Exploited by whom?
An alternative perspective on humanitarian assistance to Afghan women.
Over the last six years, Afghan women have been the subject of unprecedented levels of
interest and international attention; most of it well intentioned, much of it ill
informed. This paper considers the recent debate surrounding their plight and asks whether
western-originated approaches that seek to target or ‘single-out’ women, in isolation from
their wider social, cultural and family context, have more to do with international politics
and the agendas of external agencies than they do with meeting the felt and expressed needs
of the majority of Afghan women.
Listening to Afghan women’s voices
The west’s recent ‘discovery’ of discrimination against Afghan women (discrimination that
passed largely without comment when perpetrated by anti-Soviet Mujaheddin allies in a Cold
War context) is indicative of the political agenda behind much of the recent posturing on
Afghan women; an agenda which has seen figures such as Laura Bush and Cherie Booth (Blair),
each making public pronouncements on the rights of Afghan women (BBC News Online, Friday 16th
November 2001). It is also indicative both of a wider ignorance of the realities of Afghan
culture and discrepancies between the ways in which ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ perceive and
interpret Afghan life.
Discrimination against Afghan women did not appear with the advent of the Taliban regime
and there is ample evidence to suggest it is unlikely to end quickly now that the regime has
gone. Rather, it is symptomatic of much longer-standing religious/cultural tensions between
traditionalists and modernisers in Afghan society.
The proliferation of ‘Gender Advisors’ and specialist gender sections in many
international humanitarian agencies over recent years has led to a welcome and much needed
focus on the plight of marginalized women in many countries around the world. However, it has
also resulted in a tendency towards ‘template’ solutions that fail adequately to take account
of the local social/cultural context. Since the advent of the Taliban, much ink has flowed on
the subject of Afghan women. Many have claimed to speak for Afghan women, sometimes at the
expense of listening to them. This article takes as its starting point, the ways in which
Afghan women describe themselves. Research undertaken with a group of Afghan
women1 during the Taliban regime, identified a number of important
points: Firstly, broad, generalised references to ‘Afghan women’ have led to the
misconception that they somehow constitute a single homogenous group. In reality, there are
significant differences between urban/rural, educated/uneducated, rich/poor and between
different tribal/ethnic groups. It is no more valid to make sweeping, unqualified
generalisations about Afghan women than it is to speak of Afghan men as constituting a single
Secondly, it is important to understand the traditional division between public and
private worlds within Afghan life. While the formal representation of Afghan women in the
political arena is limited, they have a much greater role in decision-making processes at
family and community level. Thirdly, the experience of war, displacement and refugee life
have led to changes in women’s roles, offering greater levels of responsibility on the one
hand and exposing them to greater levels of vulnerability on the other. Fourthly, there is a
cultural dissonance between values advocated by many westerners and those that Afghan women
fight for (based on tradition, culture, religion, etc.). Consequently, many of the solutions
proposed for addressing gender inequity are culturally insensitive and unpopular with Afghan
women themselves, particularly where this has involved sanctioning aid. Too often, the
approaches adopted in the delivery of assistance have relied on standardised,
‘one-size-fits-all’ blueprint solutions, rather than seeking genuinely to understand and
harness the traditional mechanisms that women have established for leadership in the
past. Finally, violations of women’s human rights in Afghanistan are not a recent phenomenon,
rather they form part of a larger landscape that has been shaped by 23 years of conflict and
has to be addressed accordingly. If future initiatives aimed at assisting women in the
post-Taliban era are to be effective it is vital that they are predicated on a realistic
assessment of what is feasible within Afghan culture.
A tale of two worlds
Perhaps one of the most misleading aspects of much recent western coverage of Afghan women
has been the implication that the relative freedoms and educational/professional advances
enjoyed by a small minority of urban women in the past were normative for all Afghan women.
Nancy Dupree notes that even during the 1960s and 1970s conditions for women varied widely
depending on their socio-economic position and on whether they lived in an urban or rural
environment. By the end of the 1970’s, amongst the middle and upper class elite, many Kabuli
women were able to move freely around the city without a male family member. They regarded
education as their right, studied at university and expected to have their own career. By
contrast, life in the villages, where the majority of Afghanistan’s women live, was and
remains, very different. For most rural Afghan women, educational and ‘career’ opportunities
have been limited, if not non-existent. Nevertheless, even in the 1970s, Dupree observes that
amongst the lower-middle and lower classes, who still comprised a majority of Kabul’s
population, most women seldom left home without being escorted by a male family member, even
to go shopping.
