Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women

Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women

by Jennifer Heath

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Reaching beyond sensational headlines, Land of the Unconquerable at last offers a three-dimensional portrait of Afghan women. In a series of wide-ranging, deeply reflective essays, accomplished scholars, humanitarian workers, politicians, and journalists—most with extended experience inside Afghanistan—examine the realities of life for women in bothSee more details below


Reaching beyond sensational headlines, Land of the Unconquerable at last offers a three-dimensional portrait of Afghan women. In a series of wide-ranging, deeply reflective essays, accomplished scholars, humanitarian workers, politicians, and journalists—most with extended experience inside Afghanistan—examine the realities of life for women in both urban and rural settings. They address topics including food security, sex work, health, marriage, education, poetry, politics, prisoners, and community development. Eschewing stereotypes about the burqa, the contributors focus instead on women’s empowerment and agency, and their struggles for peace and justice in the face of a brutal ongoing war. A fuller picture of Afghanistan’s women past and present emerges, leading to social policy suggestions and pragmatic solutions for a peaceful future.

Editorial Reviews

Huffington Post

“[Paints] a textured picture of the lives of both Afghan women and men. . . . Provides them with texture and nuance, and reflects their strength.”

“Indispensable reading for anyone sincerely interested in fostering peace and well-being for Afghanistan and its people.”
Himal Southasian - Taran N. Khan

“The book provides insights into the many-layered lives of Afghan women.”
Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice - Ann Elizabeth Mayer

"One comes away from this mosaic-like presentation with the sense of having traveled through a wide variety of Afghan milieus accompanied by highly knowledgable guides and having had informative first-hand experiences of problems facing Afghan women."

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Land of the Unconquerable

The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women

By Jennifer Heath, Ashraf Zahedi


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94899-0


The Politics of Zan from Amanullah to Karzai

Lessons for Improving Afghan Women's Status


Women are just like roses: A fresh rose is a happy sight. —Khushal Khan Khattak, Pashtun warrior poet, seventeenth-century C.E.

Since independence in 1919, the Afghan state's gender policies have involved a bewildering series of missteps, corrections, and more missteps, resulting in confusion, pain, and suffering for Afghan zan. Since the ouster of the Taliban regime, conditions for Afghan women improved under the Karzai government, but if history is any guide, gender policies and approaches are most likely to fail in Afghanistan unless they incorporate into the process the well-entrenched social and cultural norms of a traditional, patriarchal, primarily tribal society. In short, the historical record suggests that a gender template characterized by cautious, incremental efforts at improving female status stands the best chance of improving women's lives in the long term.


Afghanistan's "modernization" process—including the improvement of women's status—was first set in motion by Amir Amanullah's grandfather, Amir Abdur Rahman (1880–1901) and continued by his father Amir Habibullah (1901–1919), albeit limitedly. During Muhammad Amanullah Khan's reign (1919–1929), ambitious efforts were made to implement drastic social changes to improve women's status. Amanullah's views on women's role in society were not a response to widespread societal demands; rather they were influenced primarily by his in-laws (the highly intellectual Tarzi family) and by unfolding events in the region. Amanullah's gender policies, however, were completely divorced from the social realities of his extremely conservative, primarily tribal, and geographically remote country. Thus, under his father-in-law Prime Minister Mahmud Tarzi's tutelage, he undertook an ambitious and controversial program meant to transform Afghanistan into a modern state in the same mold as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Turkey.

Amanullah's government began by emphasizing secular-based (that is, non-madrassa) education and established the first primary school for girls, Masturat School, in 1921 in Kabul, under the patronage of Queen Soraya. From 1920 to 1927, two primary schools and one middle school for girls were established in Kabul, with an estimated 700 students. These numbers, however, suggest that despite strong encouragement by the Amir, most Afghans were reluctant to send their daughters to obtain what was characterized as a secular education. Furthermore, the establishment of girls' schools was limited to urban areas such as Kabul and Herat and thus failed to benefit the provinces.

Although many members of the urban elite welcomed such schools for their daughters,Amanullah's promotion of a coeducational system—with the establishment of the Amaniya School in Kabul (named for the Amir)—was viewed with skepticism and/or disapproval. In 1928, fifteen female graduates of the Masturat Middle School, daughters of prominent Kabulis, were sent to Turkey for higher education. Sending young, unmarried girls out of the country was regarded with alarm in many quarters as yet another sign that the state, in its efforts to Westernize, was willing to push against social and cultural norms.

