Afghanistan: Women and the Rulers

CENTRAL ASIA, 5 Dec 2011

Soe Myat Nwe – TRANSCEND Media Service


This paper seeks to find the engagement of women throughout the different and difficult political stages in Afghanistan under different rulers and foreign invaders. The geo-political struggles surrounding Afghanistan have proven a significant challenge towards gender equality setting the clock back several times in Afghanistan’s recent history.  The relationship between women and rulers will be analyzed during the historical phases. It concludes that the secular reformers have been toppled by the help of the Western invaders in order to destabilize the country or to meet their ends. The current positive impact could get worse when the foreign troops pull out of the country. Consequently, the civil war and chaos could follow. As a result, women struggle will continue.


There is a tendency among external analysts to see Afghan women as essentially passive actors throughout history.  This paper presents an initial account of an historical reality that indicates that this representation of passivity is inaccurate.   In reality, Afghan women have contributed substantially to changing the political, social and economic landscape of the country. In this paper I highlight the significant impact of women on the nation-building process, with each section focusing on one of more leading female figures, as examples of the époque and challenges they were facing.

Some female front fighters are globally well-known political figures such as Malalai Joya, Dr. Sima Samar, Wazhma Frogh, Shukria Barakzai, Azra Jafari, Sekena Yacoobi, Fawzia Koofi, Suraya Dalil.  Too many paid with their lives such as Meena Keshwar Kamal, Safia Amajan, Zakia Zaki, Nahid, Malalai Kakar. They are known as heroines but many more died a silent death.

This paper is divided into five historical time periods: the period of the Great Game (1813-1907); the Soviet supported government era (1978-1992); the Mujahideen rule (1992-1996); the Taliban government (1996-2001), and the present Western-supported regime (2001-now).

I. The period of the Great Game

The ‘Great Game’ between the United Kingdom and Czarist Russia started with the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838 and still affects Afghanistan today. Therefore, I address it here as the beginning of today’s struggle for Afghan women.

The Afghan ruler Amir Abdul Rahman Khan (1880-1901) had a great effect on the women’s status in Afghanistan.  “His laws gave men the right to control their wives and forbade women to go outside their homes without permission. Due to his wife Bobo Jan’s influence in politics,  Rahman Khan  made some adjustments benefitting women such as on attaining puberty, a girl should be allowed to  refuse an arranged marriage. He changed the law that required widows to be remarried to the brothers or near relatives of their deceased husbands.  His wife Bobo Jan, was known as vivacious and stylish, travelling widely, dressed in European fashion and went without a veil.” (Armstrong 2002: p.50)

King Amanullah (1919-1929) started reforms including raising the status of women and improving their welfare. Senzil K. Nawid stated that “the regime reasserted its position on women’s rights and female education, areas that fell into its larger framework of social change and were considered essential for the overall development of the Afghan nation” (p.125).  Ida Litcher (2009) wrote: “Oppression of women was common in Afghanistan’s tribal society, but the situation improved following independence from Britain in 1919, when king Amanullah introduced reforms. He discouraged the veil and polygamy, and promoted free choice of spouses and education for women including higher education abroad. He abolished child marriage and increased the minimum age of marriage to twenty-two for men and eighteen for women. However, these reforms were rejected in 1928 by the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly). In the same year, the mullahs decreed a jihad against the king, and he was overthrown in 1929.” (Lichter 2009: p.21)

King Amanullah’s wife, Queen Soraya, was the first Afghan woman, who publicly took off her veil during the Loya Jirga meeting in 1928. She established the first women’s hospital and girls’ school. She is known as the founder of Afghan women’s rights and equality, and one of the most powerful women of Afghanistan. The Queen gave a speech on the 7th Independence Day as follows: “It [Independence] belongs to all of us and that is why we celebrate it. 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.”(Armstrong, 2002:53)

However, as the King declared independence in 1919 and became an ally of Russia, the British interfered and made the king abdicate by plotting with the conservative religious elements and landlords who were not happy with the King’s land reforms.  The Queen’s free spirit attitude became part of the plot. Dr. Human Ahmed Ghosh pointed out that:  “…Presumably, the British distributed pictures of Soraya without a veil, dining with foreign men, and having her hand kissed by the leader of France among tribal regions of Afghanistan (Stewart, 1973). Conservative mullahs and regional leaders took the images and details from the royal family’s trip to be a flagrant betrayal of Afghan culture, religion and honor of women. One can take the circulation of such images from foreign sources as evidence of British efforts to destabilize the Afghan monarchy, the first of many international attempts to keep the country in political, social and economic turmoil. When the royal family returned, they were met with hostility and eventually forced out of office.” (Ghosh 2003: p.5)

Women rights followed the process of modernization in particular in the urban areas.  However the ‘Great Game’, a geopolitical struggle between the powers, unsettled these efforts.

