Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Women’s Day in Afghanistan: Where the ‘Personal is still Political’

Sari Kouvo 7 min

International Women’s Day is a good opportunity to reflect on the legal advances made by Afghan women over the past decade and what challenges remain to turn laws on paper into reality. It is particularly needed after the President’s endorsement of the recent Ulama Council statement that, among a number of other points, addresses Afghan women’s rights and responsibilities. With a detour via the history of the 20th century women’s movement internationally, AAN’s Sari Kouvo takes a look at how Afghan women have come to negotiate their participation in public life over the past decade. She finds that what has made the difference is the stubborn determination and nothing-left-to-lose mentality of Afghan women’s rights activists.

In Afghanistan, international women’s day seems to have become a day for conferences in more or less luxurious hotels, poetry readings where women are compared to flowers or hailed as mothers, and a reason for husbands to give gifts to wives, or for male colleagues to congratulate their female colleagues.* International women’s day started off as a political project and its early messages remain relevant: The idea of an international women’s day was launched at a conference for women workers in Copenhagen in 1910. In the first half of the 20th century, International Women’s Day was intimately linked with women’s struggle for their political rights and their right to work. Throughout the turbulent decades of the world wars, it also became a day when women, tired of losing their husbands, brothers and sons to the wars, came together advocating for peace. It is then a very appropriate day to commemorate in Afghanistan where women’s struggles are so much tied to political participation, economic survival and where all progress is hampered by continuing conflict.
There is equality between all citizens on paper in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has signed and ratified key international human rights treaties that, if nothing else, ensures its performance is regularly scrutinized by the UN and other governments. The Afghan Constitution also includes an emphasis on the equal rights of men and women, and laws like the law on violence against women provides additional tools for those working for women’s rights and against domestic violence. Legal changes, though, even when they are systemic and well planned, are but one step towards equality. They are also regularly challenged.
The legal changes are fragile and open to interpretation, as shown by the recent statement of the Ulama Council (read translated excerpts of it here, the full original statement can be found on the President’s office website, read it here). The statement together with other issues provides the Ulama Council’s view on Afghan women’s rights and responsibilities under Islam. If implemented, it would certainly limit many women’s independent access to the public space, to education, work and travel. At the same time, many Afghan women’s realities are harsher than much of what can be put on paper: So, if some limits to the violence they suffer would actually be implemented, this would be positive change. However, what makes this particular statement significant is not mainly its content, but that it is featured on the President’s website and publicly endorsed by the President (for some of the media reporting, see here and here)** In the current context this clearly suggests that women’s rights are a bargaining chip in the political power play between different actors that compose the current government and, more specifically, in reconciliation efforts with the Taleban – and that women and their supporters will need to struggle to ensure that the progress made for women’s rights is not lost. The statement is then yet another example of the symbolic significance of women and women’s rights in Afghanistan, and it is a Damocles sword that can fall down on women’s heads at any time.

However, while it is significant how women are portrayed in the public debate for the overall trends for (or against) women’s rights, equally important are the everyday negotiations for education, work and (political) participation that women (and their supporters) do within their families, on the streets and in the workplace. It is these negotiations that I have tried to explore over the past months. For a forthcoming AAN report, I and two colleagues have been talking to around fifty Afghan women established as politicians, civil servants, academics, journalists or civil society activists, that is women who have firmly placed themselves in the public sphere, either because they want to influence the future of their country – or simply earn a living.*** The focus of these discussions has been on the women’s stories: why they decided to take up a public position, and what negotiations they have had to do within the family and in the public sphere in order to be able to do what they want to do. And if only half of what these women have been telling me is true, they should definitely be part of negotiating peace. I have met some very shrewd everyday mediators and tough negotiators. (Of course, the peace they would negotiate would not be good for everybody, but then, whose peace deal would be?).
A constant theme of the discussions is that ‘the personal is political’. Support from the family, or from at least one influential (most often male) figure within the family had almost always triggered the interest in study and work. An extreme example of this was a woman legal professional who noted, ‘I receive death threats, but I don’t care if I die because I am fulfilling the dreams of my father.’ In negotiations within the family, rights’ arguments do not carry much weight, trust (to not shame family honour) and financial and political gain was the real currency. What is viewed as proper and honourable is obviously not constant: A statement like the one from the Ulama Council when it comes at a time when Afghanistan’s political future is in the balance can play a part in framing what families feel that they can allow their girls and women to do. Another theme in family negotiations was whether the woman who wanted to study or work was able to show that she could do this and manage household shores and responsibilities towards her immediate and extended family at the same time. Alternatively that she was able to show that she could delegate her tasks to (most often) other women in the family. Some examples were also mentioned where husbands and brothers had taken over tasks, as they were keen to support their wives or sisters negotiations with the new mother-in-law or with the mother.

