• Athena Ives

Afghan Women Fight for Their Lives

By: Athena Ives

This was a research paper I wrote as part of my work in the US Marine Corps. I have not only studied the horrific dehumanization of women in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen it first hand. I worked with many of the local women during my combat tour in 2008 to Fallujah. One of these women, my interpreter, not only saved my life but became one of my closest friends.

Not only are all women's rights threatened, the lives of the brave men and women that chose to fight back against the tyrannical Taliban are at risk. I wrote this paper around 12 years ago and women in these countries and more are still fighting for basic human rights. A common question that many girls and women have asked me is "Why don't more people care"? This became even more obvious when the focus of ridicule on the US stimulus funding to other countries was Gender Studies in Pakistan. Out of all the money sent, gender studies was seen as the most inappropriate use of funding. The basic human rights of women in many countries are ignored.

On the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan there is a small hospital for women. A group of idealistic Afghan doctors run this one room ward that consists of approximately thirty beds. In one of these small, sterile, white beds lies an emaciated girl rolled into her sheets in a catatonic state. Her eyes are closed and she is unresponsive even to the gentle questions of the doctor. This child was brought in by her family to be treated for mental illness. Her family had recently married their daughter off to a man in his late seventies, a very wealthy man held in high esteem throughout the village.

Mysteriously, this young girl began to suffer from demon possessions as soon as she was married. After her husband beat her repeatedly for not meeting his sexual needs, he returned her to her family after nearly beating her to death. He ordered them to return her when she was “fixed” and could meet his every need. Her family took her to a mullah, an educated Muslim trained in religious law and doctrine and usually holding an official post, who attempted to expel the demons from her (Benard, 2002).

After repeated tries they soon gave up, took her to the hospital, and left her there, believing there to be no hope of recovery. This child, now lying bruised, broken, and incorrigible according to her family and husband, was fourteen-years-old (Benard, 2002). The story of this fourteen-year-old child is one of many cases of domestic violence that has become an accepted norm for the females in Afghanistan. The majority of the world is unaware of these issues; only through in-depth research can one develop a better understanding of the rights of females in Afghanistan now, the changes that took place after the fall of the Taliban regarding these rights, and the effects of women’s rights on Afghanistan as a whole (Benard, 2002).

Rights of the Females in Afghanistan

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the United States claimed to have freed Afghan women from the misogynist regime of the Taliban. However, this is not the case. There are countless stories of abuse still going on, which include beatings, cutting of toes, hands, noses, and many other horrific acts. Because of these hardships, the depression rate among Afghan women is over 90 percent and scores of women commit suicide by self-burning every month (Qazi, 2009).

Bashira, a 14-year-old girl, was gang-raped by three men, one of them the son of an infamous warlord in Sar-e-Pul (Northern Province ) called Haji Payinda. Although she raised her voice and demanded justice, the boy is free today with no action taken against him. Previously, President Hamid Karzai pardoned three men from influential tribes in the Northern Alliance convicted of raping and killing a woman (RAWA, 2009).

On Saturday April 4th, 2009 a leaked copy of the laws surfaced in The Times in the UK , revealing President Karzai’s legislation. This law permits marital rape, bans women from leaving their homes without permission and allows girls to be married from when they start menstruating (Times, 2009). Canada has made it clear that they will remove their 2,800 troops if this law is not repealed (Cohen, 2009). Several articles found in this legislation are shown below.

Article 27 The age of maturity (and thus marriage) is 15 for boys; for girls it is when they have their first period.

Article 132 The couple should not commit acts that create hatred and bitterness. The wife is bound to preen for her husband, as and when he desires. The husband, except when traveling or ill, is bound to have intercourse with his wife every four nights. The wife is bound to give a positive response.

Article 133 The husband can stop the wife from any unnecessary, un-Islamic act. The wife cannot leave the house without the permission of the husband.

Article 177 The wife does not have the right to the provision of maintenance by the husband unless she agrees to have intercourse with him and he gets an opportunity for doing so.

Obedience, readiness for intercourse and not leaving the house without the permission of the husband are the duties of the wife, violation of every one of them will mean disobedience to the husband (Times, 2009).

