Afghan solutions for Afghan women

Lael A. Mohib

Audiences around the world were horrified to see the image of Bibi Aisha, a young Afghan girl whose nose had been cut off by her husband and his family, on the cover of an August 2010 issue of TIME Magazine. Western media outlets largely attributed Aisha’s case to the Taliban, and portrayed it as a warning of what is to come for Afghan women once the international community withdraws from Afghanistan.  The unfortunate reality is, though, that there are many other cases like hers happening today in Afghanistan, despite the presence and efforts of foreign troops and the international community over the last decade. The most recent case to make headlines was that of 15-year-old Sahar Gul, who had been locked in a basement and tortured for five months by her in-laws, allegedly because she refused efforts to force her into prostitution. These crimes were not perpetrated by the Taliban, but instead some of the most extreme manifestations of domestic violence in Afghanistan.

As former Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said to me in an interview a year ago when I asked what he thought about the case of Bibi Aisha: “Even when the West are in Afghanistan, these things are still happening. It seems to me to be a family matter, what happened to this woman.” In Afghanistan, everything is a family matter, and familial ties will continue to govern Afghan society long after international troops have left the scene. While attention is focused in Kabul on signing documents ensuring women’s political participation and securing women’s rights, there is very little trickle down from such progress to the majority of Afghan women living in rural areas. Instead of working from the top down, sustainable progress that can take root in conservative Afghan households can only be made by accepting the realities of rural Afghan society and working within existing cultural boundaries.

Taking a step back from the ‘quick impact’ approach of mainstream international aid, one must consider the social realities of Afghanistan  to define and support sustainable progress on women’s socioeconomic and human rights. In reality, foreign and domestic governments, their policies and their troop presences, do not ultimately determine the opportunities available to most women — the men in their families do. Progress and change must be acceptable to men as well as accessible to women.

In addition to the difficulty of encouraging men to see women’s participation in society differently, some Afghan women themselves may struggle to redefine their roles. Donor organizations may not take into account the extent to which traditional, conservative gender roles are just as stubbornly ingrained in many Afghan women’s minds as they are in many Afghan men’s minds — the notion that men provide, and that women are provided for.

While there are exceptions, in general rural Afghan women have been reared to see their domain as the home, and their job to raise children and serve their husbands. Thus, many may feel that any ambitions outside of the home are unnecessary, or that they aren’t capable of achieving them. Furthermore, the prospect of taking on some traditionally male-dominated responsibilities, or even having a stronger presence outside of the home — such as working or seeking higher education — simply may not be desirable or even considered within the realm of possibility to some women.

A rural/urban dichotomy pervades Afghan history, which  has shown that signs of ‘modernization’ in Kabul do not necessarily signify fundamental changes in the rest of the country. What looks like great progress in women’s equality in Kabul to the Western eye is often just a veneer, not the true picture. The visibility of women in Kabul in the workplace and in schools and universities, often without a burqa, gives the impression of notable change, but Kabul holds only a very small representation of Afghan women. While about 1.5 million women reside in Kabul, 13.5 million women live in rural areas and are not affected by the more lenient cosmopolitan environment in the capital.

Moreover, one must consider that if a woman wears a burqa, it may not be that she is forced to but, rather, that she chooses to. Personal choice is still important, even if one’s society may limit one’s choices. And while it is absolutely vital that female representatives have a voice in the peace and reconciliation process, as well as seats in parliament and other highly-visible opportunities, the significance of these and similar advancements is currently limited to symbolic importance.

Assuming that such social realities will persist far past 2014 into the next several decades, the key is to change attitudes gradually, working within current cultural boundaries. Before concentrating emphasis on women working outside of the home, the main focus now should be on expanding women’s roles and voices inside the home. The majority of Afghan men I have spoken to about this do not oppose the idea of their wife, sister, or daughter working outside the home or pursuing further education; rather, their opposition to it in practice comes from a fear of how others in their community or extended family may judge them. Breaking a cultural taboo sparks a plague of gossip that has the potential to destroy a family’s reputation, particularly when it concerns the integrity of women, who represent a family’s honor.

