“A version of this article appeared on our “Be Inspired” page. To see other essays in this series, please click here.”
Editor’s Note: Shakila Khalje was born in Afghanistan and as a teenager, witnessed the invasion of former Soviet Union, which was followed by civil wars. She has worked as the Afghan refugee community Liaison/ESL instructor for the UNHCR/UNDP. And has worked with many different international NGOs over the years. Since 9/11 Ms. Khalje has been fully engaged working on Afghan related issues in different journalistic and media capacity including women’s rights advocacy. She is one of the founding members of the U.S./ Afghan Women’s Council which was created in January of 2002 to bring attention to the needs of Afghan women after the end of the brutal regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan. She has also been a delegate in the Afghan Women’s Summit in Brussels.
She is an independent media/Afghan cultural/language consultant while working as the volunteer Director of Public Affairs at an educational NGO based in Afghanistan.
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I want to reflect on what it is to be an Afghan woman during these past decades of war, currently, and as we look toward the rather uncertain future to come. I do this in honor of my mother, and my sisters, who truly have been my first strong, struggling, smart and amazing women role models. I want to express how proud and deeply grateful I am to be a member of female human race. I can never say enough about my mother who was the epitome of resilience, strength, and nurturing. She fiercely, yet gently stood up against all oppressive elements. She embodied the spirit of all Afghan women.
Twelve or so years after the fall of the Taliban regime, there has been some overall progress in the lives of Afghan women, but still women have a long way to go before they can truly claim their basic human rights. There are still many obstacles and challenges they have to face in order to achieve and sustain their status as visible members of society. It has been a tall order and recognized with much humility. I have witnessed firsthand all the ills and good things which we as women have to learn about, deal with and enjoy. I have been a direct witness and at times, a victim/survivor of the war started by the invasion of former Soviet Union. I witnessed the brutalities of war and how women were the soft-target and causalities of the war which was not initiated by them. Wars rarely if ever, starts with women, but they, and the children, are the most vulnerable targets. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, these decades of wars, bloodshed and loss of their human rights have shaped Afghan women’s lives and, without their wanting it, these conflicts and pain have deeply informed the social, cultural, educational, political and emotional narratives of Afghan women today.
I, myself have spent most of my personal and professional life wearing many hats, but all dealing human rights, women’s rights and gender issues. I will try my best to give you my take on the situation we face. Keep in mind that women’s plight all over the world is more or less the same; however, there are always specific challenges related to particular cultural, geopolitical, economic, and religious factors, and many aspects vary even within the same society.
In Afghanistan, as with many developing societies, women are traditionally homemakers and caretakers. However, within that framework, Afghan women play a very vital and strong role in the overall well-being of the family, community and the society at large, only it is implemented mostly in a rather passive manner. Naturally, the degree of their direct or indirect influence depends on their educational, economic level, and their family’s social status, as well as the role of the men in their lives and that influences the social circles in which they move.
In Afghanistan discussing the roles of women in our society is a very complex issue. Women’s roles were very different before and the wars that have lasted more than three decades. Before the period of prolonged war, women were part of mainstream society. Then, they were totally shunned during the wars. They have some level of participation currently. Education plays a key role in providing more opportunities for women to assert themselves even if limited and within “traditionally female” professions such as nursing, teaching, medicine, education and even activism. In the recent past, there has been more wiggle room for raising women’s issues within the framework available to them. After the wars began, the conditions of women declined greatly. Many factors contributed to this situation including the poor security conditions, a lack of access to workforce participation and education for women and girls to name a few. Women’s lives have also been impacted by the effect these wars have had on their male counterparts who have been engaging in the war. Many have died, been wounded, or disappeared. Many of these men have been living with their families for years as displaced refugees in sub-standard refugee camps or living under similar or worse conditions in neighboring countries where they have little to no access to education, and basic opportunities.
A few lucky Afghans men and women escape and find freedom and a chance for a better life in the West. These Afghans have to deal with the new sets of struggles that are universal to the refugee/immigrant experience, but more complicated for women due to the complexities of gender issues. This chronic and decades old social, cultural, and emotional forced-isolation, has defined and continues to define the lives of most of ordinary Afghan women, especially those who survive as the sole provider for their families without any prospect to become active members of society. The devastating impact of 30 plus years of war has hit the more vulnerable rural women even harder.