Changes of Female Rights After 2001

On September 27th, 1996 the Taliban broadcasted a decree over the radio stating, “The Prophet told his disciples that their work was to forbid evil and promote virtue. We have come to restore order. Laws will be established by religious authorities. Previous governments did not respect religion. We have driven them out and they have fled” (Latifa, 2001).

The complete subordination of women was one of the first acts that the Taliban enforced when they were in control of Afghanistan (Benard, 2002). The Radio Sharia broadcasted daily announcing new laws and regulations. The bans they put on the women were numerous and punishable by any measures they deemed appropriate. Focusing on several of the more severe bans will provide a better understanding of the drastic changes that took place.

There was a complete ban on women's work outside the home. Many families began struggling financially due to the income of the household changing from two incomes to now one. The schools lost their teachers and the children were no longer being educated. The hospitals lost most of their nurses and several doctors, creating understaffed chaos. Women were not allowed outside the home unless accompanied by a mahram (close male relative such as a father, brother or husband). Male doctors were no longer allowed to treat female patients. Due to the ban on females working there were no female doctors on staff causing there to be no healthcare for women. Many were forced to travel to Pakistan in order to receive treatment.

Women were banned from studying at schools, universities or any other educational institution causing the attendance rate at schools to drop enormously. Male tailors were forbidden to take women's measurements or sew their clothes and the shop keepers from speaking with female clients. Failure to any of these laws resulted in public whipping, beating and verbal abuse. They required women to acquire the proper attire, however the bans they put on them made this task nearly impossible. Women were not allowed to have jobs; therefore there were no female tailors. They were not allowed to speak with male shopkeepers, forcing their mahram to obtain the material for them. They were not allowed to attend school, which denied them the opportunity to learn how to sew the clothing they were forced to wear. Women were not allowed to laugh or wear high heels, because they believed women should not be heard.

Women were not allowed to travel on the same bus. Public buses had been designated "males only" or "females only". If women were not allowed to travel without their mahram what if they became separated? According to the law the woman was in the wrong and by law could be beaten if caught. They were banned from washing clothes next to rivers or in a public place and from appearing on the balconies of their apartments or houses. They were forced to paint all windows to be hidden from sight. They were no longer allowed to use the female public baths and for many this was the only source of hygiene available which created an increase in health issues (Latifa, 2001).

The restoration of equal rights in post-Taliban Afghanistan has been a slow and often arduous process. However, these amazing women have refused to give up. They have returned to school, taken up jobs, and most importantly returned back to a public life. They are now allowed to be seen by male physicians. Girls now make up a third of the three million children that have returned to schools, and for the first time in years, female students and faculty are present at the nation’s universities (Latifa, 2001).

One of the most important women in Afghanistan history and the primary reason women’s rights are beginning to change, is Meena Keshwar Kamal. She is the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). At age 21, Meena began educating women and went on to campaign against Soviet Forces and the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan in Kamal in 1979. Her accomplishments are remarkable considering the danger her beliefs and activities put her in. Mena established schools for Afghan refugee children as well as hospitals and handicraft centers for female refugees in Pakistan. Her activities and views, as well as her work against the government and religious fundamentalists led to her assassination on February 4th, 1987 (Benard, 2002). Although many members of this association have also been killed, they continue their work and have made great advances towards the rights of the Afghan females.

Despite the overthrow of the Taliban, religious fundamentalism is still the predominate law of the land. The unwavering loyalty to their religion has been the main cause to the violation of basic human rights the females of Afghanistan are suffering from. In 2004 they refined the Constitution stating that all Afghan citizens, men and women alike, have equal rights and duties before the law. However, this is open to interpretation due to the fact that “the law” also includes religious law (Tortajada, 2004).

The Affect of Women’s Rights on Afghanistan as a Whole

God has not given women equal rights because under His decision, two women are counted as equal to one man,” stated the chairman of the loyal jirga. (Tortajada, 2004)

Out of 23.6 million people in Afghanistan, 48.9% are female, 30% of agricultural workers are women. They receive 3 times less wages than men. The war has left 50,000 widows in Kabul and they support an average of 6 dependents (Shabot, 2002).

Most Afghan women are not allowed to work and due to the lack of a second income, many children are forced to take on full time jobs in order for their family to survive. While Afghanistan has been impoverished for decades now, over the last 10 years the situation has worsened to the point where one in three Afghans now suffer from severe poverty, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (Kolhatkar, 2006).