II. Soviet Influence and Soviet Era

The Communist phase from 1978 to 1992 is pictured as a big window of opportunities for women. Zillah Eisenstein (2004) investigated feminism, racism and the West in her book Against Empire. From the feminist perspective against imperialism, she offers some insights on Afghan women. Eisenstein points out that “the 1964 constitution guaranteed equal rights and the vote for women.   Four women were elected to parliament during the Soviet-run period. Seventy percent of school teachers and 50% of civilian government workers were women.” (Eisenstein 2004: p.160)

Dr. Sima Samar had a very different view on the women liberation under the Soviet supported regime: “You could not speak in public against the Russians or you would be killed…The issue wasn’t about religion, it was about culture. While the Russian supporters said they were freeing the women, in fact they were only freeing women to sing on a stage or wear a short skirt. Our human rights were never advanced by them or the Russians.”(Armstrong 2002: pp. 23-24)

Born in 1957, Dr. Samar obtained her degree in medicine in February 1982 from Kabul University. She practiced medicine at a government hospital in Kabul, but after a few months, she was forced to flee for her safety to her native city Jaghoori, where she provided medical treatment to patients throughout the remote areas of central Afghanistan. After her husband’s arrest by the communist regime, Dr. Samar and her son fled to neighboring Pakistan. There she worked as a medical doctor at refugee camps and in 1989 she established the Shuhada Organization and Shuhada Clinic, dedicated to the provision of health care to Afghan women and girls, and the training of medical staff. She returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after the fall of Taliban and received a cabinet post as Minister for Women’s Affairs in the Afghan Transitional Administration led by Hamid Karzai. Due to her public criticism on a botched interpretation of the Sharia Law, as applied by the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, she received death threats and thus she had to resign from her post. She currently serves as the Head of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

The story of Meena, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), also suggests an uneven picture on the situation of women under the Soviet supported regime.  “Meena founded RAWA in 1977 as a progressive and politically active twenty-year-old Kabul University student.  Her active social work provoked the wrath of the Russians and the fundamentalist forces alike and she was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 4, 1987, at the age of 30.” (Mansoor 2002: p. 77)

The communist regime advanced the position of women, especially influencing the urban centers, but gender issues in Afghanistan remained largely subservient to the political agenda.

III. Mujahideen Regime

After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the country was in a complete turmoil. The competing seven major Mujahideen groups were fighting for control and political power.  This period is described by Malalai Joya and Melody Ermachild Chavis as follows:  “They declared war on the rest of Muslims, especially Muslim women, and all non-Muslims. They were fundamentalists; that is, they wanted to return to the teachings they considered to be the fundamental, literal words of God as told to the Prophet. They thought that if only everyone would willingly go back to the old ways, society would be repaired and peace would return. But many people were not willing to follow them, and those people they attacked.” (Chavis 2003: p. 36)   “Many books were written about Afghanistan after 9/11 tragedy, but only a few of them offer a complete and realistic picture of the country’s past. Most of them describe in depth the cruelties and injustices of the Taliban regime but usually ignore or try to hide one of the darkest periods of our history: the rule of the fundamentalist Mujahideen between 1992 and 1996.” (Joya 2009: p.3)

Malalai Joya (2009) wrote: “As early as May 1992, Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, the interim governing council spokesman (now a close friend of Karzai and the United States in Kabul), and Sayed Ali Javed (now a Member of Parliament) publicly announced a new set of rules governing the conduct of women: the ‘Ordinance on the Women’s Veil.’ It proclaimed, ‘A denier of the veil is an infidel and an unveiled woman is lewd,’ and outlined the conditions of wearing a veil” (attached as an appendix 2) (Joya 2009: p. 28). She continue to explain that “Young girls were forcibly married to the jihadi commanders…They used rape as a weapon to dominate and terrorize the people. Their men raped children as young as four, and cut off the breasts of the women. There were even reports reaching Pakistan of these criminals raping the dead bodies of women and the old grandmothers-which is beyond imagination.” (p.29)

The Mujahideen were significantly supported, armed, financed, and trained by the United States to fight against the Soviet Union during the Soviet invasion. Jefferson Day points out the U.S. view on the Mujahideen as: “The CIA believed that as long as the mujahideen were hurting the Soviet Union, their political and religious views didn’t matter.” (Day, p. 31)

The turmoil, relentless and cruel in-fighting among competing mujahideen groups, lawlessness, criminality, and chaos resulted in a set-back for the Afghan population at large.  Fundamentalists, supported and heralded by the US as ‘Freedom Fighters’,  further set the clock back for women rights by decennia.

