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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

September 2004

Fighting the repression of women in Afghanistan

A means to seek legitimacy in the war against terror.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | | Afghanistan | United States

Conflict description:

Afghanistan has suffered over 20 years of internal conflict, ending with the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Throughout Afghan history, there have been periods of considerable rights and liberties for women, while other regimes have restricted these. The Soviets introduced equality between men and women, but the changes proved to be too radical for many Afghans. Under the Taliban, female mobility and visibility was severely restricted, impacting access to health care, employment and education. While many urban women initially lifted their burkas after the fall of the Taliban, many have replaced them due to harassment from men on the streets, a situation that is gradually changing as women become a more common sight on city streets.

Roles of men and women:

For many, particularly in rural areas, roles have changed little; women continue to be child-bearers and homemakers while men attempt to earn a living. Women with an education and family permission to work are now working in a broader range of activities including in schools, for government or for national and international agencies. Uneducated women in rural areas often work in agriculture. Many working women try to create networks with other female family members to share child care responsibilities. Men’s roles have also little changed, although they suffer from a general lack of employment. The estimated 700,000 widows resulting from war have either become a part of their husband’s family (often marrying a brother as an additional wife) or remain independent. In the case of the former, roles remain traditional, in the latter; women are forced to become breadwinners. Changes in urban areas are more likely to remain in the longer term as many changes actually revert to the Afghanistan of the 1970s, particularly in Kabul. In rural areas, changes are less pronounced, as they have been throughout history. The sustainability of change will depend very much on whether the process to-date has been community or donor / outside agency-led, on the outcome of the up-coming elections and the longer-term presence and support of national and international agencies. The growth and continuation of independent media broadcasting the voices and opinions of men and women, both nationally and locally should promote sustainable change.

Changes in identities:

Again the characteristics and behaviors of men and women in rural areas are different to those in cities. However, there remains the expectation that girls and women will remain at home until they are married to a man of her parent’s choice. Upon marriage, women move to the home of her parent’s-in-law where she will raise children and contribute to household duties. In the 1970s, a few marriages were by choice. While this became very rare, there are some signs of a gradual movement in Kabul and larger cities towards self-chosen marriages; although there are many examples of girls and women who have tried to escape arranged marriages only to be thrown in prison. Men are expected to work and support the family, although again there are many examples of men who are unable to find work or who revert to drugs. In urban areas, girls are more likely to be encouraged to attend school; with educated girls in rural areas often considered less attractive. With the construction of schools around Afghanistan and availability of numerous literacy and accelerated learning programs for girls, more children are being educated in both rural and urban areas. Throughout the country, there are women who are beginning to speak out against warlordism and the need for security and equality, perhaps driven by time spent abroad or efforts to provide education to girls or support the resistance movements during conflict. In general, urban areas are seeing more freedom for men and women and are slowly reverting to some of the more liberal, pre-war societies, while male – female identities remain more entrenched in rural areas.

Impact on rights:

During Taliban, the rights of men and women were severely reduced, with women particularly suffering under restricted movement and access to health care, employment and education. Lack of services impacted all. Post-Taliban, a Constitutional Committee, including several women, was established to draft a new Constitution. After some public debate, the Constitution was approved by a representational Grand Council, including men and women and members of different ethnic and social groups. The Constitution ensures male and female representation through a 50% female representation in one of the Houses of the National Assembly and in the other that each province has at least one female representative; although how these will actually function remains to be seen. The Constitution explicitly states equality among all Afghans, male and female. While representing a massive step forwards, the implementation of these Constitutional rights varies across Afghanistan. Much of the country is still ruled by traditional laws and practices that were in place long before the Taliban rose to power, with decisions administered by local councils. While predominant in rural areas, many urban families are also affected by such traditions. The Constitution states respect for Islamic law, although interpretation tends to vary widely. With a conservative Supreme Court, there remains concern about the implementation of law should cases reach the Supreme Court. With the post-war establishment and expansion of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which includes a section focusing on women’s rights, and the various efforts to raise awareness of women’s and human rights, it is hoped that over time women will be able to come forward and use the justice system to assert their rights.

Impact on relationship:

Long established traditional practices continue to strongly influence male-female relationships and are likely to prevail, particularly in rural areas. Attempts by national and international agencies to advocate for women’s and human rights or to intervene to promote female empowerment within communities are often ill regarded if the support of male community leaders has not been secured. There has also been some reluctance among male community members to permit female participation in programs benefiting women as many distrust agencies and resent programming targeting girls and women. Women with husband’s missing remain in limbo; they are not recognised as widows and are unable by law to marry for I believe a ten-year period – a law that may not be recognised by individual communities. While widows are viewed by male community leaders as dependent, their vulnerability is also recognised.

Many returnees have seen a different life abroad and received more regular education, thus there are differences in gender roles between returnee families and families who remained in Afghanistan. Returning families often revert to traditional roles and relationships to facilitate reintegration, although this is very difficult for children and young people to adapt to.


Through the paper the author presents how gender roles in Afghanistan have changed as a result of conflict. Under the Taliban, female mobility and visibility was severely restricted, impacting access to health care, employment and education. After the war the behavior of the men and women in rural areas or in cities changed. However, long established practices continue to strongly influence male-female relationships and are likely to prevail, particularly in rural areas.


  • The author of the file is : Ginette Baerten.