By Mostafa Matin
Although the term “women’s movement” has a broader meaning than feminism, it is considered almost equivalent since women’s activism in the last century has its roots in the dual quest for freedom and equality. However, one can speak of a “movement” when individual desires transform into collective action and essentially take the shape of a social movement. Thus, such a movement is the deliberate, persistent, and focused effort of a social group to achieve common goals, such as reforming, preserving, changing, or eliminating the existing social system (Aghabakhshi and Afshari-Raad, 1383/2004: 683). As one of the most significant social movements of recent times, the women’s movement plays a remarkable role in shaping new objectives and values. Historically, the oppression and deprivation of women have long-standing roots, and economic subordination, exclusion from political power, and men’s control over gender relations have been equally ancient. Successful social movements usually need a set of clearly defined goals. For instance, a social movement aiming to improve the situation of a group of people will succeed only if it clearly outlines its objectives (Queen, 1390/2011: 464).
Historical status of the women’s movement in Afghanistan
In the contemporary history of Afghanistan, social movements, including the women’s movement, have been weak and remain so. One reason is the traditional nature of the country; in such societies, social movements rarely emerge, and if they do, they don’t last long. For example, during the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929), women’s status changes were made not by women themselves but by the ruling regime, especially Queen Soraya. Thus, actions like unveiling, abolishing female slavery, facilitating education, and introducing women to the job market cannot be attributed to a rising women’s movement (Dariush, 2019:44). In the recent socio-political history of Afghanistan, women lacked positions at the pinnacle of socio-political movements. Indeed, some women held chiefly symbolic roles in some of these movements.
During the reign of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), the establishment of the Women’s High Institute cannot be considered to be a women’s movement either, though within this organization, several female activists like Masooma Esmati Wardak, Ruqia Abubakar, and Khadijah Ahrari gathered and advocated for women’s rights (Farhang, 1380/2001:553). Although this institution took some steps for the cultural and social upliftment of women, it must be said that independent women with free will were not included in the decision-making processes of Zahir Shah’s government. In this era, women acquired some limited and controlled job opportunities, especially in the cultural and social sectors, but their demands but their demands tracked with the rights that the state would grant.
During the People’s Democratic Party period, the Democratic Women’s Organization was established under Anahita Ratebzad’s leadership to change women’s status. They claimed this trade organization aimed to attract as many women as possible and convert the organization into a vital centre for women, benefiting from organizational independence. It must be said that, firstly, it was a formal organization within the framework of government institutions, but gradually, its female leadership was overshadowed by men (Haseen, 1367/1988: 51).
The women’s movement dwindled during the mujahedeen and the Taliban (1996-2001) eras, then rebounded in the post-Taliban period (2001-2021). Many women appeared in social, cultural, and political arenas. Although many of the women’s activities during this period did not have the characteristics of a specific social movement, overall, they were optimistic about their place in society (Shafai, 1389/2010:173).
In democratic societies, citizens’ political, cultural, and social participation is a fundamental principle. By participating, citizens ensure the state’s legitimacy and bestow upon it credibility, character, and domestic and international standing. Given that women constitute half of the societal body, their participation and presence in various spheres are paramount.
In Afghanistan, following the fall of the Taliban Emirate in 2001 and the Bonn Conference, women regained many of their rights, including their ability to participate in various societal, cultural, and political activities. Women’s lives were so transformed that the post-Bonn period is considered a golden era for their activities in the country’s history.
Women’s movement after the republic
After the fall of the republic and the re-establishment of the Taliban Emirate (2021-), women were prohibited from taking part in various political, economic, social, and educational areas. Even going out of one’s home without a male guardian was forbidden, and wearing the hijab became mandatory – a decree that provoked strong negative reactions from women and social activists.
With the issuance of such anti-women decrees by the Taliban leader, the situation for women and girls under the Taliban regime became restricted and suffocating. Women and girls protested as their rights were taken from them. In the past two years, women have protested against the Taliban’s misogynistic policies in cities across Afghanistan. Their peaceful, civil protests have always been met with suppression, whippings, and imprisonment by the Taliban. Despite such repression, women’s demonstrations continued, and their street protests expanded as they emphasized their primary goal: the non-recognition of the Taliban by the international community until the group commits itself to observing the fundamental and civil-political rights of women.
Factors contributing to the success of the women’s movement in Afghanistan
The Taliban view all issues through the lens of Islamic law, using a Deobandi interpretation, which is highly radical and conservative. Their perspective on governance, freedom of expression, education, media, minority rights, women’s rights, etc., significantly differs from contemporary understandings of these subjects in other Muslim countries. However, the focus of this article is to address the factors that contributed to the success of the women’s movement against the Taliban. These factors can be categorized as follows:
1. Organized and coordinated efforts: Contrary to the initial rule of the Taliban (1996-2001), when women’s protests were unstructured and disorganized, the women’s movement after the return of the Taliban to power was more organized and coordinated. The continuous and widespread protests by women indicate their seriousness and determination. Although the Taliban responded with violence, women stood their ground and did not back down.
2. Inclusive women’s roles: A significant factor in the movement’s success is women’s prominent and inclusive roles. Women from all provinces of Afghanistan, regardless of their ethnic, religious, linguistic, or geographic affiliations, united to engage in peaceful resistance (Dariush, 2019: 48).
3. The effect of globalization: The violence and oppression endured by women in Afghanistan at the hands of the ruling group became news around the world due to the global information flow. Protesting women used modern technology, including social media, to convey their voices to the international community, thereby enabling human rights and women’s rights organizations to monitor their issues closely. Additionally, the women’s movement expanded its influence outside Afghanistan, with activist women invited to speak about the Taliban’s policies and actions at international forums. Although the women’s movement isn’t as strong as it should be, its power grows daily, impacting the Taliban-led society of Afghanistan. Examples of this growing strength are evident in women’s protests against gender apartheid and the international community’s refusal to recognize the Taliban. The role of women’s struggles in these matters has been significant thus far.
In conclusion, the current initiatives and efforts of women in Afghanistan, more than ever in the country’s contemporary history, exhibit the characteristics and conditions of a social movement. Therefore, the present women’s movement in Afghanistan possesses remarkable capacities to influence both the domestic and international political landscape and public opinion. It is one of the primary barriers to the international recognition of the Taliban government. Despite the ruthless suppression by the Taliban, it retains its potential to challenge the group’s misogynistic ideology and bring about societal change.
Mostafa Matin is a researcher in international relations and a journalist.
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