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Women in Afghanistan


Early History

At different points throughout the 20 th Century, Afghan women have been the subjects of both policies designed to curtail their rights and status, and policies designed to promote their rights and status. In both scenarios, varying degrees of force have been employed to enforce these policies. In 1928, King Amanallah, abdicated his throne as a result of a tribal rebellion opposed to his reforms including those in the areas of schooling for girls, restriction on polygamy and prohibition of the bride-price.

Reforms relating to women's rights were again attempted in the 1960s and 1970s; however, their effect was largely limited to women in urban areas of Afghanistan. It is interesting to note that in 1965, the government of Afghanistan submitted a comment to the Commission on the Status of Women addressing the issue of a UN Declaration on Eliminating Discrimination Against Women. In this comment, it stated eliminating discrimination required the "combating of traditions, customs, and usages which thwart the advancement of women" and went on to advocate the use of affirmative action policies to aid women in overcoming the discrimination they faced.

In 1978, the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan obtained control of the country and attempted to institute radical reforms affecting the rights and status of women. These reforms included the prohibition of a number of cultural practices with regards to marriage and family law that were widely considered "Islamic" within Afghan society. In the summer of 1978, a wave of Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan reportedly in part in response to the government's use of force in the enforcement of the its policy of compulsory education for women - a policy viewed by some as a source of dishonor to the family.

(Much of this historical account was taken from Valentine M. Moghadam. "Revolution, Religion, and Gender Politics: Iran and Afghanistan Compared" Journal of Women's History Vol. 10 No. 4 (Winter 1999) pp. 172-204)

The Mujahidin

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the rise of the Mujahidin, a coalition of Islamist tribal groups fighting to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan- supported largely by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Mujahidin's rise to arms against the Soviet invaders thrust Afghanistan into civil war. Not surprisingly, the Mujahidin rejected the reforms instituted by the communist government and equated a return of women to their traditional roles as a return to the nation's Islamic identity and ultimately a restricted role for women became part of their Islamic ideology. After the Mujahidin had succeeded in bringing about a Soviet withdrawal, different factions began to vie for power and another stage of the civil war began, bringing with it numerous new horrors that resulted in the impoverishment and victimization of women.

Noting the traditional notions of honor and shame surrounding women's modesty and purity in Afghan culture, Amnesty International in its 1999 report entitled "Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in Men's Power Struggles" describes how "women were treated as the spoils of war" by the Mujahidin:

Particularly between 1992 and 1995, armed guards have used these (cultural) norms as weapons of war, engaging in rape and sexual assault against women as an ultimate means of dishonoring entire communities and reducing people's capacity to resist military advances.

Further, Mujahidin factions, including the Northern Alliance, often set out to demonstrate their commitment to Islam and the traditional Afghan identity by imposing restrictions on women's freedom of movement, education, access to health care and employment. However, because the Mujahidin had an unorganized structure, the enforcement of these restrictions were inconsistent and unsystematic and in Kabul women continued to work in government departments, education and health care at their own risk.

The Taliban

In 1994, the Taliban, members of a conservative Islamist movement originating in Pakistan began making significant military gains and ultimately obtained control of over two thirds of Afghanistan's territory. The Taliban government though edicts issued by its leader Mullah Omar, effectively denied women and girls access to secondary education, adequate health care, employment (except in a very limited circumstances), and severely restricted their freedom of movement, freedom of association and an array of other internationally recognized human rights. Moreover this was done in the name of protecting women's security and fulfilling the dictates of Islam. In contrast with the Mujahidin, the Taliban had the organizational capacity to enforce these policies, particularly in urban areas and it often did so through beatings and extreme violence. For a detailed account of the situation of women under the Taliban see the 1999 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women- Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan.


The Role of the United Nations

The United Nations and its various agencies with projects in Afghanistan found themselves in the mist of a moral and legal dilemma. Were they to leave Afghanistan based on principle, refusing to work under a Taliban framework that violated international law with regards to women's rights or were they to give priority to the delivery of much needed humanitarian assistance, even if it meant following the Taliban's discriminatory framework? With some exceptions, ultimately, the UN opted for the latter course of action. This policy decision along with the organization's political organs- in particular the Security Council's- general willingness to tolerate the situation of women in Afghanistan, has led to much criticism and allegations of gender biases by human rights and women rights activists and scholars. For a critique of the UN's role in promoting international legal norms of non-discrimination and women's rights in the context of Afghanistan see Guglielmo Verdirame, "Testing the Effectiveness of International Norms, UN Humanitarian Assistance and Sexual Apartheid in Afghanistan. Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 23 No.3 (August 2001) pp 733-768.