IV. Taliban Rule

While the Taliban movement, supported by Pakistan, was a reaction towards the abusive and corrupted Mujahideen’s rule, philosophically they shared the fundamentalist view of the uneducated religious country-side.  The role of women, based on a skewed Pashtu interpretation of Sharia Law aimed to “secure environments where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct.” (Dupree, p.145)  The Taliban rule is internationally to be known as the most negative era in the history of Afghan women. Appendix 1 shows details of their decrees.

The Taliban movement needs to be understood in the light of Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ versus their relationship with India and the contentious role of Kashmir.  Allegedly still supported by segments within Pakistan’s army and secret service, the Taliban have never actually disappeared and remain a force to reckon with. “The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country. And that is a lot of places.” (Filkins, 2009)

With the departure of the mujahideen groups and the establishment of the Taliban regime had ended lawlessness, criminality, and chaos. However, an absolute historical set-back for women’s rights took place.

V. The present Western supported government

The Taliban were ousted from power in October 2001 and Hamid Karzai’s interim government was formed in the same year with many of the previously disposed mujahideen leaders being reinstated in power.

Women’s rights campaigners and the international media portrayed Afghan women as miserable, passive victims. Former first ladies Laura Bush and Cherie Blair echoed the call for women rights and the end of oppression.  The Afghan activist and writer Sima Wali refused to accept this kind of Afghan mythology: “The dignity, courage, dedication, and vision I encountered belie the notion that they are only victims. The image of Afghan as miserable victims is but one of a series of myths created and perpetuated by the Western world.” (Wali 2002: p. 6) Suffering three decades of warfare, women had to survive the destruction, loss of family members, and economic hardship.

In the narrative of “liberation”, it was easily overlooked that the set-back for women had started with the US-supported Mujahideen out of which the Taliban movement was to arise.  Malalai Joya (2009), a former Member of Parliament, states: “Most people in the West have been led to believe that intolerance, brutality, and the severe oppression of women in Afghanistan began with the Taliban regime. But this is a lie, more dust in the eyes of the world from the warlords who dominate the American-backed, so-called democratic government of Hamid Karzai. In truth some of the worst atrocities in our recent past were committed during the civil war by the men who are now in power” (p. 27).

Currently, the position of women in the urban areas has improved to a certain degree in that education is allowed for all, women are allowed to work, have their own bank accounts and control over their money. Burqas are not compulsory, male escorts are not required officially anymore, etc.

Nonetheless the burqa, a symbol in the West for women oppression, was not to leave the city-sight.  The female General Khatool Muhammad Zai addressed the relation between women and the burqa as “Some of the women wear burqas because they are so poor that they are embarrassed of their clothes and cover them up with a burqa. If the economy improves, they can buy clothes that they are proud of and not wear burqas.” She refused to accept that the burqa is as negative for Afghan women as seen by Westerners. She explained that: “…the main point is that women are playing a role in helping Afghanistan, with or without the burqa on. Security is also very important for them. For the burqa, it is important to do what their culture says, or the culture they believe in. Every culture in the world does different things. I can’t tell them that they should wear Burqas or that they should not. What I can say is that Afghan women should be working.” (Kiviat and Heidler 2007: p.37)

The deteriorating security and the resurgence of the Taliban do neither bode well for gender equality.  Safia Amajan was killed in 2005. She was active in rebuilding the nation after the civil war and took on public responsibilities despite the threat by the Taliban. “She joined the newly formed government Department of Women’s Affairs in 2001 and rose to be its head…working to educate girls and liberate women in Kandahar made her a target in this city, the volatile nest of the Taliban… She was then gunned down by two men on motor-bicycles during a spate of attacks to hundreds of schools.” (Lichter 2009: P.31)

Due to a hypocritical narrative advocated by the West, the root causes of women’s oppression have never been tackled. Fundamentalism is still to be found in all segments of the society. Increasing security and the looming threat of the Taliban may well make undone the cautious progress made.


