensive report from Norway in 2016 presents a fairly damning portrait describing international donors more concerned with numbers of women participating in workshops than actually following up and analyzing the success of the training. It also notes that important international organizations like UN Women were slow to build cooperation and develop the capabilities of Afghan government institutions. This is concurrent to conservative coalitions in Afghanistan’s parliament increasingly proposing and sometimes even passing into law regressive reforms on women (for example 2009’s law requiring Shia women to sexually satisfy their spouses and only with pressure from activists accepting to raise the age of marriage to 16 from the originally agreed-upon 14 years old).
What we can notice however is that there were activist organizations on the ground—Afghan women on the ground— present to protest and even succeed to push back against the worst transgressions. And in spite of receiving little-to-any help integrating into Afghanistan’s civil service, women have nevertheless risen at every opportunity offered even at great risk to themselves. Under the worst moments of Taliban rule, you have stories of women smuggling books under their chadors, holding schools for girls at home in secret. Today, you have women continue to struggle for seats in the Loya Jirga and a new generation of professional women looking to reenter public spaces. This proves they are not resigned to any predicament. These women are far more than the perpetual victims the world too often imagines them to be. It is more vital than ever, as the fate of Afghanistan is decided in the coming months of negotiations, to give them a moment where they can stand up and be counted.
What can we do with the lessons of the past and present? Is there the possibility of finding a seed of hope for today’s Afghan women? Perhaps we can find hope in the fact that all those who say women’s rights is a foreign concept that must be grafted to a culture that at its core is unchangeable are wrong. A century of Afghan women’s struggles shows the lie of the notion that Afghan women are passive victims of eternal oppression. By reconnecting the current crop of eager and active youth to the rich heritage of struggle for women’s rights, we can ignite hope that their fight does not begin and will not end with their generation. And by confronting Western observers with this truth, perhaps there is hope to avoid the fatalism that only serves the worst of both Western and Afghan societies and to restore the connection between the struggles of Afghan women and the women’s liberation movement that continues to struggle across the globe.
Elliott Memmi is a political analyst who has an academic background analyzing political communications, social movements, and international politics particularly with regard to Asia and the United States. His most recent research covered French and American cooperation in diplomatic and military interventions during the Obama administration.
Samina Ansari is an adjunct professor for Gender and Afghan Politics at the American University of Afghanistan. She has an academic background in Law and Diplomacy and has previously worked for NATO Secretary General’s Office for Women, Peace and Security.