[This article is part of a roundtable on "Ignoring the Local in Afghanistan." Click here to read the introduction to the roundtable and the other articles in this collection.]
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the subsequent US involvement in Afghanistan, women who lived in cities and urban centers resumed their normal social life: They went to school, returned to the workplace, and no longer needed a mahram, a male companion according to the Taliban interpretation of sharia. In the twenty years of US presence in Afghanistan, the subject of women’s empowerment moved from the sidelines to the mainstream of Afghan politics–but only in formalities.
The absence of a well-thought-out, comprehensive socio-cultural program amenable to the restoration of human rights to women was the main culprit in the eventual failure of most of that progress. When the Taliban took over political power in the country in 2021 for the second time, women became second-class citizens once again and moved from coexistence to co-option. Women are restrained behind the burqa and behind walls. They are denied education, employment, access to public parks, and appearance in public without a mahram and without a hijab.
Afghan women who achieved a modicum of civil rights and liberties during the inceptive stage of democratic development, between 2001-2021, have now taken to the streets, albeit in small numbers due to the risk of Taliban lashing, torture, detention, and worse. The imposition of even more severe restrictions on women by the Taliban is unnerving when the silence and indifference of non-Taliban men add to the agony. The abandonment of the women’s cause by Afghan men reminds us that the defense of human rights in Afghanistan still needs the help of the international community.
During the past five decades of foreign invasions, “neighborly” interventions, and civil wars, the socio-cultural development of women in Afghanistan has either receded or remained in a stalemate due to the regressive attitude of the agrarian majority in the country toward women’s liberation. The restrictions of this misogynistic lore exceed even religious ordinances and are the main reasons for the disappearance of women from the urban scenes in Afghanistan. Misogynistic religious despotism has returned with full vengeance through a blurring of religious extremism and village lore.
Social norms in Afghanistan are defined at the mihrab, the pulpit in the mosque. Objecting to religious-cum-rural cultural edicts is tantamount to questioning the authority of Islam–an Islam so crudely interpreted and harshly enforced that it could aptly be called shariat-e shallaq, or “sharia with a whip.”
How did we get to this back-to-the-future scenario? Why were Afghan women cast out of the mainstream with such a rapid and incredible intensity in the “second coming” of the Taliban? A short answer may be sought in the superficiality of the gender equality programs during the period of experimental democracy in Afghanistan. Those 20 years of the absence of meaningful and comprehensive programs for gender equality were 20 years of lost opportunity.
During that period the previous government paid lip service to the women’s cause and how women were portrayed in the mainstream media. The fundamental change in women's status from one of inferiority to that of equality was never seriously considered as part of the government agenda. Women’s issues served as a window dressing of social reform at best and most often it was left in the lowest rung of foreign fund allocations.
For political leaders, the cause of women’s liberation was lost in the tug-of-war between political opponents. The political leadership did not present a proper role model. President Hamid Karzai, like his predecessors, did not allow the first lady, Dr. Zeenat Karzai, to step out of the presidential palace despite the fact that she is a gynecologist and could have been a great role model for gender equality and women’s access to higher education. During those 14 years, Afghanistan’s first lady was preoccupied with housework and raising children, merely playing the role of a mother and wife. She was not seen even once at any official function–not even while dining in the presidential palace with Western leaders.
This attitude of high-ranking government officials was symptomatic of the prevalent misogyny that sought to eliminate women from the public sphere. Afghan politicians were portraying this role as the norm, intentionally or unintentionally. Women's issues were never taken seriously and the concerns of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, for instance, were frequently sidelined by both President Ghani and CEO Abdullah–a slap on the wrist, if not on the face, of the women of Afghanistan. And Afghan women got the message loud and clear.
Furthermore, from the outset, the Ministry of Culture was a low-budget department whose goals were politicized rather than focused on national decision-making priorities. The ministry could have set out national norms and achievable goals to set in motion priorities to fight misogynistic attitudes as violence against women spread out from the urban centers.