Women throughout the country can and do capitalize on their abilities in socially and culturally acceptable ways already. There are many examples of women who have started small, home-based enterprises, fulfilling a community or market need through activities such as in-home embroidery or carpet-weaving, keeping poultry to sell eggs, or tending bees to sell the honey and wax, which can all be supported with micro-finance grants.

Investment must also be made in vocational training for rural women. In this regard, the people who can best fulfill the needs of Afghan women are other Afghan women. Trained midwives in Afghanistan could be encouraged to teach others the skills of midwifery, while women who are literate could be supported to organize and teach literacy or Quran study classes in their homes.

Such home-grown efforts should be supported through locally-tailored, Afghan-led programs that provide micro-finance assistance and vocational trainings. Programs should appeal to and involve men, as well, helping them see the positive aspects of enabling women. For example, I once met an older woman from Bamyan who had learned how to install solar panels and had then enlisted the help of her brothers to start a solar panel installation and repair company servicing her community.

If a woman can contribute to her family or community in culturally acceptable ways, men may start to recognize women not just as a housekeeper and caretaker, but also as an individual who can generate some income for the household or make needed contributions to the community, placing women on a more level playing field with men. Furthermore, such activities give women a sense of achievement and boost self-esteem, attitudes that are invariably passed down to future generations.

Aside from contributions inside the home, women and girls should also be shown and told of their gender’s potential and rights outside of the home. Generating public dialogue and storytelling of exemplary women in the community, religion, or country through radio programs that seed messages of women’s empowerment in communities far outside of Kabul is one way to accomplish this.

Education is another invaluable form of empowerment, and the progress made in women’s education, even in rural areas, is commendable. Education can breed a hunger for knowledge, one that Afghan girls (and boys) are experiencing now as schools proliferate across the country. Their mothers, as well, may curiously observe their children studying in the evenings and be inspired to seek out education. While girls’ enrollment in primary school was up to 2.4 million in 2010 from 5,000 during the Taliban regime, according the Afghan Ministry of Education, Afghan girls today rarely progress to secondary and high school, yet there is still promise of a generational process of change. If a mother never attended school, but she fights for her daughter’s right to do so, one can hope that the granddaughter would eventually be in a position to attend high school or even university.

Women also need to see that they have some place in the public sphere. Culturally acceptable places for women to gather publicly such as women-only parks, prayer areas, and public gathering spaces, need to be created so that women can feel comfortable and have a sense of belonging in some place outside the home. It is rare to find a place delegated for women to pray in a mosque in Afghanistan, which is a shame for a country that places Islam at center of its society. Finding a restaurant in Jalalabad that accommodates women, even accompanied by close male relatives, is a challenge. Just one park in Kabul is dedicated to women.

While the impending withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has dredged up the topic of the fate of Afghan women, mainstream aid efforts to help Afghan women have been generally off-target, in a society and culture that the international community can sometimes be quick to judge, but resistant to comprehend. The ‘Afghan women’ topic has become a talking point for politicians, a popular focus area for donors, and a dramatic headline for media, all demanding too much, too fast from a mainly rural society bound tightly to its conservative culture.

NATO should not be cast in the role of savior — the idea that NATO should be responsible for safeguarding Afghan women’s rights is to make the patronizing assumption that foreign money, applied with foreign standards, in the midst of a foreign-led war, is the key to launching a culture and society into a more Western-style one. The aim should be to encourage and support Afghan women, and men, to make changes in their own lives, on their own terms, and at their own pace.

Lael A. Mohib works in community and rural development in Afghanistan, and has an M.A. in International Relations with a focus on Afghanistan from Boston University.

Contributions to this article were made by Hamdullah Mohib, who served as a senior aide to Dr. Ashraf Ghani during the 2009 Afghan presidential elections, and is now studying for his PhD at Brunel University.

Source:,    January 13, 2012



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