For the older women I talked to, the struggle for education and participation had continued for their children – sons and daughters. The biggest pride that the women expressed, was when talking about how they had managed to ensure that their children had been able to get a university education – and were living abroad. The most concern they expressed was when they talked about getting their daughters married. While sons stay with their family also after they are married, daughters move in with the husband’s family. Several of the women I talked to explained that they had tried to be very careful when choosing the husband for their daughter, listening to what the daughter wanted, but also being attentive to what kind of family the husband-to-be came from. However, one can never be entirely sure that pre-marital arrangements of allowing the new wife to study and work are upheld or, in the words of one women: ‘It does not matter how liberal the family looks, or what they have promised. When a young wife moves in, everything can change for her.’ The surprise element seems to be how the mother-in-law feels about the new daughter-in-law when she actually moves in, and whether the new wife manages to gain the trust and support of her husband.

It is difficult to discern common themes about the negotiations at the workplace. However, an important bargaining chip across the board was, again, women’s reputation and honour. While women benefit for being perceived – by both women and men – as ‘less corrupt’ and also as having ‘less blood on their hands’, their reputation is also very much tied to whether they are perceived to be modest enough. For many, women have already failed the modesty test if they want to participate in public debate and if they want to work. This is also suggested in the Ulama Council statement, as it clearly seeks to limit interaction between women and men in the public space, schools and workplaces.
Building the reputation of being an honourable and trustworthy woman is also much more difficult than destroying a woman’s reputation: rumors of sexual misconduct however unlikely or unsubstantiated travel quickly, and for women who lack important patrons or family ties these rumors can mean the end of a career. A former government employee noted that ‘the Afghan government is like a shareholder company: you have to pay in order to get something back. Men have money, they can pay’. Lacking the ability to pay into the system (or to the patron), meant lacking the ability to progress – and it could mean the end of a career, too. Many of the women shared stories of how they or women they knew had lost positions because they had been too vocal on key issues at the same time as they had failed to establish necessary networks.

There was also general agreement that ideally solidarity between women was important for promoting women’s opportunities in the public space. However, women MPs and civil servants said this kind of solidarity was a scarce commodity. Women civil society activists were less clear about whether there was solidarity between women working in their sector: women worked together, but they also competed for the same posts, funds and trips abroad. It was also noted that while women’s organizations may pull together in defense of issues, as was done during the women’s shelter controversy (see AAN’s earlier blog on women’s shelters, here). Women and organizations that face problems or threats, face them alone. This is a broader societal problem, a result of the polarization and mistrust that has emerged during the wars: Better stay out of trouble if that is an option, as one can never be certain where the trouble ends.

Encapsulating some of the negotiating strategies that Afghan women seem to need in the public space were the comments of a woman who drives. To counter harassment, she said, ‘the other drivers have to know that you won’t stop. Nobody wants to kill themselves for fun. They’ll get out of the way instead.’ In other words, if you are hard-headed, stubborn and able to scare those who harass you, you may actually get somewhere. It remains to be seen if this will be enough for some of the very tough negotiations ahead relating to women’s legal rights, their political participation and their relative freedom to occupy the public space.

* The form official 8 March celebrations have taken in Afghanistan owe a lot to the formalistic way this day was celebrated in the post-WWII Eastern bloc, but certainly also to the way women’s rights have been promoted over the past decade, slogans and form over substance and context.

** Some of the articles have wrongly credit AAN for the translation. It was not done by us, but it appeared on the website Afghanistan Analysis.

*** This blog is not a systematic overview of the findings of the interviews, just some initial ideas after a number of very valuable discussions.


Afghan Women Human Rights