When half of the population of a war-torn society is cut off from basic human rights, naturally, social progress will be sluggish . This is true, despite over a decade of (mostly) mismatched and misguided efforts and misused resources supplied by the international community to help re-build Afghanistan. We should never forget the loss of lives of those who have been struggling to help rebuild Afghanistan from both sides.
However, despite of their social and political status, Afghan women as a whole are still very strong and thriving amidst the slow social change and pervasive chaos. Afghan women are deeply loyal and extremely protective and supportive of their families and male counterparts; they remain very traditional and somewhat compliant. A lifelong struggle of mine has to focus on the chronic pattern in which women’s voices are being silenced, their rights denied, and their roles ignored due to traditions and some extreme religious practices that support the sense of submission by women and so doing, perpetuate the traditionally male-dominated society to push the women aside or worse, push them down. It is an unfortunate consequence of war and ‘sensitive political priorities’ that the rights and voices of women have often been pushed to the very back burner of the social agenda. It is time for both the Afghan and international communities to face honestly matters pertaining to women’s rights and their struggles.
Right now, we are deeply concerned about what will happen after the international community leaves. Women are soft targets, the first to get hit and the last to have a say in the matter of their rights and fate personally and politically. In the past decade, there has been some progress, but faced with many struggles, the very case of one step forward, and a few steps back. Such a situation should be expected of any society emerging from decades of wars and lack of rule of laws and functioning civil society. However, for Afghan people generally, and Afghan women in particular, even though, they are used to struggling and engaging in a constant juggling act of thriving, surviving, sacrificing and nurturing, the re-entry to anything close to normalcy has been much harder because of the ongoing war and the overwhelming fear of losing ground on all they have worked so hard work for.
It is true that there has been some progress in the areas of basic and higher education, and in having the opportunity to be allowed to have some official political seats for Afghan women. Everyone agrees that the status of Afghan women has improved following the post-Taliban regime when they were shot in the head in public and were living with death threats if they tried to go to school or even getting home schooling. Yet, so many brave women continued to educate girls under dire and inhuman circumstances. The progress is slow, and the support received has been mostly rhetorical rather than substantive. We have women members of parliament, but they have very little say in the key political decision-making. They run ministries, but have very little funding or support to run them. Women are educators and political activist, but constantly struggling to survive the backlashes, threats and obstacles.
We can call this positive change, even if it is mostly in name only, but the key for a real sustainable positive outcome are:
Access to education
Physical and emotional safety and security
Access to finances and business opportunities, and
Having a real voice in the political decision making
I am all for providing women with skills to establish their own small businesses at grassroots level that are respectful of their communities. Such businesses empower them with tools to be more self-reliant, sustain a healthy sense of empowerment and equal say for themselves, and help them in the rearing of their young daughters and gender sensitive sons and families. A solid education along with financial self-reliance are the keys to better society for men and women as a whole.
All I’ve said above is not new, nor impossible. Unfortunately, the lack of proper, effective and functioning leadership on both sides of the pond has been the crippling cause of getting so little achieved in carrying out most of Afghanistan’s rebuilding projects.
I leave it to political experts, economist and policymakers to further debate and explore the failures and unfinished business of rebuilding Afghanistan so they can come up with a better, more functional, effective and cohesive policies for Afghanistan following the withdrawal of NATO troops next year. It is highly debatable whether or not the Afghan leadership, army and police force are fully ready to run the country. We also need to factor in the ongoing and sadly thriving political and security chaos in countries neighboring Afghanistan. Add the crucial task of upcoming elections to the mix and can imagine the sense of tension, anxiety and fear felt by ordinary Afghans and especially our women. What will become of them if another bloody civil war stems from ethnic power-struggle, hijacked by yet again, foreigners, extremist and terrorists using Afghanistan as their backyard battlefield?
While progress has been made in the areas mentioned above, it remains that women face many challenges: they still experience and suffer, from bad customs, forced marriages, lack of financial independence, lack of access to basic education, being the sole bread-winners, continued lack of security, and lack of access to basic legal, medical and human rights. All these apply to both urban and rural women since the lines are so blurred by huge internal displacement and those living as refugees. These are challenges which all need to be addressed in order to allow women to achieve their human rights and personal potentials.
