March 8, 2023
THE YOKE OF AFGHAN WOMEN
Photography and words by Paola Ferrarotti
“Afghan women are like sleeping lions, when awoken,
they can play a wonderful role in any social revolution.”
MEENA (1956-1987 (1))
On Tuesday, 20th December 2022, Afghan women had no idea that on that day what they had feared since the return of the Taliban to power on the 15th August 2021, would happen: the total expulsion of women from higher education.
Female students who turned up for their university classes on the 20th December 2022, found that they were strictly forbidden to enter their university. An order of the Minister of Education had been issued and obliged public and private universities to ban women from entering with immediate effect.
This ban on female students in universities completed the expulsion of women from educational opportunities. Earlier, in October 2022, the Taliban had already banned teenage girls from studying and closed their high schools. As I write, Afghan women from the age of 12, the approximate age of puberty, are deprived of their right to education with no hope that this will change in the short term.
Following this ban "until further notice" on women's access to university in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan exile and non-Afghans, including public voices, activists and journalists launched a global call to raise their voices against this atrocity.
Speaking out outside Afghanistan in defence of the women and girls who are victims of the Taliban regime is essential to draw attention to what is happening. Being the voice of the oppressed women inside the country who tirelessly continue their underground struggle is an obligation for all those who wish and fight for a world where peace, justice, equality and freedom prevail.
From a family with a four-generation history of active political participation in my home country and my maternal grandmother being one of the first two female councillors in my hometown, I grew up in a household where political and social issues were part of everyday life.
Being part of a society, I strongly believe that we must be committed to it and, at a higher level, being part of humanity, what happens somewhere in the world should always concern us. When peace, justice, freedom, equality are threatened somewhere, however remote, we must speak out loud.
Fighting for and defending human rights and, in particular, women's rights, involves showing indignation when they are threatened or violated and raising our voices. We have an obligation as human beings not to close our eyes to unjust situations that affect individual human beings. The feeling of compassion in the face of the suffering of others makes us turn the suffering of others into our own suffering and the consequence of this is to commit ourselves, as far as possible, to changing this situation.
On 14th January 2023, a global protest for the rights of Afghan women took place. 57 cities across 23 countries took to the streets in a global movement in defence of women's rights in Afghanistan. I took the photos presented here at the protest that took place on that day in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. On that day, the continuous rain that poured down on the city accompanying the people who had taken to the streets was the silent cry of Afghan women in the face of the unspeakable violence and discrimination they face on a daily basis.
SIGNIFICANT ATTEMPTS TO LIBERATE WOMEN FROM THE YOKE OF PATRIARCHY IN AFGHAN HISTORY
Afghanistan, with a population of almost 40 million, just under half of whom are women, has a history of achievements and setbacks in the struggle for women's rights.
This is a country divided into numerous ethnicities and tribes, with an immense weight of patriarchal traditions that result in the silencing and isolation of women. Coupled with the lack of education, especially in rural areas where most Afghans live, and the deeply conservative and rigorous practice of Islam, this has been the greatest obstacle to the advancement and recognition of women's rights.
However, throughout history there have been attempts to achieve equality for women.
In the 1920s, Soraya Tarzi, was a royal consort ahead of her time, a tireless fighter for women's rights. She was a pioneering woman of history, a true revolutionary and a progressive who, among many other achievements, championed women's education and more social rights in a country of ancestral customs and ultra-conservative morals. Together with her husband, King Amanullah, she had a grand vision for her country. The couple campaigned for girls' education, but also against compulsory veiling and polygamy.
In 1921, the law of forced and child marriage was abolished, and restrictions were placed on polygamy, a common practice in Afghanistan at the time.
Queen Soraya opened the first primary school for girls in Kabul in 1921, as well as the first women's hospital in 1924. The first women's magazine called "Women's Guide" was founded, as well as the women's organisation Anjuman-i Himayat-i-Niswan, which promoted women's welfare and had an office where women could report abuse by their husbands, brothers and fathers.
