Why are the voices and everyday experiences of Afghanistan’s rural, urban poor and working class women still so rarely heard? Why do they continue to be (re)presented as a homogeneous group of victims of their own families, communities and traditions? In this guest blog, Deborah Smith* argues that it is important to move away from essentialist representations of Afghan women and to engage with them as actors who have a stake in how the Afghan state accommodates different political views and in a possible reconciliation processes with the Taliban.
Since at least the 1980s the presentation of rural and/or poor women from Asia, Africa and the Middle East as passive objects for development and mere victims of their own cultures and local and global political and economic dynamics, has been criticised by activists and intellectuals from these countries. However, in Afghanistan, the ‘woman as victim’ cult not only continues, but appears to be embraced, even by those fighting for women’s rights. Not only are these (re)presentations of Afghan women inaccurate and lacking in analysis and understanding, they can also be damaging for the change that women have actually managed.
The past five years I have spent working with Afghan researchers and program implementers. These teams talked to Afghan men and women from villages, small urban settlements and residential areas of cities; literally thousands of Afghans from all regions of Afghanistan. My Afghan colleagues often spent months working in different communities, building trust and discussing the life histories, opinions, thoughts and hopes for the future with community members. What is clear from these discussions is the variety of lives that Afghan women lead, and the different opinions about gender issues amongst men and women, the young and old.
Different opinions are held about what women’s and men’s roles and responsibilities in the family and society should be and how men and women should relate to one another in the family and in wider society. Older men can hold less conservative and discriminatory opinions than young men and older women may hold more conservative opinions than older men. In one example, from central Afghanistan, a young woman accused a young man of sexual assault. The male elders looking into the case in her village supported her, whereas in a focus group discussion with older women it was argued that the girl must have done something to lead him on and that therefore she was to blame to some degree. When researching family dynamics in different provinces of Afghanistan the opinions of older men from villages in Eastern Afghanistan regarding women’s mobility, right to education, and right to contribute to decisions about their lives were far less restrictive than groups of young men from Kabul.
There continues to be a vast divergence between the way Afghan women are (re)presented in media and in meetings in Kabul, and the reality of their everyday lives in their villages and urban communities. It can appear as if hardly anyone (Afghan or international) wants to hear about the Afghan widows who are running households with their adult sons seeking their council in every decision; the young women who have put off marriage, attained a secondary education and now teach other women in their communities to read and write; the illiterate older women who resolve disputes in their communities; the women who seek protection from the elders of their communities from domestic violence and receive it; women with disabled husbands who support their families and ensure their daughters go to school, and the other myriad examples of women having agency in their lives; taking care of their families; influencing decision making in their communities and using traditional processes to their advantage.
Instead, the all too common (re)presentation is of women (and girls) as victims of child marriage; exchange marriage; family violence; economic and social deprivation and Afghan traditions and practices. These Afghan traditions and practices going undefined and unanalysed.
Two traditional practice often cited are badal (exchange) marriage and baad, which both provide good examples of the frequent lack of analyses in (re)presentations of poor and rural Afghan women’s lives. Badal marriage is one of the most commonly used marriage practices, in which a girl is usually exchanged for a wife for her brother. Exchanges, though rarer, occur between other family members, such as fathers exchanging their daughters for a new bride for themselves. These types of marriages are well recognised to be a precursor to a cycle of violence directed toward the women who have been exchanged. They are an illustration of how ensuring sons are married can take priority over concerns for a daughters’ well-being. Exchange marriage is used in many cases and certainly among the poor as a means to conform by marrying children (both boys and girls) young without having to raise a bride price. However, what is often missing in discussions of badal is that most rural, illiterate and poor men and women recognise the practice to be a cause of unhappy violent marriages and many also view it as an un-Islamic practice. Consequently, many women and men are determined not to marry their own children in such a manner, but fear they may have little choice (for further information on Afghan marriage practices see here).
Baad is the practice in which usually one or two never married girls from the family of a perpetrator of a killing are given in marriage to the family of the victim. They are given in marriage as a form of compensation and as a way to make peace between the two families. Unquestionably, this is an example of how girls and women can be treated like commodities in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, what is not discussed is that baad is not and never has been practiced in all areas of Afghanistan, it is recognised by rural women and men as un-Islamic, is rarely used anywhere to resolve disputes and perhaps most importantly of all it has greatly decreased in use over the last generation or so (for further information on community-based dispute resolution practices and processes see here).
A more nuanced understanding of Afghan traditional practices challenges yet another myth; that rural Afghan women’s lives have not changed for generations. A myth easily refuted through conversations with rural women who describe how their daughters’ lives are different to their own and explain what has caused these changes. Migration, both internal and international, for instance, is often described as a catalyst for change. Such conversations also show how poor/rural/illiterate Afghan women create and manipulate cultural norms, feel ownership over Afghan culture and traditions and make clear distinctions between what is prescribed in Islam and what is a traditional practice.
Recognising the agency of Afghan women does not deny the terrible gender prejudice and discrimination that they face. It does not deny the horrors of child marriage, exchange marriages and domestic violence. Nor does it deny that women are systematically marginalised from local and national political and economic processes. Instead, recognising that rural and poor Afghan women are more than passive victims of such crimes allows for spaces for change to be identified and worked within; spaces that have already been defined by these women. For instance, Afghan women play roles in maintaining community harmony and can be instrumental in preventing disputes becoming violent. A space like this if recognised can be worked within so women gain greater confidence to get involved in disputes outside their normal spheres of influence. When they do this not only do they play a significant role in maintaining peace in their communities but also women’s status is raised as their skills in mediation, a highly prized talent in Afghanistan, are recognised further.
A more nuanced and accurate presentation of Afghan women’s lives is then also important to reconciliation processes. It is important to recognise how much poor and rural women, like their urban and/or educated counterparts, may fear from the conservative turn in Afghan politics and reconciliation with the Taliban. For instance, for the women who are the sole breadwinners for their families; any threat to their ability to work presents a threat to their families’ survival. For the women who live in Hazarajat and who witnessed some of the worst brutalities committed by the Taliban in the 1990s, the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban may lead to a fear that they will yet again be discriminated against because of their religious and ethnic identity. The Taliban have attempted to destroy traditional institutions, such as mediation through groups of elders, institutions that can offer rural women protection from domestic violence and uphold their rights under Islam. Women may fear that concessions to the Taliban could lead to further attacks on such institutions. Finally and perhaps most importantly, if the majority of Afghan women are not presented as active subjects with much to loose, rather than passive victims with little to loose, it will be all too easy to sacrifice their achievements in the name of reconciliation.
* Deborah has been working in Afghanistan since 2006. She has conducted research on community-based dispute resolution, justice issues and gender issues for AREU. Most recently she was involved in implementing USAID’s Rule of Law Stabilisation Programme – Informal Component.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020