Gender Apartheid and International Criminal Law

Throughout the duration of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the term "Gender Apartheid" was used by a number of women's rights advocates to convey the message that the rights violations experience by Afghan women were in substance no different than those experienced by blacks in Apartheid South Africa. This raises interesting questions regarding the status of Apartheid under international criminal law. While racial apartheid, despite its ambiguous legal definition, continues to appear in codifications of international criminal law such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, states refuse to even entertain the notion of recognizing apartheid based on gender as an international crime. Can this be considered another manifestation of the gender bias of international law, which for example, has a tendency to yield to cultural relativism arguments when it comes to women's rights, or are there legitimate reasons to avoid the criminalization of the acts constituting what has been referred to as "gender apartheid"?


The new Interim government of Afghanistan will face a number of difficult decisions and challenges in the context of securing women's human rights. Here, a few of the areas of greatest concern will be highlighted.

    • To What extent will new Afghan constitutional, personal status, family, employment and other laws conform to international human rights standards and incorporate principles of non-discrimination? Will its judicial system be based on modern secular models or incorporate elements of the Islamic judicial system? Will areas most relevant to women's rights such as family law be governed by Islamic Law as is the case in varying degrees in the majority of Muslim states.

    • Will the government of Afghanistan ratify the Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which a predecessor government signed on August 14 th 1980? If so, will the ratification be accompanied by the sweeping reservations limiting the convention's recognized rights in accordance with the dictates of Islamic law- a controversial and often problematic course taken by a number of Muslim state parties to the Women's Convention?

    • To what extent will restrictions on Women's Rights originating from cultural norms serve to curtail Afghan women's enjoyment of their rights? As Afghanistan's history has demonstrated, gender discrimination originating from patriarchal cultural norms and traditions are deeply rooted and as a consequence will likely continue to hinder the full enjoyment of rights by Afghan women, even if significant legal reforms were to be instituted. This could mean continuing obstacles for women in access to health care, education and employment opportunities as well as limitations on freedom of movement and opportunities for equal social and political participation.

    • Will government policies address the need to overcome the effects of past past-discrimination faced by Afghan women? Human Rights Watch, in its October 2001 Report entitled "Humanity Denied: Systematic Violation of Women's Rights in Afghanistan", reports that 90% of Afghan girls are illiterate. Will the Afghan government and the international community that has pledged to financially support it, allocate the necessary resources for combating such violations of women and girls' social and economic rights?

    • How will the new government respond to the refugee crisis, including large numbers of internally displaced refugees? According to figures published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugee, as of September 10, 2001, there were 3.6 million Afghan refugees outside Afghanistan with 1.5 million in Iran and 2 million in Pakistan and internally displaced refugees numbered 956,000. Much has been written about the conditions and discrimination endured by Afghan women in refugee camps. However the larger challenge for the new Afghan government now is to foster the refugee's return and integration into society..

    • Afghanistan is a country littered with landmines resulting from 23 years of civil war. Will the government take measures to ensure that women have equal access to mine awareness education and training and female landmine victims have equal access to treatment and rehabilitation? For a discussion of the relationship between landmines and gender see the UN's briefing on "Gender Prospective on Landmines" at http://www.un.org/Depts/dda/gender/note5.htm .

Dr.Sima Samar, Afghan Women's Rights Activist and New Interim Government Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Women's Affairs.

Dr. Sima Samar's appointment as Afghanistan's Interim Government Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Women's Affairs provides hope for the improvement of women's rights in Afghanistan. A physician by training, this outspoken advocate has long defied the restrictions and rights violations imposed on women in Afghanistan by establishing school and health clinics for women both inside Afghanistan in refugee camps in Pakistan. The Canadian Human Rights NGO, Rights and Democracy, awarded Dr. Samar their 2001 John Humphrey Freedom Award. Their website contains a number of interviews and speeches by Dr. Samar:


Still, a month after taking office, Dr. Samar is faced with inadequate financial resources to pursue her mandate, posing questions about the international community's commitment to supporting efforts to strengthen Afghan women's rights. On January 17, 2002, an article in the Guardian reported:

Sima Samar is fed up. The minister of women's affairs has no office, budget or staff. She cannot afford her telephone bill and she is growing weary of western protestations of support for the oppressed women of Afghanistan.

