If you thought of women in Afghanistan now, you’d be forgiven for thinking of child marriage, poverty, full-body burqas, or of a young girl who has had her nose and ears hacked off or is even killed for defending her rights.
Well, it hasn’t always been this way.
Before the Afghan diaspora emerged following the 1989 Soviet invasion, the 1996 Taliban regime, and the US invasion in 2001, women were exposed to freedom and democracy. During the 1950s and 1960s, women were experiencing the freedom of going to university and working alongside their male counterparts, without the fear of being stoned to death.
However, life for Afghan women turned upside down with the Soviet invasion, the rise in power of Mujahideen government and the Taliban stronghold of 1996. One of the reasons as to why the Taliban were greeted by ordinary people was because they were hoping that this new wave would fight the corrupt Mujahideen and unite the country.
At the beginning, promises were made by the Taliban to allow women to go to school and work. But once they established their stronghold in the capital of Kabul, their tactics changed and what was considered temporary policy became a permanent one.
There was no progress in the status of women in the parts of the country controlled by the Taliban, just regression.
Severe measures were imposed by Taliban groups, including the ban on entertainment and most other forms of social and academic life. Women were treated with extreme cruelty.
There was no progress in the status of women in the parts of the country controlled by the Taliban, just regression. It’s clear that the security situation in Afghanistan has taken a huge toll on women. One of the most important and basic issues women in today’s Afghanistan face is the lack of structure and security to protect them. They want to be heard without being punished; go out to work for their children and family without the fear of being flogged to death.
In 2001, when the Taliban were ousted and the Karzai government came to power, the position of women in Afghanistan began to improve. They could now attend school and go out to work. Women of Afghanistan have gone to great lengths to achieve their rights in terms of education, employment, and their recognition in public life and governance. But the real issue of security and financial independence remains critical.
Here in the UK some Afghan women have begun to forge careers for themselves. Since their arrival, these women have achieved remarkable things and have played an instrumental role in the lives of women within and outside of Afghanistan’s borders.
Najiba Kasraee is the Editor of the BBC College of Journalism’s international websites. She speaks five languages; Pashto, Persian, Russian, English, and Urdu.
She has also penned children’s stories in the Pashto language. Kasraee was 23 when she came to the UK, fleeing her country after it was plunged into civil war by the Soviets. She joined the BBC in 1992 as a BBC Pashto presenter, and has also worked for BBC Persian, BBC English, BBC Russian and the Central Asia services.
Throughout her career, Kasraee has also had the chance of interviewing high profile world politicians, including the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the US Vice President Dick Cheney and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Awesta Naz, a 29 year old journalism graduate from London South Bank University, is a passionate, middle class, liberal Afghan woman. At the age of 19, Naz got married and came to the UK equipped with her A-level qualifications, ready to embark on a new journey.
In a conservative country, where many still deter women from having any role outside the house, Naz tells me she was fully supported by her parents and husband when she wanted to pursue a career in BA multimedia journalism.
“This should not come as a huge surprise – I was offered support and encouragement in my endeavours from my husband and family. Afghans are being painted by the same brush similar to how all Muslims are being generalised as terrorists.”
Naz is currently a freelance journalist, and interprets for different media houses in London. She hopes to establish her own network, helping women with education and to make early marriages an act of crime in Afghanistan law.
Although a lot has been achieved for women in Afghanistan, Kasraee’s fear is that it might not last. She compares changes happening in Afghanistan to a “house made of paper” on the river, and she doesn’t want it to sink.
“I’m proud of how far we’ve come as Afghan women. If you compare Afghanistan with neighbouring Islamic countries, we have female judges in Supreme Court. But the biggest issue for Afghan women is security.
“When you look at it from the western point of view, you often find people commenting that ‘women are still wearing hijab/burqa, despite of our best efforts and money spent on Afghanistan’ – My argument always is that you need to look at the culture and fabric of the society.”
According to Kasraee, a journalist ought to realise that the biggest obstacle for Afghan women living in Kandahar or Khost City is not about getting rid of their hijab. In fact far from it.
“Afghan women’s desire is not to take their hijab off, but to be equipped with security and freedom of speech. The hijab is part of the culture and that sort of change takes natural course and you can’t enforce it. Because when you do enforce it, you see the reaction.”
Kasraee, now 43, wishes to go back to Afghanistan and produce an animated film for kids.
“I think kids are the most tough market and audience to please. It’d be greatly satisfying to achieve that and at the same time give those mountains a big hug.
“My advice for women here in the UK is to preserve and celebrate the beauty of your culture.”
“My advice for women here in the UK is to preserve and celebrate the beauty of your culture. Don’t speak to your children in English in order to integrate them into the UK culture.
“Instead make them proud of their own native language, indulge them into the rich history of your country. Don’t attempt to integrate in an unnatural way because that’s not unique or attainable.”
It’s worth noting that it was under the Islamic system where women’s education thrived historically, fostering female inventors such as Mariam Al-Ijliya, the 10th century creator of the astrolabe. The astrolabe is an ancient astronomical instrument which could determine local time and the position of the Sun, planets and stars in the sky. There were also great female engineers like Fatima Al Fihri who designed and built one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Qarawiyyin in Morocco.
In addition to that, it was under the Islamic system that the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo gave access to women not only as students but as lecturers – a right that women in the West only acquired in their universities a century later.
So the next time you think of the women of the Islamic world, just remember you won’t be forgiven for focusing only on their suffering and not their booming success.
Photography by Martin Cervenansky