Two spheres of influence
Afghan society traditionally has been characterised by conservative cultural norms in
respect to women, with a strong division of roles and segregation between the sexes. This
particular tradition of segregation, known locally as purdah, may be summarised as a keeping
separate of the worlds of men and women, and maintaining symbolic shelter for women. Everyday
behaviour is embodied and structured by purdah through a code of behaviour, which includes
avoidance of any contact between men and women in public. According to this code, men assume
roles in the public sphere, with women generally assigned domestic roles in the private
sphere. The practice of female seclusion varies with age, education, class, wealth, and
ethnicity and between urban and rural areas. Within this highly patriarchal society, some
observers have argued: “women and children tend to be assimilated into the concept of property
and to belong to a male. This is particularly the case among Pashtuns, whose tribal culture,
Pashtunwali, is highly masculinist” (Moghadam, 2002).
The following diagram identifies four key areas in which women participate within Afghan
society. Political processes and interactions are present in all four, but there is a
tendency for outsiders unfamiliar with the nuances and complexities of Afghan culture, to
focus only on the visible, public arena and to neglect those private areas such as the
household. It is in precisely these areas that Afghan women themselves claim to exercise the
most political influence. There has been inadequate recognition of their role by the
assistance community, with the result that opportunities to further peace and recovery have
been missed. Those Afghan women interviewed in the research outlined above (Atmar, Barakat,
and Strand, 1998; Lander, 1998) were at pains to stress that Afghan women wield considerable
power within Afghan society, that their opinions are respected and that those viewing Afghan
society through a western feminist prism often fail to take certain concepts of obligations
and responsibilities into account. Eg: the role traditionally played by women in brokering
peace and in mobilisation (or de-mobilisation) for fighting. Men are responsible for the
support of their family, but it is usually a mother who decides whether sons should or should
not be allowed to go to the front line. In Qu’ranic teaching, the mother is the gateway to
heaven, sons need the forgiveness of their mother before they can enter heaven; the power and
value of a mother’s chaddar (head covering) is critical in the mobilisation of
men. Consequently, the use of terminology such as: ‘Sisters’ and ‘Mothers’ carries far more
weight in Afghan culture than professional terms or designations.
Afghan women, displacement and refugee life
As is indicated above, roles for Afghan women have not remained static and immutable but
have been directly and subtly shaped by war and, particularly by the experience of
displacement, both as refugees and internally displaced persons.
A feature of refugee life common to those in both Pakistan and Iran was the absence of
large numbers of refugee men engaged in military operations inside Afghanistan with the
different Mujaheddin factions, ensuring continuing links with their home villages, (Barakat
and Strand, 2000). As a result refugee women often found themselves involved in
decision-making that would normally have been undertaken either jointly with men, or by men
alone. Responsibility for the upbringing of children fell almost entirely on women in the
absence of men. Afghan women also claimed a significant role in motivating men, husbands,
sons and brothers, to continue their participation in the war and in providing future
fighters, (Atmar, Barakat & Strand, 1998). A further impact of displacement on women was the
marked change in birth spacing. Birth rates increased significantly at this time, from a 1978
figure of 9.3 children per woman to 13.6, a pattern replicated amongst both rural and urban
women. Similar increases have been observed in other refugee settlements around the world.
The ecology in the camp areas of Pakistan is extremely fragile and resources are scarce,
leading to competition between refugees and local inhabitants for firewood, water, and grazing
land for flocks. In such situations, frequently it was women who assumed responsibility for
negotiations over access to resources and basic necessities and in ensuring tensions did not
erupt into violence. (Dupree, 1998a).
For those educated urban women who became refugees, life was particularly
hard. Frequently they were forced to exchange modern houses and apartments in Afghan cities
for the poorer, crowded neighbourhoods of Pakistani cities. During this time, many educated,
urban Afghan women refugees began wearing the veil and adopting much more traditional modes of
dress and lifestyle than they were accustomed to within Afghanistan. In part this resulted
from living side by side with Pakistani families of rural origin with more conservative
attitudes to women. In addition however, many women experienced harassment from young
Mujaheddin, whilst attacks on families who allowed women to work with foreigners, go to
school, or go shopping without a maharam relative, could be extremely vicious (Dupree,
One significant and potentially lasting legacy of refugee life on Afghan women will have
been their exposure to both health care and educational provision. From the outset, clinics
were established within all major refugee settlements, giving many rural Afghan women their
first encounter with health care facilities. This has led to changed perceptions and
expectations amongst rural women; the realisation that aspects of life they had taken as an
immutable given (acute suffering in childbirth; the scourge of vaccine preventable diseases,
deaths due to diarrhoeal disease, high levels of maternal and infant mortality) could be
different. Afghan women refugees have proven to be highly receptive to basic health messages,
particularly where these produce demonstrable results. As large-scale repatriation occurs,
such women are likely both to demand, and to be agents for, increased levels of health care
provision in rural areas.