In 1926, at the celebration of Afghan Independence Day, Queen Soraya went so far as to say publicly: “Do you think, however, that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it? Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible, in order that we may render our services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam”. (2)
However, modernisation efforts through the implementation of social and cultural reforms in a relatively short period of time clashed with the traditional and conservative society. Conservative groups in the country considered the reforms to be contrary to Afghanistan's religious and traditional customs. And so, in 1928, after a European tour in which the kings sought references to promote social and cultural reforms in their country, they were confronted with a visceral reaction in the most conservative sectors of the country, who had long been watching the new ideas as a flagrant betrayal of culture, religion and women's 'honour'.
Eventually the king and queen were forced to abdicate in the face of impending civil war, and with it came a global rollback of the rights that women had been winning.
After a few years of instability, Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, came to power. Between 1933 and 1973 he launched a big campaign to modernise the country. In 1964 he pushed through a new constitution that set the parameters of a modern democracy. Gradually, women gained certain freedoms. The wearing of the veil was liberalised. Women's right to vote was established. At the same time, women were allowed access to schools and universities and to virtually all jobs. Several women even won cabinet posts. Zahir Shah also founded Kabul University and sought to modernise the country's infrastructure.
However, the country was, at its core, divided. The transformation of the cities had not reached deep into Afghanistan and tribal disputes were becoming more pronounced. And once again the modernisation of the country came under scrutiny from conservatives, who continued their attacks on women's participation in the social and political sphere.
In 1973, a military coup overthrew the monarchy and installed the Republic of Afghanistan, and five years later, in 1978, the communist-inspired Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was established. In 1979, in support of the communist government, the Soviet Union invaded the country, leading to a civil war between the pro-Soviet government and Islamist guerrillas.
From 1973 onwards, the "modernisation" project of successive governments, which sought to portray a forward-looking image, allowed for an apparent increase in women's rights. But this increase was focused on the big cities, while the villages continued to be governed by tribal practices. It is important to note that the interpretations of Islam - represented by the struggle between conservatives and reformists, which intensified during the Soviet invasion, also highlighted the deep growing divisions within Islam in the country and their visions of women's roles.
In this context, in 1977, Meena Keshwar Kama, a young social activist, who had been involved in organising and educating women from an early age, launched the country's first movement for women's rights. She founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, RAWA. This organisation aimed to give a voice to the dispossessed and silenced women. Its goals: the restoration of democracy, equality for men and women, social justice, and the separation of religion from the affairs of the state.
In 1979 Meena launched a campaign against the Russian forces and their regime, and organised numerous processions and meetings to mobilise public opinion. In 1981, she launched the feminist magazine Payam-e-Zan ("Woman's Message") that constantly exposed the criminal nature of fundamentalist groups.Her active social work and effective advocacy against the views of the fundamentalists and the regime provoked the wrath of the Russians and the fundamentalist forces alike and she was assassinated in 1987.
But Meena had already planted the seeds of an Afghan women's rights movement based on the power of knowledge. Today, her firm conviction lives on with RAWA that, despite the darkness of illiteracy, the ignorance of fundamentalism, and corruption, eventually half of the population will wake up and cross the road to freedom, democracy and women's rights .
THE FIRST ISLAMIC EMIRATE AND THE COMPLETE LOSS OF WOMEN'S RIGHTS
The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, has been at the centre of the Central Asian nation's recent history since its formation in 1994, in an unstable context following the Soviet Union's invasion. At the time, Afghanistan had just emerged from the 1979-1989 Soviet invasion and was fragmented among several warlords fighting each other for influence.
The Taliban came from several mujahideen, a series of warlords with a strong religious character who fought vehemently against the Soviets, and managed to gain a foothold in this nation in a short period of time thanks to their promise to end corruption and their orthodoxy with Islam.
