What do Afghan Women Really Want?


Afghanistan is still one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman, and some critics warn that we are getting it wrong.

This is a message that will be hard to swallow for the participants of this week’s London Conference on Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, things are better today for Afghan women than they were before the US intervention. For example:

  • A woman giving birth in Afghanistan is less than half as likely to die today than she was in 2000.
  • The number of girls attending school has increased by over 30 percent since 2002, and numbers of child-brides has been declining in recent years.
  • Young women in Afghanistan, particularly those living in large urban areas have been exposed to a life very different from those lived by their mothers, and even older sisters. Women from this generation are making their claims to greater opportunities -education and employment, as well as protection from violence.

This progress has been hard won through the efforts of local groups and activists and the support of the international community. Last week in Olso, in the run up to the London Conference, Senator Bob Casey pledged the United States’ continuing support for women’s rights  in Afghanistan. As former co-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs and a current member of the Senate’s National Security Working Group, Senator Casey- and Senator Barbara Boxer- have been champions of what was, at the start of the US intervention in 2001, a dire situation for many women in Afghanistan.

Not everyone agrees with this agenda however.

Who could possibly disagree with gender equality in Afghanistan? The Taliban’s very narrowly defined set of gender roles, obviously, spring to mind. But even amongst more liberal actors- Afghani activists, backed by western academics and development actors for example- there is a questioning of approaches to ‘women’s empowerment’ and ‘gender equality’. Much of the critique is not exclusive to Afghani women, but stems from the view that there has been a wholesale exportation of a highly Americanized concept of ‘women’s liberation’, and the ways of in which we should be working towards protection of women’s rights. Notwithstanding the important gains that have been made in Afghanistan, the backlash has been strong, and some of the critics have a point.

  1. The issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan has been highly politicized. In the run up to the elections earlier this year, gender was firmly on the campaign agenda of many of the leading presidential contenders, but it was also leveraged very carefully by them. Pro-equality for women has been increasingly associated with the perception of western (particularly US) interference, and some would go so far as saying, a subjugation of Afghanistan’s cultures. Activists who advocate for women’s rights find that their work and voices are at risk of being discredited as being ‘pro-Western’. That label, in many circles is a very powerful, and highly negative, one.
  2. Despite the development gains, many development actors are worried about a backslide on the achievements as development assistance levels- which have been extremely high over the past decade- continue to drop off. Pumping aid through development programs no doubt has been helpful, but the reality is that the social institutions that both reflect and guide societal change, have not yet been transformed. Not are they likely to have been in the past decade: social transformation is a bit of a misnomer- change is in fact most often a long term process, the endeavor for which, luckily, the US and other countries have shown continued commitment.
  3. The legal framework for the protection of women’s rights has been highly contested, even resisted by more conservative elements in Afghanistan. The 2009 law on violence against women that Karzai signed into place is one example. And formal law is but one of the legal systems used in the country- and probably the least important one in terms of how women’s everyday lives are governed. Let’s not forget that many of the kinds of restrictions placed by the Taliban on women were in place also under the Rabbani-Massoud government. Certainly, women were treated worse under the Taliban, but this does not mean that they enjoyed their full range of rights prior to 1996. The  conservative elements in Afghan society are still alive and kicking, hard. And there are fears that peace talks between President Ghani and the Taliban will lead to some retrograde actions in the promotion and protection of women’s rights. The compromise that has already been made- in excluding female representatives on the GoIRA side from the peace talks- may only be the start of a progressive degradation of women’s freedoms as a bargaining chip for stability.
  4. Some forms of arriving at women’s empowerment used by development actors have been less than culturally appropriate. This is a phenomenon certainly not exclusive to Afghanistan, nor to gender issues, but it goes without saying that promoting gender equality in Afghanistan necessitates culturally-relevant, locally driven approaches. I remember hand-mirrors being passed around during women’s gatherings as part of a skills-training project in Aceh, paid for by Tsunami- reconstruction funds. Whilst that type of project may be an anomaly, high-aid environments are far more likely to suffer from poorly designed aid being thrown hastily at ‘problems’, that may actually exacerbate the situation that they are trying to address. One of the upsides of declining aid levels in Afghanistan and the greater scrutiny in its spending may be that we see more carefully designed, and more joint-up programming.

What could we be doing differently?
Firstly, without compromising the stance that women’s rights and freedoms are not negotiable, we need to take a step back from our ambitions and take a step by step approach. This is not a point only about speed and the mismatch between project time lines and longer-term social change, but about the intermediate objectives that we believe need to be met towards achieving gender equality. Look for openings that local groups want to exploit, find out where they are willing- and not willing- to push for change, despite resistance, and how they are willing to do it.These are the struggles we should support, rather than create our own.

Recognize the risks. There is a real fear of a backsliding,  not just on development gains, but also on the legal framework for the protection of women’s rights (such as was seen during drafting and public debate of the 2009 Elimination of Violence against Women law). Another risk is an increase in violence towards women as gender roles change, particularly towards those pioneering women who are at the forefront of being and doing differently. Domestic violence continues to be pervasive across the country, and UNICEF reported that violence against women peaked in 2013. Creating safety nets- whether for women’s rights defenders, or for female income earners and women who chose to leave their homes to pursue work or greater mobility, is important, as is ensuring that education and awareness raising involves men as well as women.

Supporting locally driven agendas and approaches naturally means ensuring culturally relevancy, even if that doesn’t fit squarely with donor perspectives. One thing that many NGOs have been getting better at is using existing cultural customs and religion to support the changes sought. The language that development actors use to express their values and aims also require careful consideration, as does the language behind the women’s empowerment or gender equality agenda writ large For example, in his speech in Oslo, Senator Casey noted that protecting Afghan women’s rights is “Consistent with both American Values and National security interests.” This kind of language not only risks negating Afghan agency and ownership, but also plays into the hands of those who want to portray gender equality as an aim that is alien to indigenous Afghan struggles and aspirations.

We need to be smarter in understanding and supporting what Afghan women really want, and the ways in which they want to achieve their goals.

Look out for my forthcoming blog on women, conflict and mining in Afghanistan as part of out Special Series on Business and Human Rights


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