Afghan women were never ‘silent’: A Brief History.

 A brief history of the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan, by Humaira Saqeb.

When we analyze Afghan women’s struggle for their freedom in all its glory, we notice one key element. Despite living in a traditional patriarchal society where women are automatically seen as less, seeking equality and rights has been a shared concern for women throughout history.

Despite the status quo of silencing and isolating women, since its inception the women’s movement has become an idealistic venue for demanding equality and seriously questioning the patriarchal customs prevalent in society.

Based on historical narratives, we can trace the start of women’s advocacy from the period of King Amanullah onwards. During his rule, Queen Suraya’s serious and sustained campaign paved the way for future efforts by women. The presence of Queen Suraya and other women at events, ceremonies and trips, and the creation of an open space for women angered the traditional and religious groups of the country. They saw these as contrary to the religious and traditional habits of Afghanistan and began their efforts to presence of women and minimize their role in political and social life.

It was during this time period, a time of accomplishment for women that Mastorad Hospital opened for treating female patients. Following that, a girls’ school was opened in 1928. Probably for the first time in the history of the country, even a number of school girls were sent to Turkey for education on September 29, 1928. Women’s political participation also improved as five women joined the Loya Jirga, the national meetings, after elections. The Mullahs and religious leaders stopped these achievements in their tracks when they worked with foreign forces and overthrew the progressive King’s government. These achievements for women angered and with the help of external/foreign forces, they overthrew the government.

Afghan women in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and licensed through Creative Commons.

Although women faced many ups and downs after King Amanullah Khan’s reign, Mohammad Zahir Shah also promoted some efforts to bring women to power. During this time, women won seats in the cabinet. Kubra Noorzai was appointed the first female minister. She was the head of Ministry of Public Health. Shafiqa Ziaeey, and Saleha Farouq Etemadi were also members of the cabinet. Other respected women from affluent backgrounds, such as Roqiya Abu Bakr, Qamar Jan, Shahdukht Belquis and Merman Zarin Noori, created a spark of hope among women in the country. Naturally, the presence of three ministers, four lawyers, two senators and tens of professors who were female was once again scrutinized by conservatives who continued their attacks on women’s participation in social and political sphere.

Picture: Afghan women in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and licensed through Creative Commons.

The war on Afghan women

With the arrival of the Communist regime in Afghanistan, the women’s movement did not change their nature but rather continued their work with a different structure. Women continued to occupy seats in the government, but also began forming organizations.

Anahita Ratebzad and Masooma Esmati were appointed as heads of Ministries and Suraya Parlyka, Hamida Sherzai, Kubra Ali, Momina Basir, and Jamila Keshtmand continued highlighting the political and social demands of women by forming the Women’s Democratic Organization. Given the political atmosphere was still largely violent, some of the women involved in conflicts and rivalries between parties lost their lives. Outside the political parties and events, women participated in media more widely than before and the number of female university students increased dramatically.

On the other hand, misogynists abused religious beliefs to systematically attack women. This trend became more serious during the Mujahedeen. With the assistance of the United States, the Mujahedeen overthrew the Communist regime and enforced strict rules on women around the country. One such law was the “Women’s Supreme Decree,” which included severe restrictions on women’s clothing and outside presence. Girl’s schools were burned and university women were harassed and had acid thrown on their faces. For the first time, the blue Burqas became prevalent in large cities. The civil war that followed Mujahedeen’s short-lived victory, caused the decline of the country’s economic, social, and cultural structures and forced most women back into their houses and far from the movement.

The Mujahedeen regime and the civil war that came with it created the first phase of migration of the women’s rights activists and leaders out of Afghanistan. This wave of the migrants were educated elite women who were forced to leave and take with them the most valuable resource of the country: educated youth. The voices of millions of women who remained inside the country went unheard under the rockets, shelling and terror of internal conflict. Many women became victims of rape or widows, and many still face extreme poverty as a consequence of this war. Despite men doing the fighting in the streets, women were the primary victims of the civil war in Afghanistan.

The dark era of Taliban

After half a decade of war, the Taliban, a sect of the Mujahedeen who felt underrepresented in the government and argued that it was too progressive for women, came out victorious.

Under the Taliban rule, women were faced with even more restrictions. They were virtually condemned to isolation and imprisonment at home. Wearing a burqa became mandatory. Leaving the home without a close male family member became illegal. The presence of women in gatherings and workplace was outright banned. Women’s voices and faces was erased from media. Various laws such as stoning was carried out and girls’ schools were closed and widows were pushed to the corners of their homes. After a short time, these rules were enforced by the “vice and virtue” force, who publicly beat and executed women for “crimes” like wearing nail polish and committing adultery respectively.

Even under the disastrous regime of Taliban, many women in Kabul and beyond took immense risks and protested. Many started secret schools for girls or secret literary circles. Risking beatings and worse, many brave women continued the fight for equality by educating young girls.

The Taliban caused the second phase of migration of women activists. Fearing assassinations and violence, many educated women left the country once again. Many of them continued their activism in neighboring countries, Europe or the United States. Some prominent activists including Suraya Parlyka, Shafiqa Habibi, General Suhaila Siddiq, and dozens of others decided to stay despite the severe laws imposed on women by the Taliban.

There are many stories of women who confronted the Taliban and there is a need to collect all these stories. There are even narratives of confrontation with the “vice and virtue” police, where women would carry copies of the Quran with them and ask the Taliban to show where the verse is that women are not allowed to leave the house or wear burqas. One particularly famous story in Kabul tells of a woman named Sajida who took off all her clothes in protest of the Taliban’s strict rules on women’s clothes. The Taliban sidelined us, but they could not silence Afghan women- not for long, anyways.

*Humaira Saqeb is a journalist and women’s rights activist who has worked in Afghanistan for nearly two dozen years. She is a member Afghan Women’s Political Participation Committee and the head of Negah-e-Zan magazine as well as Afghan Women’s News Agency.

This piece was translated to English by Maryam Laly. A volunteer for Free Women Writers, Maryam is passionate about human rights issues. She has a degree in Government with minors in Peace Studies and Arabic from St. Lawrence University.

To be continued…

Read this piece in Persian here.

Read part II of this article here.