• Violet Freeney

The Struggle of Women's Rights in Afghanistan

Despite the images we know of Afghanistan today, in 1953 Afghan women were not required to wear any kind of head coverings and could attend college. When the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan was passed, women were granted the right to vote and run for office. After this time the country experienced a complicated era of conflict as communism rose in popularity, but the country’s communist ideals lead to the government granting women equal rights in 1978, which is something even America’s Constitution does not protect.


In 1979 the country was invaded by the Soviet Union, in an effort to support the Afghan people, and as years passed the Afghanistan government, with support from the Soviet Union, worked hard to implement these equal rights in all social and economic classes across the country, because before this concept of equality was only offered to wealthy women.


The government’s solution to this problem included enforcing compulsory schooling for girls and raising the age of consent for marriage to sixteen. Unfortunately, however, these mandates abolished the traditional cultural practices of many rural Afghanistan communities. These people saw the government’s efforts for equality as attacks on their religion, on Islam.


This political divide between tradition and progress led to civil uprising, and in 1992 the Republic of Afghanistan became the Islamic State of Afghanistan and as a result the fight for equality was lost. The new Islamic government demonized the women’s rights movement because it was one of the greatest threats posed by the former communist government. Women’s freedoms were associated with anti-Islamic ideals and therefore, they were revoked, starting one of the most devastating reversals of women’s rights in the 20th century.


In 1993, the Government Office of Research and Decrees of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan stated that


"Women need not leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case, they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not to walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave home."

The new Islamic State struggled to enforce the new policies on women’s rights, but after the county’s transition in 1992, civil war progressed and many middle eastern countries became involved in the conflict.


As a result of this war, the Taliban emerged. The Taliban was an Islamic uprising of religious students who wanted a stronger implementation of Islamic law in Afghanistan. In between the lines of history there is evidence of support by Pakistan and even the United States for this group as it grew, but those issues are for another day.


The group hoped to eliminate the crime and violence that plagued their wartorn country, and so they established a vigilante militia that fought against organized crime. The effort quickly grew in size and power and gained public support. Many Afghanistan citizens appreciated the protection that the Taliban was providing, and by 1994, 12 Afghanistan provinces were under Taliban control. However, as time proceeded the violence that resulted from the militia’s efforts was only perpetuating conflict and crime in the country and the public support they once retained was dwindling.


Members of the Taliban


By 1998, the Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan, and during the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, the former policies eliminating women’s freedom, were now violently enforced and expanded. Women were stripped of their titles and jobs, they were kept inside and many were forced to even paint their windows so they could not be seen.


In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban was overthrown, resulting in the reconstruction of women’s rights in the country. This process was slow and lacked enforcement in much of the country’s rural areas where women’s rights were still restricted. In 2012 a “code of conduct” was passed that aligned with some of the Islamic State’s ideas, but it was still nowhere near the violent oppression of the Taliban rule.


However, in August of 2021 the United States removed their military support from the country and the Taliban regained control. The group promises to protect the rights of women within the country, however, since August many women have been revoked of jobs and education access. After decades of conflict over women’s rights and its implications on Islamic tradition and politics in Afghanistan, women’s rights are now threatened once again, and the future remains uncertain.


In Afghanistan and other countries around the world we are seeing women’s rights become demonized for the benefit of political groups. Their fight against oppression is no longer seen as an issue of human rights or personal liberties but instead it is framed as an issue of religion or politics. Not only does this make progress dangerous to demand or even discuss, but it also creates a constant state of uncertainty because at any time political shifts could revoke or reinstate the current policies, as it has in the past.


The fight for women’s rights in America has been long and there is always still progress to be made, but in Afghanistan, and in other places as well, the progress that has been made or is now being made is not protected. With such divided political parties in our country, we experience political shifts multiple times within each decade, but we must not take for granted that those transitions do not threaten the elimination of women’s most fundamental rights and the freedoms we have tirelessly fought for.


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