a history of women in afghanistan

by Malalai Joya
an extract from Raising My Voice

Western journalists rarely challenge the fables that are spun for them. Because of the laziness and complicity within the mainstream media, the United States and its allies have been able to perpetuate the myth that Afghanistan has always been an ungovernable state, and that the oppression of women is embedded in Afghan culture. The brutality of the Taliban, the myth goes, was only an extreme expression of an old problem. And so only foreign occupation can save Afghanistan from itself.

I want you to know that this is a lie. We are not a helpless country. We have been able to manage our own affairs, and women’s rights have not always been in such a terrible state. It is the policies of the big powers intervening and backing the most extreme elements in Afghanistan that have rolled back the rights of women.

Afghanistan’s first modern ruler, King Amanullah Khan, who won independence from the British in 1919, was a freedom-loving and democratic leader. He believed that Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hindus, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and people from other different tribes are simply Afghan. He strengthened national unity so that there was no racial, linguistic, or religious discrimination. He also advanced a modern constitution that incorporated equal rights and individual freedoms.

His wife, Queen Soraya, played a vital role in regard to his policy toward women. She made trips to European countries on behalf of women without wearing a scarf and in modern clothes. In 1920, she gave a public speech – a first for an Afghan queen – describing the benefits of women’s rights. After that, many women volunteered to help her and established a number of organizations for the benefit of women.

The nation’s first women’s magazine, Irshadul Naswan, was published on March 17, 1921. Women workers were accepted by factories. The first women’s hospital was established in Kabul, and for the first time women served as representatives in the Loya Jirga, in 1928. In that Jirga, Amanullah Khan suggested abolishing polygamy and forced marriage. The legal age for marriage was established at eighteen. The king encouraged the building of roads, factories, and rail lines. He built libraries, cinemas, and theaters. Wageless labor, forced labor, and slavery were abolished.

During the time of Amanullah Khan, education became compulsory for every Afghan. The first girls’ school was established in 1924. A group of girls was sent to Turkey for higher education, without having to wear the hijab, or Islamic covering, or be accompanied by a male relative, or mahram. Later, hundreds of girls went to school in foreign countries such as Germany, Russia, and France.

Unfortunately, some of the king’s reform measures went too far, too fast. For example, he announced that no Afghan man could go out without a modern-style hat and trousers, and if they failed to do so they were fined. It was the same for women who went out wearing a burqa. He also changed the religious holiday from Friday to Sunday. The fundamentalists were in an uproar, and Amanullah Khan’s enemies used this to their advantage.

The British were still angry at the loss of their colony and afraid of having a modern, independent country next to India, which was still under its control. Thus they maintained a network of their own puppets in Afghanistan among reactionary religious scholars and rival aristocrats. Through these people, the British quietly sowed rebellion against Amanullah Khan and his reforms. Since a majority of the Afghans were uneducated and deeply influenced by religious beliefs, the British were successful and the king lost the support of the people. He went into exile and, in 1929, was forced to give up the throne.

His era of reform is remembered fondly by all Afghans who believe in democracy and constitutional rule. And, incidentally, this was why it was such an insult when, in December 2008, Hamid Karzai presented George W. Bush with the medal of King Amanullah during the American president’s last trip to Afghanistan. Only one day earlier an Iraqi journalist said good-bye to Bush with a shoe thrown at his face – a much more suitable honor!

Amanullah Khan’s overthrow is considered a disaster in the history of Afghanistan. Immediately after he was exiled, a strongman named Habibullah Kalakani became emir. He was a dark-minded and ignorant man backed by the British. His first official act was to close all the schools. Only months later, Kalakani’s forces were overcome by Mohammad Nadir Shah, a Pashtun aristocrat, who invaded from India with British help. Nadir Shah lured Kalakani to a peace conference and then had him executed. The brutal Nadir Shah immediately repealed most of Amanullah’s reforms – he even brought back the women who had been sent to Turkey for higher education and made them stay at home. Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933, and was succeeded by his son, Zahir Shah, who was only nineteen at his coronation.

