Afghan women - and not Western 'civilizing missions' - will lead the path to change and their emancipation

Being oblivious to the history and traditions of Afghanistan, misreading the local culture, or a sickening obsession with 'Islamic terrorism' has always clouded the reality for the West, writes Anondeeta Chakraborty for South Asia Monitor

Anondeeta Chakraborty Oct 28, 2021
Afghan women

Afghanistan throughout its history has been an extremely diverse country with its own social and cultural equations at play. A great deal of misconception and fallacy has existed, and still does, in our understanding of Afghan society, and especially the role of women in it. As many postcolonial feminists have cautioned, again and again, there is and should not be any universally accepted standard of assessing the "emancipation" of women.

But, unfortunately, as has been the norm, the condition of women in Afghanistan has always been judged from the lens of Western ideals. The culture and social situation endemic to Afghanistan have never been taken into account. Afghan women have been another hostage to “White, Western Feminism”.

The West, on that line of presumption, have ironically always boasted about the “emancipation” of Afghan women at their hands from the shackles of radicalism, while they also had a substantial role to play in the prevailing state of affairs.  

Rooted in a deeply patriarchal society and patriarchal oppression, coupled with decades of trauma brought in by prolonged war and conflict, Afghan women today have to steer their existence through a deeply tangled ground reality.

Since the second takeover by the Taliban, articles and academic researches have inaccurately focused on “objective” explanations and accounts, to assess the “conditions of Afghan women”. It would be pertinent to dwell at some length to put forth a counterpoint that such an “objective analysis” is cloaked by a sense of schism and a dissembling lack of insight of the ground reality and the topic at hand.

Afghan women at the forefront

Afghan women have always been at the forefront of the news on Afghanistan in the last two decades. A unidirectional, “objective” narrative was woven around the concerns of Afghan women, strictly in terms of Western standards, where ideals and values of “modernity” emanating from the West were held as sacrosanct and universal.

Since the American “War on Terror”, a more “civilizing mission” of Afghanistan was undertaken rather than focusing strictly on the strategic aspect. A resounding narrative was built upon, where the necessity to rescue the Afghan women from the clutches of radical Islam, was emphasized time and again, sans any regard to the complex social fabric that engulfs them.

The foreign powers tried to construct an artificial environment of democracy and liberty, measuring up to the Western yardstick, in Afghanistan. Post-Taliban Afghanistan (2004-2021) tried to impose that same standard based on the Western perspective of liberation and emancipation of women.

A dangerously misguided perception of Afghanistan and its culture pervades today among the international population. Following the Talibani takeover of 15 August 2021, a social media post has been doing the rounds which showed women in short skirts on the streets of Kabul before the rise of the Mujahideen in the eighties, and simultaneously contrasted it against the blue burkha, a depiction of Taliban rule.

Such black and white dichotomy is reminiscent of our Westernized understanding of modernity and women's emancipation. The history of Afghan women has always been much more than such simple binaries of miniskirts and burkhas.

Little known Afghan queens

Afghan history has always boasted about its liberal Islamic traditions. It has been known worldwide for its vibrant culture, for its Islamic arts and craft, dance, music. Like the Chistis in India, Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi Sufi silsilas found their root in Afghanistan and is testimony to its spiritual side, which unfortunately has been erased by the radical onslaught.

Afghanistan has been the home of the likes of Queen Gawhar Shad and Soraya Tarzi. Queen Shad on her authority once shifted the capital of the Timurid dynasty from Samarqand to Herat and took the charge to transform Herat into a seat of cultural and artistic wonders. She laid the foundation of numerous schools and furthered the cause of education and art. Similarly, Queen Tarzi, in her short, controversial tenure gave her countrymen a glimpse of a gender-equal Afghanistan. Unfortunately, these women and their contributions remained imprisoned in the pages of history.

The continuous war followed by the takeover of radical forces and the horrendous treatment rendered could not dampen the spirit of the brave Afghan women. The White feminist, who has a habit of looking at the Afghan women from a point of pity and mercy, often tends to forget that back in 1996 amidst a full-frontal takeover of Taliban, the brave women of Herat ignited the first flame of resistance. They were mercilessly beaten and tortured but they continued their protest with the same vigor.

While the world in 2021 commended the resistance against the Taliban emanating from the Panjshir valley, they again overlooked the defiance of women in the face of radicalism. Despite being aware of the consequences, the women of Afghanistan took to the streets to stand up for their rights. Protests on a wide scale broke out around 17 August in Herat, once a seat of Afghanistan’s rich culture and heritage, when a fatwa was issued by the Taliban denying women their right to attend universities. They were arrested and tortured, but the protests continued.

A lot of such resistance fails to make the front pages of our newspapers as these are first, not reported by mainstream English media and two, seen as not big enough to bring about any notable change. But these unorganized, spontaneous instances of resistance show the inherent courage and determination of Afghan women. They are not some species to be 'salvaged' and 'rescued' by any foreign powers, based on any external standards that are completely out of tune with their culture and beliefs.

Change will come from within

Afghan society and culture are complex, where a unidirectional conclusion is neither possible nor desirable. Thus, a perception that a decade of Western-styled government would be enough to alter the social and cultural fabric of Afghanistan is ironical, to say the least. While in the cities of Afghanistan, a somewhat liberal atmosphere was secured for women, the other regions told an entirely different story.

As many NGO workers or workers associated with international organizations have recounted, a lot of bargains went on to secure the minimum of rights for women, even with a “Westernized” government in power. This testifies how deep patriarchy runs through Afghan society, which cannot be undone by any amount of artificial construction.

Despite some meager attempts at safeguarding women's rights, violence towards women still had been a normal phenomenon in the country even with the “liberalizing” foreign powers present. Cases of Farkhunda Malikzada and Sitara Achakzai (the former was lynched on the false charge of burning a copy of the Quran, while the latter – a people’s representative - was assassinated allegedly by the Taliban), are some instances of the same. Sharia law even then was applied widely, with little to no attention posed towards modern Western-style laws. All “civilizing missions” that happened in the past two decades saw a huge influx of foreign aids in the name of development which ultimately was embezzled. The Western powers, so eager to rescue the Afghan women, were also aware of the ground reality of their “mission”.

Western 'experts' have time and again overlooked the social and cultural conditions that characterize Afghanistan. They try to measure all Islamic societies by a single yardstick - a phenomenon that became all the more prominent following the US war on terror. Being oblivious to the history and traditions of Afghanistan, misreading the local culture, or a sickening obsession with “Islamic terrorism” has always clouded the reality for the West. This tendency of generalization then provides them with the groundless justification of their “civilizing mission”

Afghan women have witnessed a lot and have not had it easy in the last 20 years. It’s no use denying that the situation will get a lot worse for them, but as history has shown, they will resist. It is they who have the power alone to emancipate fellow Afghan women, in the real sense of the term, and lead the path to change. That path may be cruel and onerous, but to truly understand them and their resistance, this Western narrative of “saviors” and “paternal benevolence” must be done away with.  Only then, the voices of Afghan women can be truly heard amidst the chaos set in by the Taliban and foreign powers.

(The writer is a student of International Relations, St Xavier's College, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at

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