Initial attempts at introducing education in the camps met with suspicion, but over time,
such attitudes softened and as people have become familiar with education, there has been an
increasing desire to see their children educated. There is clear evidence then, that the
years as refugees have influenced people’s attitudes and aspirations and there is a trend
discernable amongst those returning, to settle in urban centres rather than to return to the
villages from which they fled, in order to gain access to the greater occupational, health and
educational opportunities of the urban centres.
Insiders and outsiders
Outsiders looking in on Afghan culture are quick to identify its highly patriarchal
nature, without acknowledging that such patriarchy is inextricably linked to those coping
mechanisms present within Afghan society, which ensure a safety net exists for women and
children in times of crisis. Before attempting to ‘undo’ those aspects of a culture that
outsiders perceive to be negative, it is important to ensure that alternative strategies are
in place for meeting the needs that are likely to result; given the failures of humanitarian
assistance to Afghanistan in recent years, a more gradual, cautious and culturally sensitive
approach to effecting social change is needed.
Within Afghan society there is very little concept of the ‘individual’ as distinct from
their community. However many humanitarian agencies, operating on a short-term basis and
forced to conform to donor imposed check-lists, may fail to penetrate local culture
sufficiently to understand how best to assist women within their own cultural milieu. Instead
they have sought to ‘target’ women, devising strategies that single them out for assistance in
isolation from their families, thereby provoking suspicion and hostility amongst men whilst
increasing vulnerability for some women. Women’s needs are not incompatible with those of
their family. Obviously, the needs of vulnerable single/widowed women must be addressed, but
agencies need to consider women as an integral part of the family unit, ensuring that
strategies adopted utilise family mechanisms shaped by Afghan culture and traditions; therein
lies the best opportunity for meeting their needs, harnessing their energies and engaging
their support. Tamim Ansary expresses this cogently:
“Empowering women through their traditional roles may lead to the deepest changes. To me,
right now, an historic opportunity exists to support the real empowerment of Afghan women
without engaging in a cultural tug of war with traditional Afghanistan. This country’s most
critical needs coincide with the roles traditionally assigned to women, and shouldering these
tasks will put women centre stage, authentically shaping the future of Afghanistan.” (Ansary,
The need to work with Afghan women, not for them
In the period since 11th September 2001, Afghanistan has gone from being an abandoned
state, considered a pariah by much of the international community, to being the latest
destination on the international aid map. At last count, over 200 NGOs and international aid
agencies have now set up operations in Afghanistan and targeted assistance to Afghan women
appears high on most of their check-lists. However all the indications are that, despite
superficial changes following the recent change of regime, significant inequities between
Afghan men and women are likely to continue. Consequently, any attempt to address these
disparities is likely to necessitate a wholistic, developmental approach focussed on the needs
of Afghan families, particularly refugees/returnees.
In the author’s view, it is essential that any changes, especially those relating to women,
are not forced from the perspective of a Western individualistic agenda, but take place
voluntarily within the framework of Afghan family values and not in opposition to them. This
is likely to be a particularly sensitive issue given the large numbers of foreign personnel
now being deployed in Afghanistan, including younger Afghans from the western diaspora, many
of whom are now very westernised.3
It is apparent also that, contrary to some popular but patronising stereotypes, Afghan
women are not passive or powerless ‘victims’. In addition to the vitally important
contribution made by women to the economy they perceive themselves as wielding considerable
power, particularly within the family and in brokering peace or mobilisation/de-mobilisation,
for fighting. Inadequate recognition of these roles by the assistance community has led to
missed opportunities for furthering peace and recovery. Women see themselves first and
foremost within the framework of the family and this is reflected in their preferred coping
mechanisms in times of hardship. Consequently, there is a need for agencies to focus on the
family as the building block for a peaceful and prosperous Afghan society, and other related
spheres in which women play a major role, whilst still ensuring a safety net exists for the
Two critical and interwoven issues quickly become apparent when considering the present
situation of Afghan women. Firstly, the significant disparity in the lives, expectations and
aspirations of educated urban Afghan women and those of uneducated Afghan women, both rural
and urban; secondly, the importance of cultural sensitivity in effecting change.