To ensure women’s equality, attitudes within society require further changing. Both the government as well as the civil society sectors need to take the lead. The international community must also stay guarded and ensure that existing human rights laws are respected and implemented. The top leaders need to be more accountable. There must be a basic level of political and judicial transparency, which is rarely the case. It is crucial that women must be educated about their constitutional and human rights.
We have a famous saying in Dari: “If the baby does not cry, the mother will not feed it.” In this way, women themselves must continue to be more resilient and less compliant.
Having access to basic education followed by economic opportunities, which leads to self-reliance, is also the key to allowing women to have a say in the direction of their lives. Again, the laws in favor of women are only as good as their application. Otherwise, women will continue to struggle for the basic human rights.
Afghan women do not want to dismiss, deny, or reject their rich cultural and moderate religious heritage or beliefs. They do not want to take the role of ‘men’ and be more like men. They do not wish to overpower men. They have no desire to go out and claim their freedom and equality by burning their bras or other such steps that may have been very relevant and effective for Western women and their political and feminist sensibilities. The Afghan women deserve to be allowed to find their own path to equality, decent human treatment and basic human rights, at their own pace and methods. It may involve wearing their traditional garments, covering their face or whole body with burqas. They are more than their clothing items and need not be judged, criticized, disregarded or worse, forgotten based on non-essential matters. Afghan women are capable of embracing, enjoying and thriving in a modern setting without making waves religiously, culturally or politically if it is absolutely necessary. They can use their strength as women without drama and noise if the basic rights are not blocked or ignored.
To my dismay, I have witnessed many times the negative attitude of some of our Western advocates who assess the progress or stagnation of Afghan women by whether or not they wear burqa/chaadari/chaadar (all body and head covers). Afghan women care more about having access to basic human rights such as the right to go to school without death threats, the right to basic health care, the right to work, the right to have a voice in the shaping of the policies and plans at the political level than what they wear. A woman should have her basic rights honored regardless of what she wears. Democracy and women’s rights must be conceptualized within the particular emotional and personal choices and sensibilities of women and men. I urge the West not to also get caught up with the rather superficial aspect of women’s rights, freedom and equality. It is a shame to see the international community size up their successes and failures based on their standard of freedom, democracy and equality and ignore the cultural sensibilities that may contribute to what may be a slow pace of change; Embracing human rights is a noble goal, but let’s not forget that Afghanistan is a troubled, war-torn and deeply traditional and at times religious society. The international role best not be based on a “my way or the highway” attitude. These views can lead to flawed policies that ultimately victimize the victims and leaves dangerous political voids that could lead to more regional or international conflicts and wars. We have already seen it happen in Afghanistan once and we are still suffering the consequences of it. It is equally the responsibility of the Afghan leadership and people — who never fail to claim that they are the most fierce, brave and independent people — to take their world-famous pride and apply it to rebuilding Afghanistan free of ‘foreign hand-outs.’ It is time to match actions with that reputation.
I personally believe the media can also play a major role and take a very active lead on educating society and men in particular on the bad customs that are among the leading causes of women’s suffering and abuse. There are many media outlets that do a wonderful job at this but these are often suppressed by the intimidation of extremist as well as government censorship that discourage the media to do their job.
I believe the international community must not abandon Afghanistan in providing sound developmental and educational insight particularly on women’s issues. The anxiety of Afghan people, and especially our women needs to be addressed at this very crucial political moment when the international community is gearing up to leave and hand over a fragile peace to the hands of more fragile Afghans.
I still hope for a better life for Afghans and Afghan women. Safe to say I know what it means and how it feels to be Afghan women in Afghanistan: Being a woman in Afghanistan means: being mad about getting an education, being hopeful, being strong, being concerned about her future on the face of the on-going political uncertainties; being just loud enough to keep her hard-earned rights while continuing to be gently and quiet, the ever supportive, nurturing mother, sister, friend, wife and daughter who respects her heritage, religion, and the beautiful traditions while fighting the bad ones to the teeth.
Being an Afghan woman means being the voice, the broken-hearted-but-strong carrier of the legacy of survival and resiliency, the quiet, unsung war heroine, the victim, the abused, the soft target, the educator, the nurse, the nomad herdswoman, the farmer, the politician, the homeless, the refugee and internally displaced, and in the midst of it all, throughout history, carrying all the burdens and blessings of our ancestors, invaders and violators. All in all, I say the Afghan woman is a work of art, perhaps beaten up and very tired, a little damaged and destroyed, but still holding her own by simply being a woman.