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Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion

Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion

by Elaheh Rostami-Povey

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Through years of Taliban oppression, during the US-led invasion and the current insurgency, women in Afghanistan have played a hugely symbolic role. Afghan Women looks at how women have fought repression and challenged stereotypes, both within Afghanistan and in diasporas in Iran, Pakistan, the US and the UK. Looking at issues from violence under the Taliban and the


Through years of Taliban oppression, during the US-led invasion and the current insurgency, women in Afghanistan have played a hugely symbolic role. Afghan Women looks at how women have fought repression and challenged stereotypes, both within Afghanistan and in diasporas in Iran, Pakistan, the US and the UK. Looking at issues from violence under the Taliban and the impact of 9/11 to the role of NGOs and the growth in the opium economy, Rostami-Povey gets behind the media hype and presents a vibrant and diverse picture of these women's lives. The future of women's rights in Afghanistan, she argues, depends not only on overcoming local male domination, but also on challenging imperial domination and blurring the growing divide between the West and the Muslim world. Ultimately, these global dynamics may pose a greater threat to the freedom and autonomy of women in Afghanistan and throughout the world.

About the Author:
Elaheh Rostami-Povey is a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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Zed Books
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Afghan Women

Identity and Invasion

By Elaheh Rostami-Povey

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Elaheh Rostami-Povey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-048-7



'When the civil war came to Afghanistan the little but significant that was achieved by women came to a standstill. War steals the very breath that life offers, and Afghanistan stopped breathing.' Zohra Yusuf Daoud, living in Los Angeles

Women in Afghanistan have long been portrayed as passive victims awaiting liberation. Following the attacks on New York on 11 September 2001, Washington, supported by London, used this as partial justification for a bombing campaign against Afghanistan. Thousands died in carpet bombing. After the fall of the Taliban, women were promised peace, security, development, democracy and liberation. US policy-makers characterized gender relations in Afghanistan in ways that legitimated their action. They made an analogy between the defeat of the Taliban and Al-Qaida, and women's liberation. Yet today, as under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan feel alienated as they face patriarchy and a lack of security and social and economic structures. Moreover, they have now found their culture under attack from an alien regime. Their world is full of anxiety as the social conditions which existed under the Taliban are being reconstituted and reproduced.

UNICEF has reported that at least one in two girls who should go to school remain at home, and one in five children do not survive long enough even to reach school age. Others will drop out of school to join the army of child labour, to support their families. Worsening poverty has forced women into sex work; though it existed before the Taliban, since 2001 it has mushroomed to unprecedented levels. There has also been a dramatic rise in cases of self-immolation by women. The United Nations-backed Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has pointed out that economic problems and widespread forced marriages are behind the increasing incidents of women committing suicide, especially in southern parts of Afghanistan where there is growing insurgency and poppy cultivation. Violence against women, including so-called honour killing, is also on the rise. This happens despite the fact that women hold more than 25 per cent of the seats in the Afghan parliament and women's rights activists stand up to protest and defend women's rights; however, they often face intimidation and violence. Afghan authorities do not investigate women's complaints. Women's rights are not upheld and women's non-governmental organizations' (NGOs) workers are not protected and are being killed. In many ways this is not surprising, as known human rights abusers from the civil war (1992–96) and Taliban (1996–2001) periods have been appointed as law enforcers. Criminal warlords and commanders are a powerful faction in the parliament and, alongside a number of cabinet ministers, are deeply implicated in the drug businesses and civil strife.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces have no workable strategy to create a stable and peaceful Afghanistan as the devastation continues to worsen – due to large-scale drug cultivation, growing insurgency, crime and corruption. The peacekeeping mission of NATO is turning into a full-scale war against insurgents. NATO air strikes ruin houses and kill civilians. The Taliban and Al-Qaida are gaining public support due to the failure of the government and its western allies to provide security and development.

Despite daily tragedies, Afghan women know how to struggle for their rights. They refused the gender identities that the Taliban attempted to impose and now they are refusing to conform to those imposed by invading forces. In their own way and according to their own culture, religion and ethnicity, they have been resisting the social control that the family and community try to impose on them. This, in essence, is the subject of this book. During the Taliban, in the diaspora and in Afghanistan today under foreign invasion, women's lives are shaped by gender power relations. Afghan Women centres on gender, agency and identity, and the extent to which men and women, through their engagement with violence, diasporic communities and with the invading forces, are agents for change.

The stories I narrate in chapters 2, 3 and 4 are based on research carried out in interviews with women and men in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, UK and USA. Women's life histories are diverse but all have the common ground of a struggle against the gender prejudices ranged at them, from Islamic tradition to Orientalist representations. These women are knowledgeable and empowered, they are aware of what the prevailing climate prevents them from doing but equally they are able to seize the opportunities that this climate creates. The knowledge garnered from these women's life histories is vital for an analytical understanding of the political, social and economic injustices which they face. All the names are fictitious, to respect the anonymity of those who discussed their life histories with me, unless they gave me permission to refer to them in their personal and institutional capacity. Speaking Farsi, which is spoken in Iran and resembles Dari spoken by the majority of Afghans, was an advantage and allowed me to discuss with Afghan women and men the reality of their lives which is different from the perception of Afghan women as passive victims of male and religious domination awaiting liberation by western values – an image which is too often portrayed in the West.