The history of women’s emancipation in Afghanistan can be traced back to the 1920’s and
beyond; by the late 1970’s Afghan women had achieved constitutional and legal parity with men,
although very few were able fully to appropriate these rights. A small minority of urban
women enjoyed considerable freedom of movement, educational opportunity and a relatively wide
range of career choices, but this situation contrasted strongly with the position of
uneducated women both rural and urban. Moreover, it is important not to underestimate the
extent to which even these relatively modest freedoms, violated traditional norms and offended
the sensibilities of the more conservative clergy. Whenever attempts have been made to force
the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan this has resulted in a violent backlash, often with
disastrous consequences for women themselves.
Perhaps the single biggest failure of past development efforts was the widening gap that
developed between the cultural outlook of the urban elite and that of the rural masses. If
future reconstruction and development endeavours are to be effective, it is vital that efforts
are made to spread the benefits; to ensure the rural population is not excluded from any
‘peace dividend’ and that rural Afghans, both women and men, feel that that their voices and
their cultural perspectives are heard within Kabul’s corridors of power.
It is clear that, despite superficial changes relating to women, Afghanistan is a
conservative society in which there remain strong and powerful patriarchal forces resistant to
change. It is also likely that despite any formal cessation of hostilities, political tension
and instability is likely to remain for many years to come. Twenty-three years of war,
combined with the experience of displacement and refugee life have exercised a profound impact
on women, exposing them to new roles and opportunities, and necessitating both new and
traditional coping strategies. Rather than seeking simply to overturn those aspects of
traditional culture they perceive to be negative, agencies working for change and development
in Afghanistan need to be willing to harness coping strategies that utilise family mechanisms,
authentically shaped by Afghan culture and traditions. In so doing they must be prepared to
commit for the long haul; in this cultural milieu there are no ‘quick-fixes’.
Afghan women are no strangers to exploitation but in recent years their exploitation has
taken on new forms as various international actors, driven by their own political agendas,
have sought to make capital out of championing their rights. Western governments rallied to
the cause of Afghan women as part of their opposition to the Taliban regime, whilst remaining
conveniently silent on the abuses of women’s rights by the Mujaheddin regime, or the equally
draconian treatment of women in other, more powerful allied states (for example Saudi
Arabia). At the same time, many within the assistance community have also used the plight of
Afghan women under the Taliban to pursue their own philosophical and developmental agendas,
arguing trenchantly in favour of sanctions, and aid conditionality, whether or not their
approach met with the support of most Afghan women themselves.
To be truly effective, interventions intended to assist Afghan women need to work with
them, not for them. There is a need to recognise the diversity of capacities and aspirations
that exists within a group that comprises half a nation.
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* Gareth Wardell is Research Fellow in the Post-war Reconstruction &
Development Unit at the University of York. He has worked in field-based senior management
positions with development agencies in Afghanistan and Nepal for twelve years. (This is a
truncated version of an article that appears in the Special Edition of Third World Quarterly,
devoted to Afghan reconstruction, November 2003).
1) The proceedings of this workshop, held in York from
12-15 January 1998 are set out in detail in From Rhetoric to Reality. The Role of Aid in
Local Peacebuilding in Afghanistan. Dr Sima Samar, Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Afghan
Interim Authority, was one of the workshop participants. (See Atmar, Barakat, and Strand,
A. 1998; and Lander, 1998)
2) Personal email communication between Nancy Dupree and the author, 12
3) A word of caution is offered here in relation to the Afghan
diaspora. In recent months much has been written about the importance of harnessing the
expertise and energies of the diaspora. However it needs to be recognised that the Afghan
diaspora, particularly its most educated and articulate members settled largely in Western
countries, is a reflection of the political, philosophical and religious debates/tensions that
led to their migration. There is a risk that significant tensions will emerge if those who
escaped the worst excesses of the war, many of whom have not lived in Afghanistan for decades,
are now seen to dominate the debates and decisions about reconstruction. The importance of
ensuring that the ruling urban elite remains culturally connected to the rural mass, and that
the benefits of reconstruction accrue to both rural and urban society, cannot be emphasised