Art, in particular, could have served as a very effective instrument in the implementation of this lofty ideal. The Ministry of Culture, in cooperation with the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Endowments, could have taken more effective measures to educate people through cultural and artistic expression in mosques, instead of leaving the issue to the village.
Afghan mullahs are skilled in telling the stories of the prophets, enforcing a male perspective, and presenting Islam as a male-centered religion that protects the empire of men. The influence that these mullahs have on the minds of the educated and uneducated public continues to reproduce generations like themselves. Obviously, the absence of female commentators on religious issues further contributes to these distortions.
The Ministry of Culture did not even share, let alone occupy the mihrab of the mosque. With the support of the Ministry of Culture, art — with all its empowering capacity in the areas of fiction writing, poetry, cinema, theater, painting, music, photography, and so on — could have been conducive to the promotion of more equitable social dynamics, prompting positive changes in opinions, beliefs, values, and norms. Achieving such developments takes time and effort and requires a plan and a budget, but above all, it requires a genuine belief in the possibility of social change. This was not evident.
In the past, epic poetry and legends were employed in the service of war, especially in resisting the Soviet invasion. Afghanistan therefore had the experience of seeing how art can mobilize people to take up a struggle. The Ministry of Culture could have tapped into this tradition to generate inspiring stories of women’s empowerment. It didn’t.
Under a more visionary leadership, the ministry could have assumed a more prominent position in Afghan life, promoting forms of storytelling and art-making that could help create conditions for change. Such art could have gone into villages and suburbs as an influential tool, promoting behavior patterns based on the equal treatment of men and women. Art could have been a way to fight gender violence. It could have unleashed the people’s creativity. This vision was missing.
The Ministries of Education, Culture, Hajj and Religious Endowments, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs should have contributed more to the gender equality narrative in a more substantial way. Progress in changing misogynistic attitudes in Afghan society was meager at best.
Rural development should have been the starting point for such programs. Afghanistan is a mostly rural landscape dominated by a traditional religious discourse. Remote villages have always missed out on the luxuries of modern city life. Electricity, running water, and the internet are unachievable dreams in most Afghan villages. Farmers still listen to old-style battery-operated transistor radios. Changing the ossified attitudes instilled by the mullahs will not become a reality if all that is available is such antiquated media. Rural Afghanistan has always been disconnected from modernity and most resistant to change due to manipulation by the rigid mindset of the mullahs.
However, the perception of equality in urban regions should not be overstated; in some cases the gap between city and countryside is not that outstanding. During a 2020 official visit to Kandahar, an urban sprawl by any standard, I witnessed gender apartheid before the Taliban even reclaimed power. The number of women I saw in the marketplace could have been literally counted on the fingers of one hand. A man told me that women only come to the market on a certain day of the week.
During US involvement in Afghanistan, the country desperately needed a strong commitment from the artistic community and its administrative supporters. However, the politics of Afghanistan at the time did not see art as a significant social force and did not partner with artists in supporting the cause. The separation of art from the Ministry of Culture, and the disdain for cultural-artistic development, caused the anti-feminist roots of Afghan culture to remain untouched for 20 years. With the withdrawal of the West, it came surging out of its rural strongholds to prevail over the capital and other cities — of course, with little or no protest.
Art could have questioned the traditional narrative of how women are viewed from the city to the village. It could have created a new narrative that bravely competed with the dominant discourse of the mosque and the mihrab. Such art could have reduced gender bias in an otherwise unipolar society.
Cultural modernization requires well-funded programs, ambitious educators, and committed political leaders who believe in gender equality. Because art in Afghanistan had no patrons, it could not use its capacity for the development of society. And because stories are generally written by male authors, women are often portrayed as vulnerable rather than creative beings. Women have come to understand themselves and the battles they need to fight to regain their rightful place in society. An art that is truly committed to such values could have taught Afghan people the alphabet of freedom.
[Translated by Zaman Stanizai.]