The iconic image of the green-eyed Afghan girl who graced the cover of “National Geographic” magazine in 1985 generated a media frenzy when a new picture emerged in 2002, just a few months after the ruling Taliban was ousted from her native Afghanistan. No words could have better depicted the extent of her suffering during the 17 years since the original photo was taken.
But it was not her war-weary face that launched 1,000 NGOs to work toward improving the lives of Afghan women. That vogue had actually begun with the Taliban’s coming to power in 1996, and regardless of whether their efforts were effective, a new wave of NGOs entered the fray in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 to champion the cause of the downtrodden Afghan woman.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is apt to consider what progress has been made, and what challenges continue to hinder the efforts of well-intentioned parties.
The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women -- from overzealous, ultrafeminist Western groups to former hippie do-gooders. Suddenly, it seemed like the entire world was scrambling to ameliorate the condition of the Afghan woman. But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive.
Some critics find fault in the approach taken by many of the foreign organizations. They charge that many programs are rooted in a Western worldview and have not taken into account the social and cultural realities of an Islamic, underdeveloped, and postconflict society. As such, they have sought to impose foreign values that cannot be absorbed, and consequently, cannot bring effective change.
Others have taken an overly culturally sensitive approach, which has assumed a static view of Afghan society and has underestimated the abilities and aspirations of Afghan women.
Still Fighting For Equality
On March 6 and 7, a bevy of prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul. They included such high-profile figures as the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, Sima Samar; the president of the Afghan Red Crescent, Fatima Gailani; and former State Minister for Women’s Affairs Mahbuba Hoquqmal. While their privileged station in life is far removed from those of their rural counterparts, they have spearheaded the campaign to bring qualitative improvements to the lives of Afghan women through legislation, and more importantly, by initiating a change in prevailing mindsets among men.
Off the record, some of these eminent women will concede that the pursuit of their own careers has often sidetracked them from trailblazing for the rights of Afghan women in general.
The Afghan Constitution of 2004 is arguably one of the most progressive legal documents in terms of women’s rights in the region and in the Islamic world generally. It guarantees women’s equality before the law (Article 22), women’s education (Articles 43 and 44), the right to work (Article 48), the right to health care (Article 52), support for women without a breadwinner (Article 53), the physical and mental wellbeing of mothers and the elimination of customary practices that are contrary to Islamic prescriptions (Article 54), and women’s representation in both houses of parliament (Articles 83 and 84). In addition, Article 7 stipulates that the state respects the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Nevertheless, more than five years later, unchanged old laws and the state’s unwillingness to enforce laws indiscriminately have left the progressive constitution unfulfilled.
The eminent women who took part in the meeting have called upon the government to address earnestly the question of legal equality, to enforce laws indiscriminately, and to allow for women’s active participation in the legislative process.
As the realm of law has fallen short of women’s expectations, an increasing number of Afghan repatriates have turned to the private sector to help rehabilitate the shattered lives of their female compatriots, most of whom were left impoverished by war or the loss of their primary breadwinning male family member. The nascent but booming private sector has provided fertile ground for female entrepreneurial spirit to slowly take root. Afghan businesswomen have found some opportunities in private enterprise to employ other Afghan women in jobs that make optimal use of their abilities -- such as weaving, sewing, embroidery, or other traditional work.
A sterling example is the work of Zolaykha Sherzad, an Afghan-American who launched Zarif Design in Kabul in 2005. Zarif Design is a fashion label that draws on aspects of traditional Afghan textiles and hand-stitched embroidery and appeals to a global market. In doing so, Sherzad has created job opportunities for women, who in turn are participating in the preservation and evolution of their time-honored craft. Sherzad currently employs 52 people in Afghanistan, of whom 60 percent are women.
Another example is the home accessories brand Boumi, launched by Hassina Sherjan in 2004. Her tableware, curtains, and cushion covers combine Afghan styles with contemporary designs, using traditional Afghan embroidery techniques. The Boumi factory currently has about 60 employees and has an ultimate capacity of some 300.
A recent addition to the growing list of Afghan entrepreneurs is 24-year-old Nilofar Zia Massud, a granddaughter of former Afghan President Barhanuddin Rabbani. Massud launched Haus of Vixen, a fashion brand that has a younger, trendier following.
It is worth noting that a history of women's involvement in business is embedded in the Afghan and Islamic traditions. For example, Zaynab, one of the wives of Prophet Mohammad, was a businesswoman, and after the death of her husband, she refused to receive the state stipend allocated for the widows of the prophet because she had a prosperous leather business and a good income.
Zarghuna Ana, the mother of the founder of modern Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, was one of the biggest Kandahari investors in the regional trade that was flowing between India, Iran, and Central Asia in the mid-18th century.
In modern times, women’s efforts have met with a fair share of challenges. There are, however, many Afghan women who have returned from the United States, Canada, Australia, and European countries to either head NGOs involved in humanitarian assistance (mostly for women and girls), assume positions in government, or become members of parliament. It is hoped that their unique understanding of local social mores and customs will help bridge the gap between foreign benevolence and the need to improve the lot of Afghan women.
Helena Malikyar is an expert on Afghan state-building. Tanya Goudsouzian is a journalist who has covered Afghanistan since 2001. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.