Queen Soraya, the Amir's only wife, was viewed by most Afghans as a controversial figure. She publicly campaigned for drastic change in women's roles and advocated for women's rights to education, employment, and divorce. Soraya's behavior, however, perplexed most Afghans and frequently was seen as alien and "un-Islamic." In a society where the dominant ethnic group, the Pashtun, adhered to the strictures of Pashtunwali, calls for women's rights made publicly by a woman challenged the embedded religious and cultural beliefs of a tribal society that did not view women as equals but only as property. Furthermore, the queen's advocacy on behalf of women impinged upon Afghan men's carefully nurtured nang ("honor" in Pashto), as members of a khel (clan) or qaum (tribal group). Across time, due to proximity to the dominant Pashtuns, other ethnic groups adopted cultural mores that mirrored the tenets of the ancient tribal codes, valuing family honor and its protection as a true measure of a man's worth and status in society. Pashtunwali stressed the importance of protecting one's zan (women), zar (gold/wealth), and zamin (land), in order to maintain izzat (respect). Women were viewed as property whose protection was essential for the preservation of the clan's honor. The notion that women had "rights" was seen as a threat to the status quo and to Pashtunwali itself. Given the very limited support base for gender reforms—primarily concentrated in Kabul among the educated elite—it was indeed a courageous, but overly ambitious, endeavor by the royal entourage to attempt to implement controversial, foreign changes within a short duration.

In yet another controversial move, in August 1924, Amanullah introduced the Nizamnamah-ye-Arusi and Nikah wa Khatnasuri laws regarding engagements and marriage. Although Amanullah's father had instituted marriage reforms, these were considered far more radical. Whereas the Nizamnamah stressed gender equality and established the minimum age for marriage, the Nikah wa Khatnasuri specified certain conditions within the marital agreement that were meant to ensure legal protections for brides. The state's encouragement of Afghan women to take legal action if mistreated by their husbands was considered revolutionary and threatening to the cultural status quo.

Both these measures were unpopular, but the provision in the Nizamnamah that encouraged girls to choose their own marriage partners without their parents' interference was regarded as pushing the boundaries of modernization at the expense of both tradition and religion. "Love marriages" threatened the alliance mechanism between families or clans, which was the key consideration in strengthening the clan or family's position within the social, tribal structure.

In more traditional provinces, especially the Pashtun belt, which included Kandahar, Nangahar, Khost, Paktia, Paktika, and Ghazni, the new laws fell on deaf ears. They were also viewed with distaste by some of the more secular and better educated urban populace, who were the government's only loyal constituency. Yet the state appeared to be oblivious to the social pulse and continued its ambitious social reforms. These reforms were increasingly seen as the whims and fantasies of elites disconnected from, and oblivious to, mainstream society. In its apparently overzealous stance, the Amanullah-led government sought societal changes that would ultimately fail because they were forced upon the populace without consultation or regard for the tenor of the times. Although the leaders sought to replicate society along the lines of Ataturk's Turkey by advocating for ambitious social change, they did not appreciate the inherent dangers of such precipitous efforts. They did, however, wisely invoke Islam and advocated Islamic due process as delineated by Shari'a courts, which would have jurisdiction over such matters as they sought to transform women's position in society. Thus the Nizamnameh stated:

If the wife of a polygamist man feels that her husband has failed to treat all of his wives fairly and equally, she can file a complaint against her husband in a court of Shari'a, so that the unjust husbands should be punished accordingly. Moreover, punishment will be prescribed for husbands who would prevent their wives from petitioning against them.... Article 18 of this document prohibits a forced marriage between adults; it calls the arranger of such a forceful marriage jabir (tyrant) and states that the qazi (judge) who presides over this contract is to be reprimanded.

Notwithstanding these attempts to rely on Islamic jurisprudence to make the case for female emancipation, the reality in Afghanistan's Pashtun belt was clear: social interaction was first and foremost delineated by the stipulations of Pashtunwali, which took precedence over any Islamic tenets. However, Pashtunwali did not contradict Islamic strictures in matters related to preservation of "modesty," which was, and is, leveraged by Pashtuns in restricting female interaction with the outside world, whether for purposes of attaining education, employment, or marriage. From the perspective of most Afghans, the efforts under Amir Amanullah were considered irresponsible and unnecessary meddling in the internal (social) affairs of an independent people who resented intrusion by the Amir in the best of times. Afghanistan as a "state" still had a very brief history and was essentially a loose confederation under a weak central government that had extremely limited influence in its far-flung, relatively inaccessible provinces. The inability of Amanullah's government to exert control over the periphery all but ensured that efforts to replicate the Turkish social model would fail.

The first wake-up call came in the form of a major rebellion in the province of Khost in March 1924. It was militarily suppressed, but the challenge brought home the threat posed by rapid reform measures that, coupled with the reduction of tribal subsidies, had become untenable. Historically, what little influence any ruler in Kabul was able to exert over the periphery was due to the annual payments dispensed to individual tribes to maintain their allegiances. Amanullah was so caught up in the importance of his social and economic plans, he believed that cutting the subsidies to pay for his programs would be understood, and accepted, by all Afghans.

