The Sex/Gender System In Afghanistan

Late last year, I wrote a high-level paper on the topic of Gender and Development (GAD), using Afghanistan as a case study. The topic briefly touches on and relates to my current thesis project, except that the only difference is that my thesis focuses on GAD in the rural areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in northern Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan. Yet, at the same time, I decided to examine GAD trends pertaining to Afghanistan, as it has had tremendous impacts, especially through “Bottom-up” development strategies and initiatives utilized by women’s groups and non-government women’s organizations.

Anyway, I will be presenting this paper at the International Development Studies Graduate Student Conference in mid-March. And I’m really, really excited! Below is an excerpt from the paper (and, yes, it’s copyrighted, so if anyone wants to use it as part of their paper/research, or requires the list of bibliography I used to write this paper, then please contact me privately. Thank you for understanding).


Afghanistan is situated in the “patriarchal belt” and constitutes an extreme case of classic patriarchy. Women, living in rural areas are, for the most part, subject to forms of control and subordination, which include gender segregation and the association of female virtue with family honour. Young brides – as young as nine or 10 years old – marry into large families, gain respect primarily by bearing sons, and later on in life obtain power as mothers-in-law. Seclusion of women from all but intimate family members is typical of such societies. And women’s freedom is decidedly limited as most wear the burqa – a full body-coveringin public.

Furthermore, Riphenburg (2003) argues that the reason for rural women’s current condition is due to the fact that Afghan patriarchy emanates from a mode of production based on nomadic pastoralism, such as herding and farming, and settled agriculture, which all established patrilineally. Rural women and children are thus incorporated into the idea of property; in other words, they “belong” to the male (Riphenburg, 2003).

Afghan Women and Participatory Development

Although twenty-two years of war and violent conflict has marred social capital in Afghanistan, women are still able to organize gender-related survival strategies and, in the process, become aware of more gender-specific concerns. Participatory Urban and Rural Appraisal (PRA) (Chambers, 1994) provided useful tools for an appropriate quantitative and qualitative analysis of the needs of rural women, as well as men, in Afghanistan. The women, particularly, worked together in groups and organizations, generating networks, norms, and trust in their communities (Rostami Povey, 2003). Also, the provision of resources and opportunities for women to tell and share their experiences/stories, as part of a healing process, is a vital element in the post-war reconstruction effort. Though, many women may not have wanted to voice the truth about what they’d gone through, for fear of wider personal and political reprisals, especially for sex workers in the context of the very strict Islamic law. And because Islamic law strongly condemns prostitution, if a woman is caught prostituting herself, she is severely punished through the death penalty (Rostami Povey, 2003). But, with the aid and assistance of women’s organizations, women’s media, and NGOs, rural women could feel more empowered to break the taboos and thereby work towards changing gender relations at a deeper level (Rostami Povey, 2003).

Moreover, during the Taliban regime, many prominent women – prominent as in women who were highly educated and wealthy enough to live abroad – chose to stay in Afghanistan and work, either openly or secretively, towards empowering the poorer, rural women (as well as children) in the country. Rostami Povey (2003) provides an example of Sorya Parika, head of the National Union of Women of Afghanistan, who became an integral part of the women’s movement there:

We witnessed twenty-two years of war, terror and bombing. We have an ancient saying: “It is one thing to hear about something, but quite another to see it with your own eyes.” Under the Mujahidin, the weapon of one community against another was to attack, to jail, to rape, to hit in public the female members of the other community. Under the Taliban, women were denied their basic rights to education. Throughout, we continued our activities, openly and secretly, and this allowed us to hold hands with each other and survive. (Rostami Povey, 2003: 269)

Other examples include the non-governmental Women’s Vocational Training Centre, which has been active for 20 years and has offered women in Kabul courses in English and German, as well as computer skills courses. And its activists have further provided courses in handicrafts, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, and honey-making in rural areas outside of Kabul. During the Taliban rule, the Women’s Association of Afghanistan funded and managed secret sewing, knitting, and handicraft courses for women (Rostami Povey, 2003). As for the majority of poor women in rural areas, they used whatever necessary skills they had to turn their homes into underground schools. And they were paid for these services by their neighbours, friends, and families. Hence, this was the way they were able to survive financially (Rostami Povey, 2003).

Furthermore, Kandiyoti (2007) argues that the reason women’s community participation and leadership roles frequently escaped detection in Afghanistan was because they did not take place in public arenas commonly associated with modern civil society. The politics of alliances and reputation play a central role in tribal and village societies, and women participated in decision-making through important roles in matchmaking, gift exchange, and participation in life cycle rituals. Advancing age, religious learning, and membership in powerful lineages also honoured considerable authority in Afghan women (Kandiyoti, 2007).

Alongside the creation of national mechanisms for the advancement of rural Afghan women, the response of the international donor community, on the other hand, also desired to include a women’s participation component into their programmes and projects (Kandiyoti, 2007). And in terms of community-led participation, one of the most complicated social experiments in Afghanistan is the National Solidarity Programme (NSP). The NSP is based on a participatory approach to local level development through democratic and representative Community Development Committees (CDC) at the village level (Kakar, 2005). These committees provided important insights into the types of accommodation made by local communities to comply with donor requirements for women’s inclusion in community decision-making, and hence ensuring gender equality in the public sphere (Boesen, 2004).

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the dilemmas posed by participatory approaches in the GAD paradigm and gender-aware interventions are by no means unique to Afghanistan (Cornwall, 2003; Kandiyoti, 1998; & Mosse, 1995). Practioners everywhere seem to be caught between the dangers of unintentionally planning and combining existing power structures, on the one hand, or importing categories and methods that either have little significance or draw resistance at the local level, on the other (Kandiyoti, 2007). And what is sometimes conveniently overlooked is that rural women, however marginalized, more than often do not share the same political culture as men of their communities (including views about women’s appropriate place and conduct) or even of those from the “modernized” North. This as a result creates a conundrum, where there is not only a clash between the need to increase popular participation, to ‘ease the gap’ (gender inequalities), but also between the perceptions of a “modern” state and the “traditional” tribal people (Zakhilwal, 2005: 1). Therefore, populist compromise in GAD must go through accommodating what is deemed to be “Islamic,” and be wary of traditional sensibilities, considering that Afghanistan is a predominantly Islamic republic, in order to ensure its lasting success in the country.

© November 2011

2 responses to “The Sex/Gender System In Afghanistan

  1. Pingback: Pashtun Organization For Women (POW) « SesapZai – Artist. Poet. Writer.·

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