Gender, ethnicity, agency and identity

What gender actually means for Afghan women is vital to this book. Conventional gender divisions, as they have been understood in the West, fail to explain the fluidities of Afghan women's identities. Afghan women's agency and identity suggest a different view of gender, a greater fluidity in defining women and men so that they are not labelled merely by faith or gender. Throughout this book, Afghan women discuss gender in the context of social relations, Islamic religion, culture, domination, subordination and masculinity. They see gender as a process embedded in all social relations and institutions. It is a relationship that is constituted through their lived experience within continually redefined and contested social activities and institutions.

Ethnic groups are particularly important to an understanding of gender in Afghanistan, although ethnicity itself is complex and variously defined by language, religion, descent, region and profession. The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, estimated to be 40 per cent of the population. They are based predominantly in the south and east of the country. They share the same norms and values as Pashtuns in north-west Pakistan and there is a great deal of solidarity between them. They are largely Sunni and have their own code of ethics known as Pashtunwali (Pashtuns' way of life) and their own language (Pashto). Pashtunwali, the customary law of the Pashtuns, is practised among eastern Pashtuns as part of their system of values and norms. According to Pashtunwali, it is the absolute duty of men to protect the respectability of women and to protect the integrity of the homeland. This does not imply that women stay passive. In Pashtun folklore, Malalai is praised for her decisive role in winning the battle of Mayward against the British in 1878–80. The Pashtun ethnic charter is based on patrilineality. However, sub-ethnic groups within Pashtuns, such as Afridi or Ghilzai, are connected to other Pashtuns through matrilineality. This history enables women, especially older women, to exercise power by practising Pashtunwali more strictly than men and being less ready to compromise when matters of honour of the family and community are at stake.

Besides the Pashtuns in the east of Afghanistan, there are Pashtuns who live in the west, in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan and there is a significant minority of Shi'a Pashtuns in the Kandahar region. The traditional norms and values of these Pashtuns are more similar to those of other ethnic groups than to those of the Pashtuns in the east of Afghanistan. The concepts of honour and shame may be similar to Pashtunwali with its implied male domination and regulate gender relations in varying degrees, but these communities do not claim a specific ethnic monopoly over these norms and values as Pashtunwali does for the Pashtuns in east Afghanistan. The Tajiks constitute the second largest group in Afghanistan. They are Sunni and Dari speakers and are organized along local lineages, village clusters, valleys and occupational groups. They live in Kabul and other cities and identify with the geographical areas that they come from as well as their ethnicity. The Hazaras, who are predominantly Shi'a, are the third ethnic group. They live mainly in the central Afghan highlands known as Hazarajat and since the fall of the Taliban many Hazaras live in Kabul and Mazar Sharif. They speak a dialect of Persian known as Hazaragi. Some Hazaras are Sayids; they believe they are the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad; there are also Sunni and Ismaili Hazara minorities. Despite religious diversity, since the 1992 civil war Hazaras have become more united as one ethnic group. The Uzbeks are the fourth major ethnic group. They have lived in Afghanistan for centuries and were ruled by their own Emirs. Other Uzbeks migrated into Afghanistan after the expansion of Tsarist empire and during the Soviet expansion. They are mostly Sunni, live in the north of Afghanistan and speak their own Turkish language, although in the cities they also speak Dari. There are also many other smaller ethnic groups, cultures and languages.

The diverse linguistic, cultural and ethnic identities in Afghanistan have been formed and reconstructed as a consequence of broader historical processes involving local and regional wars and colonial intervention. Within these identities, gender relations are not set in stone; they have evolved in the context of social struggles. Afghan history is characterized as much by conflicts arising from ethnic identities as by interethnic relations through marriage which demonstrate very different principles of coexistence, harmony, tolerance and pride in diversity. Ethnic conflicts have predominantly been the result of ethnicized politics manipulated by leaders and foreign invaders. Throughout the periods of civil war and Taliban rule, ethnic conflicts reached unprecedented levels. Hazaras were massacred in Kabul in 1994; Hazaras massacred the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 and the Taliban massacred Hazaras and Uzbeks in 1998. Yet despite high levels of ethnic conflict, women of diverse groups – Shi'a, Sunni, Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek – worked together in secret schools. In diaspora and under foreign invasion, women of different ethnicities and religions have been cooperating in the interest of their community as a whole.