"Everybody promises me they are with me, but I'd like to ask them 'how'?" she told the Guardian. "How can I even hope to change the situation without money. There is so much to do, and I don't even have enough money for a literacy course."

The full text of the Article is available at:





This site provides a number of useful links including links to interviews with Afghan women and interviews with experts as well as two important Physicians for human rights reports on status of women's rights in Afghanistan.

"PHR 2001 Report: Women's Health and Human Rights in Afghanistan ; This timely new report, based on a groundbreaking survey of over 1000 respondents, reveals that the majority of Afghan men and women feel that women should have equal access to education and work opportunities, legal protection for human rights and participation in government. It also contains policy recommendations for future Afghan officials."

"PHR 1999 Report: PHR's groundbreaking report The Taliban's War on Women , investigated the conditions for educated women in Kabul under Taliban rule, detailing the human rights abuses with which they suffered. View the executive summary online."



October 2001 Vol. 13, No. 5 (C)



Systematic Violations of Women's Rights in Afghanistan

After describing the various human rights violations faced by Afghan women over the last two decades, this report warns against the bargaining away of women's rights in a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan following the U.S. intervention. It also holds that neither the Northern Alliance nor the Taliban should be able to enjoy impunity for the human rights violation for which they have been responsible over the last 22 years. Some of the recommendations the report makes include the following.

  • All parties to the conflict abide by international human rights and humanitarian law and all violations of such law must be investigated and military personnel held responsible.

  • The US-led Coalition ensure any military action comply with international human rights and humanitarian law and further that their actions should take into account the particular vulnerabilities of women in Afghanistan.

  • The international community ensure the full access to and participation of women in the receipt and delivery of humanitarian assistance, insist that women's rights are given priority in any new government formed, ensure that foreign development aid is used to develop institutions and services that will further the social and economic needs of women and girls, and ensure that all parties responsible for human rights violations be held accountable for such violations.

  • The United Nations investigate the violations of human rights and humanitarian law including sexual violence and gender-based persecution that have taken place in Afghanistan, and ensure that all future UN programs in Afghanistan are free from the gender based discrimination practices in the past.




This report provides an excellent overview of the human rights violations faced by women throughout two decades of civil war in Afghanistan. It covers the cultural dynamics of women's status in Afghan society as well as how women's status and rights were used as a political tool by the various warring factions to achieve political and ideological ends. The report details the rights violations experienced by Afghan women ranging from widespread cases rape and sexual assault to beatings and physical violence used to enforce restrictions of women's fundamental human rights. Finally, devotes a section of the report to the responsibility of the international community to prevent the continuation of the rights violations against women being detailed.



This site includes links to conferences and meetings, resolutions, facts and figures, other UN sites on Afghanistan, UN reports on the situation of Afghanistan and UN reports on the situation of women and children. UN reports pertaining to the situation of Afghan women include the following:



This page provides a brief description of UNIFEM's strategies and priorities in Afghanistan. The priorities listed include addressing violence against women and increasing women's participation in society.


Guglielmo Verdirame, Testing the Effectiveness of International Norms, UN Humanitarian Assistance and Sexual Apartheid in Afghanistan. Human Rights Quarterly, 23.3 (August 2001) 733-768.

Valentine M. Moghadam. "Revolution, Religion, and Gender Politics: Iran and Afghanistan Compared" Journal of Women's History Vol. 10 No. 4 (Winter 1999) pp. 172-204

Niloufar Pourzand, "The Problematic of Female Education, Ethnicity and National Identity in Afghanistan" (1920-1999) Social Analysis, 1999, 43(1), Mar, 73-82

Helena Malikyar, "Development of Family Law in Afghanistan: The Roles of the Hanafi Madhhab, Customary Practices and Power Politics" Central Asian Survey, 1997, 16, 3, Sept, 389-399.


Ellis, Deborah, Women of the Afghan War / 2000

Hackett, Beatrice Nied, Pray God and Keep Walking: Stories of Women Refugees / 1996

(includes chapter on Afghan women refugees)

Mertus, Julie, War's Offensive on Women: the Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan / 2000

Skaine, Rosemarie , The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban / 2001

Moghadam, Valentine, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (1993). This book contains a chapter entitled " Women and Social Change in Afghanistan" where topics including Afghan social structure and its implications for women, the history of reforms concerning women, and characteristics of Afghan patriarchy are discussed.


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