Widespread, growing discontent in the provinces finally convinced Amanullah of the need to temporarily halt some of his reforms and to modify others. Girls were suddenly directed to receive their educations at home, religious studies were encouraged, and men were once again allowed to have four wives without having to obtain the approval of the original spouse as stipulated in the Nizamnameh. This rapid backpedaling on gender policy by Amanullah's government served only to embolden those who sought to ensure the traditional status quo, while dashing the hopes of many young girls in the urban areas. Nevertheless, although the modernization program never resumed the same pace, the seeds of female empowerment certainly were planted, and credit for this must go to Amir Amanullah and Queen Soraya.

A notorious incident in August 1928 highlighted how detached the royal family had become from the social pulse. Amir Amanullah, presiding over a Loya Jirga, a Grand Assembly of Tribal Elders (who had been forced to wear European clothes provided by the government), brought Queen Soraya to the event along with nearly 100 other women, mostly wives of government employees who supported her. They removed their veils in the presence of the tribal elders, who were shocked, whereas proponents of modernization applauded. This theatrical and provocative act, which had been preceded by unpalatable economic demands, was the last straw. The elders at the Jirga reluctantly endorsed Amanullah's proposals at this public forum but wasted no time mobilizing public opinion against him once they returned home.

The countryside began to take up arms against Amanullah even as elements within the government turned against him. The Amir abruptly shelved his modernization program. Girls who had been sent to Constantinople were recalled and schools for girls in Afghanistan were closed. Women were again prohibited from appearing unveiled in public and from cutting their hair. The center was dissolving. Afghanistan was reverting to its original state as a loose tribal confederation by the time Amanullah was overthrown in March 1929 by a Tajik tribal leader, Habibullah Kalakani, called Bacha-e-Saqqaw ("The Water Carrier's Son"). Amanullah's fall from power can be directly attributed to the government's overbearing demands for additional taxes and its reduction of tribal subsidies in order to implement controversial political, social, and economic reforms. These controversial demands in turn led to violence throughout the country, during which Amir Amanullah and the royal family managed to flee into exile.


The state's gender policy during the period prior to the communist takeover in 1978 initially reflected a pragmatic, cautious approach to progress for women. Although Muhammad Nadir Shah (1929–1933), who took power from Bacha-e-Saqqaw, was cognizant of the repercussions of inciting the tribal populace and the mullahs, he nevertheless reopened some urban girls' schools, but only after first seeking approval from the tribal and religious leadership. Nadir Shah removed any symbols of Amanullah's era by renaming girls' schools and converting one to a nursing school, all the while justifying his actions as not being contrary to Islamic precepts and with the tacit support of the clerics, mullahs, and tribal leaders. Oversight of school curricula was returned to the clerics in order to ensure that the curricula were in accordance with Islamic teachings. However, members of the royal family and the elite sent many of their children abroad for school. The Sunni Hanifi School of Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) became the arbiter for civil and criminal laws and repealed Amanullah's ambitious marital and gender relations reforms.

When Muhammad Zahir Shah (1933–1973) assumed the throne after Nadir Shah's assassination in 1933, he continued his father's approach of slow progression on gender and social issues, which would, by and large, remain the blueprint for matters related to female status until 1978. Social, economic, and political conditions for all Afghans improved during the forty-year reign of Zahir Shah. This period was one of development and progress for Afghanistan as a whole, thanks in large part to relative internal tranquility and the absence of foreign aggression. A pragmatist like his father, Zahir Shah began empowering Afghan females by improving access to education through the establishment of elementary schools for girls throughout the country. In 1950, the first women's college was established in Kabul on the premises of Malalai School, formerly called Masturat. In 1957, the first girls' high school was established in Herat. In 1964, women were granted the right to vote and to run for office under the third constitution. In January 1966, Kubra Nurzai became the first female cabinet minister of public health, followed in 1969 by Shafiqah Ziyai. Meanwhile, three women—Dr. Anahita Ratibzad, Ruqiyyah Habib Abu Bakr, and Masumah Ismati Wardak—became members of parliament, and Humaira Malikyar, Saljuqi Gardizi, and Azizah Gardizi were elected to the Senate.


Excerpted from Land of the Unconquerable by Jennifer Heath, Ashraf Zahedi. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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"[Paints] a textured picture of the lives of both Afghan women and men. . . . Provides them with texture and nuance, and reflects their strength."—Huffington Post

"Indispensable reading for anyone sincerely interested in fostering peace and well-being for Afghanistan and its people."—Choice

"The book provides insights into the many-layered lives of Afghan women."—Himal Southasian

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