Today the world is enthralled with images of women lining up to vote for the first time, or for the first time in a long while.
Scott Levi Two Afghan women dressed in bright blue burqas. Today the burqa stands as a symbol of the status of women in Afghanistan, but for much of the twentieth century the history of women in this war-torn country led also toward greater rights and public presence.
In April of this year, a group of some women protesters demanded that the government in Kabul repeal a repressive new law that went so far as to permit marital rape. Around the world, many observers were outraged.
For more on the recent history of the region, please see the July Origins article on Central Asia On the history of Islam, readers may also be interested to see these two Origins articles: Let me begin with two stories.
In response, a group of some Afghan women gathered to protest this law and demand that the government repeal it. As one protester lamented to a New York Times reporter: It means a woman is a kind of property, to be used by the man in any way that he wants.
Inwhile living in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, three friends and I were fortunate enough to be granted permission to visit northern Afghanistan.
We were an unlikely group to be traveling in Afghanistan at that time: Just two months before we crossed the "Bridge of Friendship" over the Amu Darya River and entered Afghanistan, the Taliban had advanced northward and taken the capital city of Kabul.
We were in the territory of General Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who had very recently joined forces with the celebrated Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud to establish the "Northern Alliance" against the advancing Taliban.
Crossing the bridge, we had passed from a relatively peaceful post-Soviet republic into a war-torn wasteland. Sand dunes were left unchecked to take over entire stretches of the road, which in many places seemed to be more pothole than pavement.
Young boys from nearby refugee camps shoveled dirt into some of the potholes, hoping to earn a bit of money from the few Iranian truck drivers brave or foolish enough to transport merchandise to Uzbekistan. We passed by a number of bombed-out Soviet tanks rusting in the desert, monuments to the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country that lasted from into After a couple of hours my friends and I arrived in Mazar-i Sharif, the largest city in the region, and excitedly began to explore the city, meet people, and collect nervous reports of Taliban activities in the south.
With few exceptions, what we did not see were women in public. The majority of those that we did encounter were destitute victims of the war, forced to spend their days begging to feed their families. These were the only women with whom we interacted, and even then it was only to place a few bills in their calloused, outstretched hands—no conversation, and no eye contact.
Even though this was not Taliban territory yet, these women wore the full chadri, or burqa, a long shapeless gown that hangs from a hat to completely cover everything from head to toe. To our eyes, they moved about the city as powder-blue ghosts—there, but not really there.
One evening, my friends and I went out for dinner to a little neighborhood restaurant near our hotel. The four of us were the only obvious foreigners in the place, and our companion the only woman, in a room otherwise filled with men sitting in chairs at old tables in the front and on woolen rugs on an elevated platform in the back.
For a few moments we stood quietly at the entrance, unsure where to go from there, as conversation halted and all heads turned silently toward us.
After a long, uncomfortable pause the hum of conversations resumed and we found seats at a table not far from the door. I was struck by the hospitality of our hosts. They treated us with a deliberate respect, referring to our female companion as our "sister" and addressing her indirectly, through one of the men present.
Before we could ask, a young boy arrived with a pot of tea and bread, and after the novelty of our arrival wore off a bit the mood lightened and we had dinner and conversations with some of the men seated near us.
I assumed that the electricity had been shut off to conserve energy for the following day, and that the restaurant was now closing. As a hush quickly spread across the room, I sat quietly and waited to see what everyone else would do, but nobody moved.
Then an old man slowly exited the kitchen, walked across the room toward a dinosaur of a television attached high up on a wall, reached up, and turned a knob. The vacuum tubes in this remarkable piece of electronic history gradually warmed up and the picture slowly began to take shape.
There before me was the American actress Pamela Anderson in a skin-tight bathing suit bouncing her way across a sandy California beach, signaling the beginning of the show "Baywatch.
Here, in war-torn Mazar-i Sharif, this restaurant had somehow acquired a satellite dish and the men only a handful of whom could understand the dubbing into Hindi were eager to watch "Baywatch.
Women and Men in Afghanistan These two anecdotes illustrate that for westerners and for Afghans alike, the status of women serves as a barometer by which to measure Afghan society.
For many westerners, nothing demonstrates the essentially "backward" or "medieval" nature of Afghan society more than its treatment of women.
For Afghans like the diners in Mazar-i Sharif, Pamela Anderson running around in a bathing suit is a symbol for all of American culture and society—scantily clad western women flaunting their bodies and their open sexuality are seen as a foundational and perverse value of western culture. For some this is entertainment, for others it is distasteful, and for still others it is akin to pornography.
The men sitting at the restaurant in Mazar-i Sharif that November evening were eager to watch it on the screen, but they would have been horrified at the thought of their wives and daughters presenting themselves to the public in the same way.
But that is only a single feature of a complex debate. It involves sustained tensions between different ethnic groups, between urban and rural populations, and between the people of Afghanistan and the outside world.A new focus on girls and women's rights against women and girls as a country strategic priority to do whatever the UK can to ensure the gains for girls and women in Afghanistan are not lost.
Afghan women were first given the vote in – only a year after women in Britain – and the country's first constitution in guaranteed equal rights for both men and women.
Abstract: In 12 pages the author discusses the pros and cons of the treatment of women in Afghanistan. The women of Afghanistan are treated much differently than those in the rest of the world. Some might even refer to them as faceless for they are not allowed to show their faces in public. A Taliban representative stated: "The Taliban’s act of giving monthly salaries to 30, job-free women, now sitting comfortably at home, is a whiplash in the face of those who are defaming Taliban with reference to the rights of women.
Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in threats, intimidation and attacks against those at the forefront of protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan.
High-profile women have been targeted simply for being in public roles, as part of a wider backlash against women's rights in . In this report – ‘A Place at the Table: Safeguarding women’s rights in Afghanistan’, co-authored with well-known Afghan academic Orzala Ashraf Nemat, Oxfam warns that women’s hard won gains are fragile and could slip away.