Considering the importance of ethnicity in gender relations, the stories in this book highlight how women negotiate gender in different forms and how they sometimes find themselves in positions of domination, able to exercise power within the family and the community as well as subordination. As I will discuss in Chapter 2, the minority of pro-Taliban women exercised dominance over the majority of anti-Taliban women by supervising their work and persecuting them if they did not obey the Taliban's rule. Anti-Taliban women also broke one historical norm by observing another historical norm. They used the institutions of mahram (to be accompanied by their husbands or blood male relatives) and chaddari or burqa and hired men in their community and family to play the role of mahram for them. This way they exercised dominance over men by becoming their employers and demonstrated that where they are not submissive they are capable of behaving in a non-submissive manner.

The solidarity and cooperation between women and men enabled them to use mahram and chaddari as gender masks to display the public submission of women to men and the public submission of women and men to Taliban women and men. Their material circumstances determined their survival strategy. Women were also empowered politically as they realized their ability to organize secret schools and gatherings and create networks of solidarity to save their communities from total disintegration.

Despite the horrifying conditions of life under the Taliban, Afghan women found a space in which to exercise autonomy and agency. They broke the pre-defined spaces of confinement and silence and contested the idea that Muslim society is about building barriers to shut women out, condemning them to a life of domesticity and oppression. Afghan men also realized that gender solidarity was essential to their survival and the image of male domination, which is expected from them by ethnic and religious norms, was unrealistic and did not mean that they hold all the power while women are subordinate. Similarly, as I will discuss in Chapter 4 on the diaspora, Afghan women constantly struggle to break free from the confines of traditions, male domination and a life of marginalization, especially in Iran and Pakistan. Women do not consider their situation as being separate from that of men. They recognize that their needs and their demands are different from men's, but they see their lives as being affected by the same economic, social and political forces.

Contrary to popular views in the West, many Afghan men oppose traditional ideologies of male superiority and dominance. Therefore, I contest the common assumption that patriarchal ideologies are embedded much more strongly for Afghan men than they are for 'liberated' western men. I will also explore the challenges to masculine identity experienced by individual Afghan men and the varied ways in which they try to reconstruct their identity within the harsh realities of their lives under the Taliban, in diaspora and under foreign invasion. Gender relations are, therefore, historically specific. They are determined by social, economic, class, political and legal as well as cultural and religious factors.

In Afghanistan, as in all Muslim majority societies, the interaction of Islamic culture and religion with secularism, nationalism, ethnicity and other important historical, social and economic mechanisms structures the lives of women and men. Too often, Islamic culture and religion are considered to be the primary agent determining the identities of women in Muslim majority societies and are used to justify war, occupation and invasion. Of course, patriarchal attitudes and structures remain extremely strong in Afghanistan, but by discussing Afghan women's resistance and struggles against different structures of power (male, ethnic, religion, age, regional and international), I reject essentialisms about women in Afghanistan – and, indeed, in other Muslim majority societies. This book focuses on Afghan women's struggle to change the patriarchal gender relations which traditionally recognize only men as breadwinners, heads of household and decision-makers. I will argue that they have formed new and diverse conceptions concerning their identity and agency. They have been able to shape their own lives, histories and identities. Their struggles demonstrate that material conditions have important social and political consequences on their lives.

As the writer of this book, I come from different identities and positions: an Iranian/British woman, university teacher, living in London, secular but deeply engaged with Iranian/Islamic culture. For twenty-five years, I have been involved with the women's movement in Iran and since 2001 with the anti-war movement in Britain. Therefore my identities, background, values and experiences have obviously shaped the way I understand and represent the experiences of Afghan women. My aim is to promote women's voices politically, socially and culturally, hoping that the voices of Afghan women in this book, representing many other voices, will be heard, enabling them to win their battle against both male domination and imperialist domination.

A short history

Afghanistan's history demonstrates how gender relations have been affected by ethnic conflict, state formation, state–society relations and imperial domination. In the nineteenth century, the British empire in the region was threatened by the expansion of the Russian empire. The British, therefore, attempted to conquer Afghanistan and did this through the manipulation of different ethnic groups. Afghanistan became a buffer state between these two empires, and successive monarchs ruled with no legitimacy as they subjugated the interest of the people of Afghanistan to foreign rule. For example, between 1881 and 1901 Abdur Rahman Khan, with the help of the British, ruthlessly crushed ethnic dissent and attempted to create a strong centralized state. The country's present borders were established according to the strategic needs of the imperial powers rather than the socio-political needs of Afghans' diverse groups. Subsequent ethnic conflicts and the backlash against modernization can be traced back to this period. In 1893 an agreement was signed between Abdur Rahman Shah and Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the colonial government of India. As part of this agreement, the Durand Line was drawn to mark the boundary between Afghanistan and the British Indian empire. In 1947, following the partition of India, it became the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This line, which runs through Pashtun areas, even to this day has never been recognized by the Pashtuns in these two countries; periodically, the issue of an independent state of Pashtunistan is raised.


Excerpted from Afghan Women by Elaheh Rostami-Povey. Copyright © 2007 Elaheh Rostami-Povey. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Elaheh Rostami-Povey is a Development Studies lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her areas of specialization are gender issues in Iran and Afghanistan

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