I argued in this paper that most of the Afghan rulers and women have tried to modernize the country and elevate the status of women throughout the history of Afghanistan. The myth of the powerless Afghan woman is unfounded. Women themselves work for their rights alongside with the men. However, promoting the status of women has proven to be challenging due to foreign interference, mainly from Great Britain in 1929 which resulted in the abdication of the reformer King Amanullah, by the USA promoting and funding the religious conservative fundamentalist Mujahideen throughout the war with the Soviets and in 1992 to 1996, and later on by Pakistan which claims a special interest towards Afghanistan.

I also pointed out the hypocritical narrative on the 2001 ‘liberation’ of Afghanistan.  The Taliban movement arose from the former Mujahideen, shares the same uneducated religious views as applied especially within the Pashtu country-side, as do today’s Mujahideen, who find themselves back in power with support from the Western governments. Therefore, without tackling the root causes, the challenges for the women under the Hamid Karzai regime continue to exist and their overall fate will remain subservient and vulnerable to geo-political considerations.

A new era of uncertainty has set in with 2014 proposed as the date for transition of power from the Western alliance to the Islamic Government of Afghanistan.  This may induce another round of infighting. Women will, however, continue playing a major role and continue to affect the game of war in their nation as they have throughout the history of Afghanistan, with or without burqas.


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Chavis, M. (2003) Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan, The Martyr Who Founded RAWA, The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Day,B. and Bacevich, A. (n.d) Freedom Fighters?: The Truth and the American Perceptions of the Mujahideen. [online]. Boston: Boston University Academy. Available from: [accessed 2 November 2011].

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Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. London: Hurst and Company, pp145-166.

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Appendix 1

A Sample of Taliban decrees relating to women and other cultural issues, after the capture of Kabul, 1996(This translation from Dari was handed to Western agencies to implement; the grammar and spellings are reproduced here as they appeared in the original.)

Decree announced by the General Presidency of Amr Bil Maruf and Nai As Munkar (Taliban Religious Police), Kabul, November 1996.

Women you should not step outside your residence. If you go outside the house you should not be like women who used to go with fashionable clothes wearing much cosmetics and appearing in front of every men before the coming of Islam.

Islam as a rescuing religion has determined specific dignity for women. Islam has valuable instructions for women. Women should not create such opportunity to attract the attention of useless people who will not look at them with a good eye. Women have the responsibility as a teacher or coordinator for her family. Husband, brother, father have the responsibility for providing the family with the necessary life requirements (food, clothes etc). In case women are required to go outside the residence for the purposes of education, social needs or social services they should cover themselves in accordance with Islamic Sharia regulation. If women are going outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming clothes to show themselves, they will be cursed by the Islamic Sharia and should never expect to go to heaven.

All family elders and every Muslim have responsibility in this respect. We request all family elders to keep tight control over their families and avoid these social problems. Otherwise these women will be threatened, investigated and severely punished as well as the family elders by the forces of the Religious Police (Munkrat).

The Religious Police have the responsibility and duty to struggle against these social problems and will continue their effort until evil is finished.

Rules of work for the State Hospitals and private clinics based on Islamic Sharia principles. Ministry of Health, on behalf of Amir ul Momineet Mohammed Omar. Kabul, November 1996.

1. Female patients should go to female physicians. In case a male physician is needed, the female patient should be accompanied by her close relative.

2. During examination, the female patients and male physicians both will be dressed with Islamic hijab.

3. Male physicians should not touch or see the other parts of female patients except for the affected part.

4. Waiting room for female patients should be safely covered.

5. The person who regulates turn for female patients should be a woman.

6. During the night duty, in what rooms which female patients are hospitalized, the male doctor without the call of the patient is not allowed to enter the room.

7. Sitting and speaking between male and female doctors are not allowed. If there be need for discussion, it should be done with hijab.

8. Female doctors should wear simple clothes, they are not allowed stylish clothes or use of cosmetics or make-up.

9. Female doctors and nurses are not allowed to enter the rooms where male patients are hospitalized.

10. Hospital staff should pray in mosques on time.

11. The Religious Police are allowed to go for control at any time and nobody can prevent them.

Anybody who violates the order will be punished as per Islamic regulations.

General Presidency of Amr Bil Maruf. Kabul, December 1996.

1. To prevent sedition and female uncovers (Be Hejabi). No drivers allowed to pick up women who are using Iranian burqa. In case of violation the driver will be imprisoned. If such kind of female are observed in the street their house will be found and their husband punished. If the women use stimulating and attractive cloth and there is no accompany of close male relative with them, the drivers should not pick them up.

