The rights of women in Afghanistan have fluctuated since before the 1900s. Women have notoriously battled with rulers, government officials, and even members of their own families to obtain the freedom to work, get an education, pursue hobbies, and even choose their own life partners.
For the last decade, life as an Afghan woman seemingly improved as laws slightly relaxed pertaining to their rights. Women gained the freedom to drive and work, but now as Afghanistan’s capital has fallen to the Taliban, the future of women, their rights, and their livelihoods remains uncertain.
To better understand the travesties Afghan women are facing, I investigated the history of women’s equality in Afghanistan, in hopes of educating the world to help further prevent more atrocities such as the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.
King Amanullah Khan – 1920’s
Although there were a few attempts to modernize the rights of women prior to Amanullah’s reign, the 1920’s ruler was the first to pave the way for women and feminism in Afghanistan by publishing a new constitution, ensuring civil rights for both men and women. He also stressed the importance of female education by opening new schools for young girls.
Amanullah’s wife, Queen Soraya Tarzi, became a feminist icon for women in Afghanistan and led many of the initiatives established by the King, famously ripping off her hijab during a public speech led by Amanullah, declaring women did not have to cover their bodies or wear a veil.
Queen Soraya Tarzi founded the first magazine for women, established the first woman’s organization, and opened both schools and hospitals across the country. Though she and her ruling husband made tremendous improvements for the rights of women, their laws were later discontinued when the two were exiled to Italy, forcing women once again to wear head coverings, suspend their studies, and be segregated from men in most areas of the country. Luckily, the new ruling was short-lived, and women were about to experience an unprecedented time within Afghani history.
Women in Afghanistan – 1950’s, 60’s, and Early 70’s
In 1953, Afghanistan elected a new prime minister, Mohammed Daoud Khan, who implemented several social reforms, including his work to give women a higher public presence, allowing them job opportunities and the ability to attend college.
Similar to King Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya Tarzi, Khan declared women did not need to wear head coverings, as there was no reference under Islamic Law that mandated it. While this brought controversy and uproar, it began to open doors for Afghan women to embrace their individualistic freedoms, eventually leading to the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan, granting women equal rights and the ability to run for office.
Communism and Afghanistan
In 1978, The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) was formed, overpowering President, and former Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud Khan. As the years progressed, the DRA was renamed the Republic of Afghanistan in 1986, becoming a remarkable time for women.
Women were granted equal rights, allowing them to choose their careers and husbands, and were protected by a variety of organizations including the Democratic Women’s Organization of Afghanistan and the Afghan Women’s Council.
Occupations of all types welcomed women, especially within schools, which saw 190 female professors and 22,000 teachers by the early 1990s. It is also believed that thousands of women were enrolled in college, along with over 230,000 girls registered in primary, middle, and secondary schools.
Women of all classes were protected by both the Afghan government and the Soviets and were even welcomed into the army, experiencing formal militia training, and working within traditional military combats.
Freedom continued to reign for the women of Afghanistan until the mid-90’s when the rise of the Taliban would implement severe and harsh restrictions, stripping away every piece of equality and privilege.
Taliban Takeover of Kabul – 1996 to Present Day
After the fall of Communism in Afghanistan, the government officially transitioned to the Islamic State of Afghanistan, ruled by a mix of rebel groups that fought against the Soviet Union and the DRA, setting in motion strict laws against the use of alcohol and commanding women to wear their head coverings.
Life for Afghan women took a turn for the worse as they were forced out of most jobs, especially within journalism and news reporting, and were beaten, kidnapped, and disregarded under the Islamic State.
However, life would become far worse in 1996 when the Taliban officially took over the capital, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, forbidding women to work or earn money, get an education, to walk alone without a male companion, or even leave their home without wearing a burqa, the full-body covering. Human trafficking and sex slavery also increased during the Taliban’s ruling, selling Afghan women into forced sex work, predominantly to Pakistan and other surrounding countries.
In October 2001, after the September 11th attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan with suspicions the terrorist group was harboring Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect in the 9/11 attacks.
The invasion resulted in the overthrowing of the Taliban, the establishment of a new government and president, and the commitment to restore women’s rights with the creation of the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Although Afghanistan remained a threatening country for a woman to live in after the Taliban was defeated, the stress of being a woman significantly lessened. For 20 years, the female population had a slight semblance of a simpler time, one in which they could get an education, establish a meaningful career, and embrace their femininity and sexuality.
Today, the threat of the Taliban is stronger than ever, with their takeover of Kabul in August 2021, women across Afghanistan are facing a life of fear and uncertainty. At the moment, the Taliban is claiming they will allow women to obtain education, work, and have many of the same rights as men, but their words have notoriously been full of false promises, as we have seen the sadistic group replace equality with brutal oppression in the past.
What remains of Afghanistan is yet to be seen and if you’re one of the many who feel hopeless, yet compelled to help, consider donating to organizations that have committed their efforts to helping Afghan women such as Women for Women International or Women for Afghan Women.
Share your voice in asking the government to increase the number of refugee admissions here in the United States. Currently, we have a cap at 65,000 refugees which is a significant increase from the 15,000 initially set but is still historically lower than previous years.
To sign the petition, visit the International Rescue Committee, and do whatever you can to give women and children of Afghanistan the hope and support to defeat the Taliban once again.