The Statesman, September 11, 2021
1964 was a milestone year in the history of Afghanistan as for the first time the Afghan Constitution was adopted granting equal rights to women, right to franchise as well as right to participation in political and public life. Women‘s education was encouraged, and, in 1977 under the leadership of Meena Kamal, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan was established
By Nandita Chatterjee
The recent developments in Afghanistan, particularly since August 2021 have brought forth many tumultuous issues with respect to life, liberty, and rights of resident Afghans in their country. Of particular concern is the position of women and the challenges they face in the wake of the resurgence of Taliban after 20 years as the group’s earlier regime from 1996 to 2000 had almost decimated women’s rights to freedom, health, education, life, and liberty. The world is watching with concerned anticipation as to how events will unfold in near future, and, what such developments would mean for the average Afghan women and girls.
Statistically speaking, the last 20 years in Afghanistan have witnessed certain developments in the movement of development indicators in the country. In 2020, women comprised 48.68 per cent of the population of Afghanistan. Female literacy rose from 5 per cent in 2002 to 29.8 per cent. Labour force participation improved from 15.2 per cent to 21.8 per cent, maternal mortality ratio lessened from 1300 per one lakh live births to 638 per one lakh live births. Total fertility rate reduced to 4.3 from 7.3, infant mortality rate reduced from 85 per thousand live births to 47 per thousand live births. Overall life expectancy at birth moved from 57 years to 67 years. Finally, GDP per capita in Afghanistan rose to $509 from $179 per capita which is almost a three-fold increase in the average earnings of the Afghans.
In Afghanistan, the legal age of marriage for girls is 16 years. They are not allowed to marry outside their religion and the reported acceptance rate of contraception is 21.2 per cent.The much acclaimed author, Syed Muztaba Ali had once remarked that without knowing the history of Afghanistan, one would not be able to comprehend the complete history of India. Akin to such line of thought, the fate of women in Afghanistan had also evolved in intricate association with the history of the country.
Originally a part of the Persian Empire, Afghanistan is a combination of various tribal communities. The early 18th century witnessed an attempt at unification of such tribal communities, first by Mirbai Hotak and later by Ahmad Shah Durrani. Unfortunately, their descendants failed to sustain the process of unification. What followed was the rule of the Barkazai dynasty and two Anglo Afghan wars ~ in 1839-1842 and 1878-1880 respectively. From 1901, Habibulla Khan ruled and from 1919-1929 onwards, his son Amanulla Khan compelled the British to relinquish in the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war. Even today, 19th August is celebrated as Independence Day by the Afghans in recall of the relinquishment of the British invasion. Amanulla Khan’s regime was oriented towards ensuring freedom to women. Women’s education, rejection of purdah and introduction of ‘Dereshi’ (modern attire) were some of the highlights of his regime. In 1921, laws were passed to prevent forced marriage, minor marriages and bride price. Restrictions were also imposed on the much prevalent polygamy system in the country.
Amanulla Khan’s spouse, Queen Suraya, was an enlightened lady and a suitable partner to her husband. She introduced a women’s magazine for the first time and set up the first women’s organization called “Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Nissan”. More importantly, pioneer educational institutions for Afghan women, namely the ‘Mustarat’ as well as ‘Ismat’ (Malalai) were set up in 1920/ 1921. The Mustarat hospital was also established during this era. Queen Suraya stopped using Purdah in public.These reforms, however, were resisted by the orthodox society in the country. When we read “Deshe Bideshe” by Syed Mustapha Ali, an interesting travelogue on the experience of the author as a professor in one of the educational institutions in Kabul, we find a graphic description of how the orthodox society resisted the social reforms leading to the subsequent downfall and deposition of King Amanulla.
Post the deposition of Amanulla, Afghanistan was involved in a civil revolt during which women’s rights were curtailed and the purdah was re-imposed with severity. Subsequent to the conclusion of the Second World War, most countries strengthened their system of social reforms, including Afghanistan. The agitation for women rights got stronger, and, in 1946, the Women’s Welfare Association was formed with government support. Women were inducted in vocational training. Data collected in 1950 reveals that 51 girl students were enrolled in Kabul University for higher studies. The long tenure of Zaheer Khan followed, and his very capable Prime Minister, Md. Daud Khan emerged as a broad-minded social reformist. Many attempts were made to encourage women’s participation in the public sphere.
In 1957, for the first time, women announcers were engaged in Radio Kabul. Women were employed in the pottery factory set up by the Government. The queen and the princesses rejected use of purdah in public, and, following them, wives of the urban elite as well as the families of government servants also decided to shun purdah in public.1964 was a milestone in the history of Afghanistan as for the first time the Afghan Constitution was adopted granting thereby equal rights to women, right to franchise as well as right to participation in political/public life. Women’s education was encouraged, and, in 1977 under the leadership of Meena Kamal, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was established. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the induction of the Communist regime courtesy the Soviet Union. Upholding gender equality, the Afghan’s Women Council (AWC) was founded to “defend and implead equal rights to women”.The orthodox and conservative rural community, however, resisted all attempts to grant equal rights to women. Their rejection and opposition to socialistic reforms was one of the reasons for the downfall of the Soviet regime and the subsequent association of their protegee Md. Nazibullah. History tells us that during 1991, 7,000 women students were enrolled in higher education and that there were 190 lady professors, 23,000 school going girl students and 2200 lady teachers in the country.1992 evidenced the rise of the Islamic State of Afghanistan followed by widespread civil war which led to rampant abduction and large-scale torture of women. In 1996, the Taliban (religious students) occupied Kabul. Thereafter there was a complete diktat (fatwa) issued to prevent women from working or from studying in educational institutions.Women were mandated to cover themselves from head to toe in chadris or burkhas. They were not allowed to go outside their homes without a male relative (Mehram). In fact, even glass windows of houses were painted black to prevent any outsider from observing the activities of the purdah-clad women inside their homes.
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