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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

October 2004

Actors in Afghani society in pursuit of different goals

Women as victims, survivors and custodians of identity.

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

Conflict description:

I have been living in Afghan society over the last twenty five years. Here, I intend to focus my analysis of the conflict on the role women, directly and indirectly, have been playing in this scenario. Women, as actors in society have interests and are involved in the conflict in different ways.

Roles of men and women:

I will analyse here three parts involved in the Afghan conflict and their positions and interests in relation to women. Firstly I would like to address the most controversial dimension of the political struggle in relation to women’s role in society: the fundamentalist group. Claiming for a divine moral that should preserve women’s “sacred” role in Afghan society, which is to serve and obey men, the fundamentalist group position was to restrict all the freedoms of women. They were prohibited from working outside their homes, attending school, appearing in public places without a close male relative, treating with male doctors, among other violations to minimal human rights. Women who challenged this conservative order were punished, tortured and even killed. This radical and ultra oppressive position against women by the fundamentalist groups was a strategy in pursuing their interest of reaching and keeping the political power in Afghanistan. They needed to represent a cultural differential that would justify their privileged status in the Afghan society. Their target was, then, women and their instrument a much contested interpretation of the Islam dogma.

Changes in identities:

This strategy was perceived by a second party involved in Afghan conflict recently: the USA. The U.S. government position against the treatment women received from the Taliban regime was clear. “Women’s emancipation in Afghanistan” became a slogan for legitimizing the American military intervention in 2001 in order to remove the Taliban leaders from power. So, the position of Americans in relation to women is also linked to their interest in taking away power from the Taliban. At the end women, were used as instruments for the increase of American political influence in the region and for the achievement of international legitimacy for the intervention. As Wali points out, “Suddenly made famous as the homeland of the Taliban and host to Osama bin Laden and his mercenaries, Afghanistan was excoriated as a country that waged war against its women. The Western world did not need any more justifications than these to launch its offensive. For the first time in world history, a major war was being linked -however tenuously- to the freedom of women.” (Wali, 2002, p.17)

Impact on rights:

The third party involved in the Afghan conflict I want to address is RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan). Their position since their foundation in the year of 1977 was to promote human rights and ameliorate the life conditions of women in Afghanistan. They claimed for education and polarization as strategies to create the freedom for the Afghan people, especially for women living under a repressive regime. Their interest was the construction of a democratic regime, where women should enjoy gender equality. Although they were persecuted, tortured, raped and killed by their insurgence against the “natural” laws of the Afghan society, they did not stop resisting in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and abroad. In the 90’s, their main strategy was to warn the international community about the atrocities committed by the Taliban against women in the name of the “religion” and the “culture”. This work was very important in making visible to the world the conditions in which women lived in Afghanistan, increasing solidarity and promoting reactions against the regime policy. One of the symbols of the regime was the images of women using “burkas” that were diffused all over the world. Although RAWA fought very hard the Taliban regime, they took the sudden “American interest” in the freedom of Afghan Women very carefully. They called attention to the fact that it was USA who supported militarily and financially the Taliban group for a long time. They also denounced the repetition of the history. USA was again supporting fundamentalist groups who opposed the Taliban regime. So, RAWA made clear that the American position in defending women’s freedom could not change the bases of Afghan politics in relation to women. The group USA supported to succeed the Taliban regime were not much better than the previous one:

“But unfortunately we must say that it was the government of the United States who supported Pakistani dictator Gen. Zia-ul Haq in creating thousands of religious schools from which the germs of Taliban emerged. In the similar way, as is clear to all, Osama Bin Laden has been the blue-eyed boy of CIA. But what is more painful is that American politicians have not drawn a lesson from their pro-fundamentalist policies in our country and are still supporting this or that fundamentalist band or leader. In our opinion any kind of support to the fundamentalist Taliban and Jehadies is actually trampling democratic, women’s rights and human rights values. If it is established that the suspects of the terrorist attacks are outside the US, our constant claim that fundamentalist terrorists would devour their creators, is proved once more. The US government should consider the root cause of this terrible event, which has not been the first and will not be the last one too. The US should stop supporting Afghan terrorists and their supporters once and for all.” (Declaration of RAWA about September 11th, in September 14th, 2001)

Impact on relationship:

The Afghan context shows that political positions in relation to women are very important in constituting conflictive orders. These positions are not neutral and reflect the interests of the parts involved. These interests rarely do not coincide exactly with the purpose of the transformation of gender relations, but are just instrumental uses of women for political bargain. In this context, it is important to make visible the contributions of an organization like RAWA committed to the goal of fighting gender discriminations and denouncing new dangers for a democratic Afghanistan.


In this paper the author compares different positions and interests of the United States and the Taliban regime in how they use women as symbols in their warfare and to increase their influence in the region. Under the Taliban regime, women were prohibited from working outside their homes, attending school, appearing in public places without a close male relative, dealing with male doctors, among other violations to minimal human rights. Women who challenged this conservative order were punished, tortured and even killed. Additionally, the author brings to the discussion the visible contributions of the organization RAWA, committed to the goal of fighting gender discrimination and denouncing new dangers for a democratic Afghanistan.


  • The author of the file is : Grazielle Furtado Alves Costa.