Afghan society is consistent in its attitudes toward the underlyingprinciples of gender. It is the application of these principles that varies fromgroup to group; and there is a wide range of standards set for accepted femalebehavior, as well as differences in male attitudes toward correct treatment ofwomen. Contradictions arise between traditional customary practices, many ofwhich impinge on the rights of women and are alien to the spirit of Islam, theother functioning canon which emphasizes equality, justice, education andcommunity service for both men and women. Further, the dictates of Islam arethemselves subject to diverse interpretation among reformists, Islamists andultraconservatives. Debates between these groups can be highly volatile.
Gender reform was central to the contentious issues which brought about thefall of King Amanullah in 1929. In 1959, the male-oriented government of PrimeMinister Daud Khan supported the voluntary removal of the veil and the end ofseclusion for women. The 1964 Constitution automatically enfranchised women andguaranteed them the right to education and freedom to work.
For thirty years after 1959 growing numbers of women, most from urbanbackgrounds, functioned in the public arena with poise and dignity, with no lossof honor to themselves or to their families, and with much credit to the nation.Nevertheless, family pressures, traditional attitudes and religious oppositioncontinued to impose constraints which limited the degree to which women couldfind self-expression and control their lives.
Except in Kabul where women under the PDPA were encouraged to assume moreassertive public roles, this evolutionary movement came to a halt in 1978.Conservative mujahidin leaders waging a jihad (struggle) againstforeign encroachment, both military and ideological, were imbued with the beliefthat sexual anarchy would result if women continued to move freely in public;and that society would fall into ruin as a result. These attitudes haveintensified under the Taliban. Mostly rural Pushtun from strongly patriarchalbackgrounds, the Taliban project ultraconservative interpretations of Islam andapply customary practices as societal ideals. In 1996, gender issues are againat the center of heated debate.
All agree that differences between men and women exist and are best preservedthrough recognized standards of behavior. None dispute the centrality of womenin the society. Respect for women is a notable characteristic and few wish todestroy this esteemed status, nor deny what Islam enjoins or Afghan culturevalues. The argument rages over definitions of precisely what constituteshonorable behavior for women in terms of modern realities, especially in thelight of today's monumental reconstruction needs which demand full participationfrom every Afghan citizen.
The current zealous need to protect women's morality stems from the fact thatAfghan society regards women as the perpetuators of the ideals of the society.As such they symbolize honor -- of family, community and nation -- and must becontrolled as well as protected so as to maintain moral purity. By imposingstrict restraints directly on women, the society's most sensitive componentsymbolizing male honor, authorities convey their intent to subordinate personalautonomy and thereby strengthen the impression that they are capable ofexercising control over all aspects of social behavior, male and female.
The practice of purdah, seclusion, (Persian, literally meaningcurtain), including veiling, is the most visible manifestation of this attitude.This concept includes an insistence on separate spaces for men and women andproscriptions against interactions between the sexes outside the mahrammat(acceptable male guardians such as father, brother son and any other male withwhom a women may not marry). These restrictions severely limit women'sactivities, including access to education and employment outside the home. Manyare largely confined to their homes.
Such restrictions are deemed necessary by conservative males because theyconsider women socially immature, with less moral control and physicalrestraint; women's hypersexuality precludes responsible behavior. Consequently,women are untrustworthy and must be kept behind the curtain so as not to disruptthe social order. The need for their isolation therefore is paramount.
Afghan women view their sexuality more positively and question male maturityand self-control. In reality the differences between private and public behaviorare significant. In private, there is a noticeable sharing of ideas andresponsibilities and in many households individual charisma and strength ofcharacter surmounts conventional subordinate roles. Even moral misconduct can belargely overlooked until it becomes a matter of public knowledge. Thenpunishment must be severe for male and family honor must be vindicated. It isthe public image that counts.As a result, urban women are models of reticence inpublic and rural women appear properly submissive.
That a family's social position depends on the public behavior of its femalemembers is a guiding reality. Stepping outside prescribed roles and behavioralnorms in public results in moral condemnation and social ostracism. It is thedictates of society that place a burden on both men and women to conform.
Under such circumstances gender roles necessarily follow defined paths. Maleprerogatives reside in family economic welfare, politics, and relationships withoutsiders; within the family they are expected to be disciplinarians andproviders for aged parents. Female roles stress motherhood, child socializationand family nurturing. Even among professional career women, familyresponsibilities remain a top priority. Thus women's self-perception of theirroles, among the majority, urban and rural, contributes to the perpetuation ofpatriarchal values.
Within the vast store of Afghan folktales covering religion, history andmoral values, many reinforce the values governing male and female behavior. Theyillustrate what can or cannot be done, describe rewards and punishments, anddefine ideal personality types. Thus they serve to perpetuate the existinggender order and through example make it psychologically satisfying.
The status and power of a girl increases as she moves from child to bride tomother to grandmother. A successful marriage with many sons is the principalgoal of Afghan women, wholeheartedly shared by Afghan men. Women's nurturingroles are also crucial. This does not mean that women are confined to domesticroles. The stereotyping of Afghan women as chattel living lives of unremittinglabor, valued by men solely for sexual pleasure and reproductive services ispatently false.
Women's work varies from group to group. Among most settled rural families,women participate in agricultural work only during light harvesting periods, andare responsible for the production of milk products. Some specialize inhandicrafts such as carpet and felt making. In contrast, Nuristani women plowthe fields while the men herd the flocks and process the dairy products. Nomadicwomen care for young lambs and kids and make a wide variety of dairy products,for sale as well as family use. They spin the wool sheered by men and weave thefabric from which their tents are made. Felt-making for yurt coverings andhousehold rugs ia also a female activity. When on the move, it is the women whoput up and take down the tents. The variations are endless.
Although statistics indicate that by 1978 women were joining the workforce inincreasing numbers, only about eight percent of the female population receivedan income. Most of these women lived in urban centers, and the majority wereprofessionals, technicians and administrators employed by the government whichcontinued its strong support. A majority worked in health and education, the twosectors considered most appropriate for women as they are extensions oftraditional women's roles. Others worked in the police, the army, and with theairlines; in government textile, ceramic, food processing and prefabconstruction factories. A few worked in private industry; a few wereself-employed.
The current revival of conservative attitudes toward appropriateextradomestic roles for women and the criticism of women's visibility in publichas largely impacted these professional women. Islamic texts do not delineateroles for women. What they imply is open to interpretation. What they command isequality and justice guaranteeing that women be treated as in no way lesser thanmen. Educated Afghan women are standing fast in their determination to find waysin which they may participate in the nation's reconstruction according to theirinterpretations of Islam's tenets. This is a powerful challenge now facing thesociety.
However, the foreign aid community would do well to examine carefully theirrecent aggressive campaign to assure rights for Afghan women in education andemployment. The Afghan community is already sharply divided over whetherassistance to boys' education should be discontinued because there is a ban oneducation for girls. Family harmony must certainly be undermined when women arefavored over men in a declining job market.
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