Author:Samar, Sima


Afghanistan opened 2019 with robust talks of peace, which now dominate headlines about the country. The Taliban and the United States are invested in finding a solution to end their nearly 18 year long war. However, we must look at history to avoid the repetition of past mistakes, which undermine human rights principles, especially human rights. The images and realities of repressed Afghan women hidden beneath their blue burqas shocked not only the international community but was used to help justify the 2001 US-led intervention in Afghanistan. Yet, the current peace negotiation being brokered seems to have forgotten the dire human rights situation of Afghan women and has neglected the fact that their future role within the country will have a significant impact on attaining a truly sustainable and long-lasting peace. The politicization of Afghan women has been a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout the course of Afghanistan's history. By taking a closer look at the role that Afghan women have played within the country, I offer an Afghan-feminist framework to deconstruct the current situation. I argue that only by taking an honest look into Afghanistan's history and both recognizing and eliminating the culture of exclusion that has been imposed onto Afghan women can we set concrete foundations for the way forward.


Gaining its independence from the British in 1919, Afghanistan joined the non-aligned movement in the post-war era. Agnostic to the East and the West, the country continued to receive aid from both spheres of influence. Poverty has been prevalent throughout Afghanistan's history, with a long reign of feudalism carving Afghanistan into small fiefdoms and a centralized power base in Kabul. Afghanistan went through a series of key shifts in power that eventually led to the Soviet Invasion of 1979. Before the invasion, there were signs of progress for women. Afghanistan had a number of women in cabinet; in the country's urban cities women were going to school; and there was a female presence within the police force. I myself studied in a co-educational environment in the country's southern province of Helmand, where I spent my childhood. In 1973, Mohammed Daoud Khan seized power from the long-time monarch King Zahir Shah. Daud was launched into power with the help of the USSR-backed Parcham faction. (1) His main goal was to push for modernization and to re-visit the ethnic-based territorial dispute over Pashtunistan with Afghanistan's southern neighbor Pakistan.

It was during this time that Afghanistan was reducing the role of Parcham in the government, undoubtedly disgruntling the USSR. (2) This rift in relations guided Daoud Khan to play down the Pashtunistan issue and improve relations with Pakistan, as well as open ties with Iran and Western nations. He wanted to reduce the Soviet role within Afghanistan and affirmed this when he banned all other political parties after establishing his own Mili-Ghorzang. (3) This was a critical blow to the USSR-supported People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which was gaining momentum with the uniting of Parcham and Khalq parties in Afghanistan. After engaging in a tense discourse with USSR President Brezhnev, and declaring that, "[Afghanistan] will never allow [The Soviet Union] dictating to us how to run our country, and whom to employ in Afghanistan," Daoud made it clear that he wanted to reduce Afghan-Soviet relations. He underscored his political decision by ordering the arrest of PDPA leaders for reasons of subversion. This subsequently led to the coup d'etat by the PDPA and the assassination of Daud and his family.

Termed "The Saur Revolution," the USSR-backed government, led by Nur Mohammed Taraki who was the leader of the Khalq faction of the PDPA and Babrak Karmal who led the Parcham division, sought radical change in Afghanistan. It was within this time frame where they began utilizing women's rights as a political tool.

Rather than trying to bring about long-term, substantive programs to empower women, the regime implemented superficial gestures such as promoting women entertainers. Prior to the PDPA regime, as a part of weddings, the groom was required to give the women a mehr (money or property), which would be in her name. The regime set a limit of 300 Afghanis for a women's mehr, the reduction of which further exacerbated women's financial insecurity. The PDPA also went so far as to place limits on the cost of weddings, often raiding receptions and sometimes looting the venues. This inherently stripped the Afghan people of their freedom of expression and association. The PDPA also tried to implement its programs by force. For example, the regime required women to attend a literacy program. When government officials met with resistance in Kuner Province, they slaughtered hundreds of people in one night.


At the same time that the PDPA was mobilizing, mujahideen factions were forming in resistance to the communist political expansion, with Islam as their choice of political ideology. In reaction to the actions of the PDPA, when they took over the area, the mujahideen opposed formal education. The era saw the spread of pan-Islamic ideas throughout the Middle East and the rise of a religious national leader in Iran and the Islamization of President Zia in Pakistan. The USSR saw Afghanistan as a fellow Soviet state, although it was neither part of the eastern bloc nor a true socialist state. It was within the same timeframe that the PDPA continued to highlight the party's fagade of female empowerment. The PDPA underscored the high numbers of Afghan women enrolled in universities by ignoring the dwindling number of Afghan males enrolled, as many had left Kabul in exodus, escaping execution by the ruling communist regime.

On 24 December 1979 the first USSR planes arrived in Afghanistan. The Soviets proclaimed that they had decided to grant the PDPA's "insistent request... [for] immediate aid and support the struggle against external aggression." (4) They also added that the Soviet contingent would be completely pulled out of Afghanistan when the demand was no longer needed. The invasion ignited the outrage of the non-communist world. The US saw the invasion as a clear defiance against the West and gross disregard for detente. The timing of the Soviet invasion exacerbated the U.S. outlook on Soviet intentions.

The Soviet invasion jolted American beliefs that the USSR was taking advantage of declining American presence in the region following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It fueled U.S. concerns that Soviet control of Afghanistan would be a major step toward overland access to the Indian Ocean and to domination of the Asian subcontinent. (5) The invasion took place at a time when "the Americans were in the mood to be upset." (6) In what can be referred to as the "red template syndrome" the Soviet occupation of...

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