Their power grew so much and so fast that on 26th September 1996, they took Kabul, the capital, creating for the first time the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a theocratic regime that soon gained international attention for its methods of repression and rule over those Afghans who refused to follow the imposed dogmas. The severe punishments, ranging from whippings to amputations to collective stonings, and the treatment of Afghan women, who were completely subjugated and lost almost all their rights, provoked a strong international condemnation.
Islamic fundamentalists imposed 'Sharia' law, imposing a reign of terror, with countless human rights violations, especially against women.
Women were placed under de facto house arrest. They were forbidden to work, could not associate with men other than their husbands or fathers and could not be seen in public. They had to go out in a full burqa, and always with a man. They were also forbidden to study or work and were even forbidden to be examined by a doctor. Women even had to tint the windows of their homes so that they could not be seen from the outside.
The Taliban also imposed severe punishments on all women who broke any of the rules to which they were subjected. Thus, those who were found guilty of adultery were stoned, those who wore painted nails lost their fingers and those who showed interest in studying were beaten.
Despite the risks, many women in Kabul and elsewhere protested. Many set up secret girls' schools or secret literary circles. Risking beatings and worse, many brave women continued the struggle for equality by educating girls.
However, many activists, fearing assassination and violence, had to leave the country and continue their activism in neighbouring countries. Those who decided to stay confronted the Taliban and there are accounts of clashes with the "vice and virtue" police, with women carrying copies of the Koran and asking the Taliban to show them where the verse forbidding women to leave the house or instructing them to wear the burqa was. In short, the reign of terror imposed by the first Taliban government totally marginalised women but could not keep them all completely silent.
After the attacks in New York and Washington by Taliban-backed Al-Qaeda militants in September 2001, Afghanistan was again invaded, this time by NATO, led by US and British forces in the so-called 'Operation Enduring Freedom', as part of the US government's 'war on terror'. The objectives of this operation were to capture Osama bin Laden, destroy the terrorist group Al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime.
On women's rights, this led to an improvement. The 2004 constitution made it mandatory to reserve more than 20% of seats in parliament for women, a law banning violence against women was established in 2009, and in the following years many of the fundamentalist impositions of the dark years of 1996-2001 were lifted, especially in the big cities.
However, while laws are important, the Afghan reality is complex, and while the impositions of the years of terror were removed from the big cities, the social reality in areas far from the big cities remained the same as in years past.
The US-led intervention removed political and legal barriers for women and allowed them to return to public spaces, but changing cultural norms across the country is a longer process that requires a grassroots movement. The Afghan society is made up of a set of ethnic groups that are very traditionalist, conservative and deeply rigorous in terms of the practice of Islam. Two decades were not enough to wipe out the Taliban, and Islamic fundamentalists continued to control parts of Afghanistan. Finally, in August 2021, with the end of the international military presence, the Taliban returned to power.
THE RETURN OF THE TALIBAN
Now that the Taliban have returned to power, the years of women's access to standard human rights are gone, again.
Since the 15th August 2021, the day the Taliban entered Kabul and took control of the country, violations of women's human rights have continued to increase. Despite initially promising that women would be able to exercise their rights within the confines of Sharia, Islamic law - which includes the right to work and study - the Taliban have systematically excluded women from public life.
Women and girls have been ordered to stop using parks, gyms and public toilets. They have been banned from education and workplaces and further restricted in their freedom of movement. In addition, all local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been ordered to prevent their female employees from coming to work, leading many aid agencies to suspend their operations, unable to reach many needy families without the support of female staff.
It is uncertain what the Taliban regime will do next. Afghan women affected by Taliban bans on work and education fear for their future. A strong women's movement in Afghanistan operates underground and will not be silenced. Their resistance is heroic and historic. Their goal is to have their rights respected, to choose how they want to behave or dress. These brave Afghan women need, today more than ever, the unconditional support of the international community in their struggle.
On this International Women's Day, our thoughts are with them, and with all women who struggle for equal treatment. Because women's rights are human rights.
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The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.
We have previously featured Paola's documentary about the protests for women's rights in Iran. To see the story >>>
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