2. To prevent music. To be broadcasted by the public information resources. In shops, hotels, vehicles and rickshaws cassettes and music are prohibited. This matter should be monitored within five days. If any music cassette found in a shop, the shopkeeper should be imprisoned and the shop locked. If five people guarantee the shop should be opened the criminal released later. If cassette found in the vehicle, the vehicle and the driver will be imprisoned. If five people guarantee the vehicle will be released and the criminal released later.

3. To prevent beard shaving and its cutting. After one and a half months, if anyone is observed who has shaved and/or cut his beard, they should be arrested and imprisoned until their beard gets bushy.

4. To prevent keeping pigeons and playing with birds. Within ten days this habit/hobby should stop. After ten days this should be monitored and the pigeons and any other playing birds should be killed.

5. To prevent kite-flying. The kite shops in the city should be abolished.

6. To prevent idolatry. In vehicles, shops, hotels, room and any other places, pictures and portraits should be abolished. The monitors should tear up all pictures in the above places.

7. To prevent gambling. In collaboration with the security police the main centers should be found and the gamblers imprisoned for one month.

8. To eradicate the use of narcotics. Addicts should be imprisoned and investigation made to find the supplier and the shop. The shop should be locked and the owner and user should be imprisoned and punished.

9. To prevent the British and American hairstyle. People with long hair should be arrested and taken to the Religious Police department to shave their hair. The criminal has to pay the barber.

10. To prevent interest on loans, charge on changing small denomination notes and charge on money orders. All money exchangers should be informed that the above three types of exchanging the money should be prohibited. In case of violation criminals will be imprisoned for a long time.

11. To prevent washing cloth by young ladies along the water streams in the city. Violator ladies should be picked up with respectful Islamic manner, taken to their houses and their husbands severely punished.

12. To prevent music and dances in wedding parties. In the case of violation the head of the family will be arrested and punished.

13. To prevent the playing of music drum. The prohibition of this should be announced. If anybody does this then the religious elders can decide about it.

14. To prevent sewing ladies cloth and taking female body measures by tailor. If women or fashion magazines are seen in the shop the tailor should be imprisoned.

15. To prevent sorcery. All the related books should be burnt and the magician should be imprisoned until his repentance.

16. To prevent not praying and order gathering pray at the bazaar. Prayer should be done on their due times in all districts. Transportation should be strictly prohibited and all people are obliged to go to the mosque. If young people are seen in the shops they will be immediately imprisoned. (Extracted from Ahmad Rashid, “Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great game in Central Asia”, p. 217-219)

Appendix 2

The decrees or the conduct of women by the Mujahideen rulers

  1. They must not perfume themselves.
  2. They must not wear adorning clothes.
  3. They must not wear thin clothes.
  4. They must not wear narrow and tight clothes.
  5. They must cover their entire bodies.
  6. Their clothes must not resemble men’s clothes.
  7. Muslim women’s clothes must not resemble non-Muslim women’s clothes.
  8. Their foot ornaments must not produce sound.
  9. They must not wear sound-producing garments.

10. They must not walk in the middle of streets.

11. They must not go out of their houses without their husband’s permission.

12. They must not talk to strange men.

13. If it is necessary to talk, they must talk in a low voice and without laughter.

14. They must not look at strangers.

15. They must not mix with strangers.

(Extracted from Malalai Joya’s book “A Woman Among Warlords, 2009: p. 28)

Appendix 3 

Key words

Burqa – a traditional garment covering the entire body and face. Worn by Afghan women for centuries, burqa was periodically enforced as mandatory dress for women throughout Afghan history. Although Islam mandates modest dress, it does not dictate the covering of the face.

Sharia Law- Islamic law based on the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, and teachings of Prophet Muhammad

Loya Jirga- a Pashto word meaning “Grant Council”,  a meeting of tribal, political, military and religious leaders to discuss issues such as setting foreign and domestic policy, declaring war, and legitimatizing rulers.

Mujahid- (plural, Mujahideen) he who fights in the way of/for Allah (God), usually to restore the rule of God or prevent the believers (Muslims) from non-Muslims enemies. The Mujahideen were non-state fighters in efforts to repel the Soviets.

Talib- (plural, Taliban) usually refers to a student of Islam studying in a religious school or madrassa, usually located in a mosque.


Soe Myat Nwe, originally from Burma, got her Master of Arts degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the European University Center for Peace Studies in Stadtschlaining, Austria, in 2008. She now lives with her husband and son in Vienna and does research particularly on women’s rights.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Dec 2011.

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