King Zahir served as a passive figurehead for most of his rule. His paternal uncles, who were the real power holders, presided over a reign of terror for much of the next three decades. Non-Pashtun ethnic groups were particularly oppressed during this time. But constitutionalists continued to struggle against the repressive monarchy, and they eventually forced the government to accept some reforms in order to keep the people from open rebellion. By the middle of the twentieth century, King Zahir started to assert his authority and began experimenting with a limited democracy, if only to satisfy the people and put an end to mass movements. Zahir freed more than five hundred political prisoners and brought in other reforms. University students were allowed to form unions, and political parties that had been banned in previous years were given some freedom to regroup. But the government wouldn’t tolerate too much opposition, and some were rounded up, jailed, and killed.

During these turbulent years, however, women’s rights were gradually restored.

By the 1950s, women in Afghanistan were encouraged to work in many professions. By the end of the decade they were staging demonstrations and asking for their rights. The government even passed laws to ban the wearing of the burqa and to legalize the wearing of skirts and short sleeves. Here, for example, is how the New York Times reported on the condition of Afghan women half a century ago, on November 8, 1959: “Afghanistan’s Women Lift the Veil” read the headline. “A new world of freedom, spiritual as well as sartorial, has been opened to the women of this Moslem nation after centuries of seclusion.”

The freedoms achieved by women were not the result of some invasion from the West, but from the development of our own society, our own political process, and the struggle of democratic-minded forces of Afghanistan who risked death for their beliefs. What is true of women in Afghanistan has been true throughout history. The great Indian writer Arundhati Roy made this point in a speech she delivered in the United States several years ago:

It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas. We are being asked to believe that the U.S. marines are actually on a feminist mission. (If so, will their next stop be America’s military ally Saudi Arabia?) Think of it this way: in India there are some pretty reprehensible social practices against “untouchables,” against Christians and Muslims, against women. Pakistan and Bangladesh have even worse ways of dealing with minority communities and women. Should they be bombed? Should Delhi, Islamabad and Dhaka be destroyed? Is it possible to bomb bigotry out of India? Can we bomb our way to a feminist paradise? Is that how women won the vote in the U.S.? Or how slavery was abolished? Can we win redress for the genocide of the millions of Native Americans upon whose corpses the United States was founded by bombing Santa Fe?

Although Zahir Shah tried to establish a constitutional monarchy, the people lost faith in him and took to the streets in demonstrations. In 1973, while King Zahir was out of the country for medical treatment, he was overthrown by his pro-Soviet cousin, Daud Khan. Afghanistan’s “constitutional era” was over, replaced by a nominal republic, and, in 1979, Soviet invaders.

It was the women of Afghanistan who offered the first show of resistance against the Soviet puppet regime by staging a demonstration in Kabul. The police reacted with violence, and women such as Nahid Sahid and Wajeha were killed on the spot. It was during this era that RAWA – the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan – was established by Meena and other women intellectuals in Kabul.

As recently as the 1970s, the extremists who now have so much power to implement antiwomen policies – with their misinterpretations of Islam to justify them – were marginal figures. The notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, was a totally discredited force in those days, known for having led attacks on unveiled women at the University of Kabul that included burning these women with acid. It was the United States, Pakistan, and Iran’s arming of these forces during the 1980s – Hekmatyar was one of their favorites during this period – that helped unleash the religious fascism that has plagued Afghanistan for the past three decades.

It is hard to fathom the pivotal role the United States played in nourishing a violent, fundamentalist mentality in generations of young Afghans. But starting in the 1980s, the U.S. government spent more than $50 million to publish textbooks through the University of Nebraska that promoted a fanatic, militaristic agenda. In a March 2002 article, the Washington Post called it the “Jihad Schoolbook Scandal,” describing the books as “filled with talk of jihad” and warlike images. It taught children to count using “illustrations of tanks, missiles and landmines.” The books were shipped into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to fuel a jihad against the Soviets, but, according to the Post, they made up the core curriculum in the Afghan school system long after the Soviets had been defeated. “Even the Taliban used the American-produced books, though the radical movement scratched out human faces in keeping with its strict fundamentalist code.” And after the Taliban was gone, USAID continued to send the textbooks into Afghanistan, where fundamentalists still use them to teach a violent brand of Islam.