Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Change Challenges Afghan Women

Balancing Islamic tradition and new opportunities under communism is key, women say

IN this Afghan capital, Quirasha Abdali can wear her stylish Western clothes, bobbed hair, and makeup. But when she goes to the countryside - as the only woman among 50 field workers at the Agricultural Research Institute - she dons a loose-fitting tunic and trousers and discreetly covers her head with a scarf.

``In Kabul, it is up to the woman what she wears. No one questions you,'' she says. ``When women come from the provinces to Kabul, they throw away their chadri [veils].

About these ads

``In the provinces, especially in eastern Afghanistan, many women work in the fields without chadri,'' she continues. ``But many men there think women should not work in the fields and should put on chadri.''

Afghanistan's political upheaval and military conflict of the past 11 years have quickened change and sharpened differences for women. Western ideas and modernization spread as more women became educated and played a key role in the economy. The Communists who took power in 1978 advocate a more visible role for women in this traditional Muslim society.

The future of Afghan women is closely linked to the outcome of the civil war. Opposing the pro-Soviet government of President Najibullah are Islamic guerrillas, including fundamentalists who favor keeping women under traditional Islamic strictures.

Many areas remain bound by religious sanctions that say women should be shrouded in the veil, uneducated, and confined to their homes. Both urban and rural women who lost male relatives in the war have been left alone and unprepared to cope in what remains a male-dominated society.

``The women have been affected very much by this crazy war. They have lost their husbands, fathers, and sons,'' says Masooma Esmaty, who heads the government's Women's Division. ``Every revolution has its good and other effects, too. The loss of members of their families has affected women psychologically and physically. They have taken huge loads on their shoulders.''

Even before 1978, Afghan attitudes toward women had been in flux. Sixty years ago, King Amanullah fell from power largely because he abolished purdah and established coeducational schools.

In 1959, leader Muhammad Daoud, whose 1978 ouster by the Marxists triggered a Muslim uprising and the Soviet intervention, announced the voluntary abolition of the chadri, a full-length, tent-like covering with a small cloth mesh over the eyes.

About these ads

Daoud's action led to protests by the mullahs or Muslim teachers, although after that the chadri began to disappear from Kabul and Western dress became more common in the cities. The lifting of the veil also prompted hundreds of thousands of women, who accounted for 50 percent of the population, to join the work force.

Many rural women had long shunned wearing the chadri because it interfered with their work. Still, reflecting ideas from other Muslim countries, many men saw the veil as a symbol of upward mobility since it signaled that one's wife did not have to work outside and could afford to stay home.

``This covering of the face never existed before in Afghanistan,'' says a woman educator. ``It was imported here from Pakistan and Iran.''

The Marxist rise to power brought a new focus on women's rights.

In the last decade, women have assumed a major role in the labor force and education. Members of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan claim responsibility for the improved status for women. However, observers say the changes are largely cosmetic and attribute them more to the decimation of a generation of men.

For example, the government claims to have a special battalion of women manning the defenses of Kabul. But the women soldiers have been seen only in parades and not in combat positions.

At Kabul University, officials say more than 60 percent of the students are women. This compares to about 10 percent in 1978. But on the faculty, women hold only 20 of 600 teaching positions.

``Before the revolution, this society was backward and feudal and kept women down,'' says university chancellor Kamran Homayun. ``The broad participation of women in the socioeconomic and political life was made possible by the emancipation of women after the revolution.''

``You will see many women in Kabul wearing Western dress, because if she gets a high education she does not want to be like the illiterate women,'' says a student wearing American clothes that came from the second-hand clothing market in Kabul. ``It all depends on education.''

Women also have taken over the medical profession have become more prominent in government and other fields because unmarried women without male relatives have been unable to flee the country, Afghan women say.

``Women have kept the schools and the hospitals open. There are more opportunities ... due to the conditions of war,'' says one middle-class woman. ``Many of them are single women who could not leave their mothers and fathers and run away.''

However, in the countryside, women still conform to tradition. Gulalai, a young smartly dressed insurance executive in Kabul, says that in the city her mother wears Western dresses, but when she goes out to the family's ancestral village ``she feels she has to put on the chadri.''

``I don't think Afghanistan has passed beyond its tradition of feudalism,'' says Mrs. Esmaty, the government official. ``Much still depends on the attitude of men.''

Indeed, middle-class women in Kabul worry about the possibility of fundamentalist guerrillas coming to power. While Afghanistan has shunned the ideology of the Marxist revolutionaries, many urban Afghans also oppose a fundamentalist Islamic order.

``Many women in Kabul fear these fundamentalists. In Peshawar, men whose wives don't wear the veil have been told they are Western-minded and not good Muslims,'' says a Kabul teacher who was wearing a Western-style suit but had a scarf over her head. ``We have our own style. We know what to wear and how to act. We don't need these fundamentalist mujahideen telling us what to do.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.