Healthcare is nearly non-nonexistent and they suffer from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (1 in 55), second only to Sierra Leone. One in nine women dies in child birth. The three decades of war has left one million widows. These widows are not supported by the corrupt government and have no option except begging, prostitution, and suicide. The recent imposed law banning beggary reduces this range of options still further (Lines, 1988).

Changes have been made to allow women more rights, but they are not being enforced. The effect of the lack of response to the plight of the women in Afghanistan is quite serious. The rules the Taliban enforced are still carried out in many rural areas throughout Afghanistan. “There may be opportunities to reach out to moderates in the Taliban, but the situation in Afghanistan is more complicated than the challenges the American military faced in Iraq”, said President Obama in an interview with the New York Times (Times, 2009).

“A Taliban suicide bomber wearing an Afghan army uniform set off a huge explosion Saturday while trying to board a military bus in the capital, killing 30 people, most of them soldiers”, officials said (USA Today, 2009). Hours later, the Afghan president offered to meet personally with the Taliban leader for peace talks and give the militants a position in government. "If a group of Taliban or a number of Taliban come to me and say, 'President, we want a department in this or in that ministry or we want a position as deputy minister ... and we don't want to fight anymore... If there will be a demand and a request like that to me, I will accept it because I want conflicts and fighting to end in Afghanistan," Karzai said (USA Today, 2009).

Conclusion: Analysis and Opinion

The issue of the rights of modern Afghan women is a constant dilemma to which no solution is readily available. Changing religious views of an entire country does not happen overnight. There have been countless numbers of women that have been raped, beaten, killed, tortured, and most recently, acid attacks. Many are not aware of the horror taking place to these women on a daily basis. The first step is to make the world aware of the truth. The United States is especially sheltered, and many Americans prefer to live in ignorance to the plight of others. The other issue is the lack of media coverage. A great deal of research is required to discover the issues regarding female rights in Afghanistan.

Although many laws have been passed, constitutions revised, and women taking more of a role in society, there are still violations of the Afghan woman’s rights occurring every day. The law signed by President Karzai will regress the rights that these brave women have been fighting to get back for years. The right to do what they choose with their body, whom they marry, and their own future and education has been taken away. The rules the Taliban enforced on these women caused severe depression, suicides, and imposed a life of fear and imprisonment. A global understanding of the rules and restrictions that were put on these women is required before any real change can be expected. History is studied in order to prevent such travesties from reoccurring.

Females make up nearly half the population of Afghanistan. Imposing Talaban-like laws regarding women’s rights will affect the country’s financial stability, the education level, health care, and the overall wellbeing of the citizens. President Karzai has been quoted admitting his offering Taliban leaders’ jobs in government positions. In this situation Crime and Terrorism do pay and in this case in the form of money and government jobs! ‘Moderate Taliban members’, is there such a thing? The laws being passed and the decisions of those in government positions will determine the fate of the women in Afghanistan and, in the end, the country as a whole.


Benard, James (2002). Veiled Courage. Random House Inc. New York, New York USA.

Cohen, Toby (2009). Sexist Afghan law Deters NATO Troops. Retrieved on May 14th, 2009 from http://www.religiousintelligence.co.uk/news/?NewsID=4189.

Kolhatkar, Sonali,(2006). Bleeding Afghanistan . Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. New York, New York, USA .

Latifa,(2001). My Forbidden Face. Editions Anne Carriere. New York, New York, USA .

Lines, Maureen (1988). Beyond the North-West Frontier. Haynes Publishing Inc. Newburry Park, CA , USA.

Quazi, Abdullah (2009). The Plight of the Afghan Women. Retrieved on May 14th, 2009 from http://www.afghan-web.com/woman/.

Shabot, Joey (2002). Middle East. St. Martin’s Press. New York, New York, USA.

Times (2009). President Karzai's Taleban-Style Laws for Women. Retrieved on May 14th, 2009 from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6025362.ece.

Tortajada, Ana (2004). The Silenced Cry. St. Martin’s Press. New York, New York, USA.

USA Today (2009). Karzai offers government role to Taliban. Retrieved on May 14th, 2009 from http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-09-29-afghanistan_N.htm.