H.D.S. Greenway

A slow pace for women in Afghanistan

By H.D.S. Greenway
July 5, 2011

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WHEN AFGHANISTAN was ruled by the Taliban, there was no issue that galvanized Americans against the group more than its treatment of women. Yet, in the last 100 years there is no issue that has riled Afghans more than when changes in the traditional role of women are introduced by reformers or foreigners.

When the Taliban first took power, the United States supported it for bringing stability out of chaos. But by 1997 America was turning against the Taliban, “driven by the effective campaign of American feminists,’’ according to Ahmed Rashid who wrote the book, “Taliban.’’ Movie stars and celebrities joined the anti-Taliban campaign in those pre-9/11 days, prompting the Washington Post to write: “Tibet is out. Afghanistan is in.’’

The advancement of women was one of late-20th-century America’s great causes, and quite rightfully so. But today the United States is desperate to get out of the Afghan quagmire, and thus desperate to make a deal with the Taliban. Would women’s rights be compromised?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “It is essential that women’s rights and women’s opportunities are not trampled on in the reconciliation process.’’ Yet the sad truth is that the status of women in many places in Asia do not conform to western ideals.

Reform and the rights of women in Afghanistan have waxed and waned. In 1919 Amanullah came to the throne excited by the reforms of Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and Shah Reza in Iran, both of whom sought to change in the status of women. Amanullah set about bringing his deeply conservative country into the modern world by promoting industry, education, and women’s rights. It was the latter, however, that caused the most resentment and pushback in rural areas outside the capital.

Women were encouraged to go bare-headed, and his queen, Soraya, dramatically unveiled herself in public. Like Ataturk, Amanullah insisted on Western dress. Turbans were out. Homburgs were in.

But Afghanistan was not Turkey, and soon enough a conservative backlash forced Amanullah to retreat. Revolt followed revolt. Amanullah tried to backpeddle and close some girls’ schools, but it was too late. He was forced from the throne.

Later, when the Communists came to power in the 1970s, they too promoted women’s rights. Once again conservative tribal customs, especially among the dominant Pashtuns, were threatened. Revolt followed revolt against reform until the Russians invaded to save the Afghan Communists. The Mujahideen resistance that America helped organize may have shared our ideas about forcing the Soviets out, but they had entirely different ideas about women’s rights than we did.

Toward the end of Soviet rule Mikhail Gorbachev tried to backtrack, like Amanullah did before him. “You have to revive Islam, respect traditions. . . ,’’ he told his generals. After the Soviets had left, their former puppet, Najibullah, in order to survive undid many of the rules about women’s rights that the Communists had installed. And survive he did until the Soviet Union itself collapsed and aid was no longer forthcoming.

The Taliban brought measures against women never before seen in Afghanistan except in the most backward parts of the rural Pashtun hinterland. The restrictions were as radically against tradition in repressing women as the Communists had been promoting women’s rights.

It is unlikely that any compromise with the Taliban would bring back the harshness toward women of the Taliban years. Afghanistan has moved on from the prostrate state in which it found itself when the Taliban took over. And in the age-old tension between urban and rural Afghans there are far more city folk today in proportion to rural than ever before. A return to Taliban harshness would no longer be tolerated.

But the lesson of Afghanistan is that you have to go slow and be patient when pushing reforms on a deeply conservative rural population, and the rural Pashtuns where the Taliban thrives are nothing if not conservative. History shows that it is a mistake to move too fast and too far when confronting local customs and traditions lest the pushback make matters worse.

No doubt empowering women could be of great economic and social value to the future of Afghanistan. However, it will be the Afghans who must decide its pace, and what that balance between urban and rural traditions will be.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.