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Which Women’s Rights? Exploring Gender and Peace in Afghanistan

Which Women’s Rights? Exploring Gender and Peace in Afghanistan

Photo credit: United Nations Photo

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Firchow, P., & Urwin, E. (2020). Not just at home or in the grave: (Mis)understanding women’s rights in Afghanistan. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Online. https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2020.1812893

Talking Points 

In the context of rural, eastern Afghanistan: 

  • Rural villagers understood girls’ access to education and women’s economic opportunities outside the home as indicators of everyday peace. 
  • Notably absent from the villagers’ conception of everyday peace were women’s political rights and rights to property ownership, despite those rights being the central focus of international peacebuilding priorities and programming on women’s rights.
  • Strong support for girls’ education and women’s employment with few mentions of women’s political rights “suggests a disconnect between the constitutional and legal protections for women [and] the rights that men and women equate with everyday peace.”
  • Recognizing the perception that women’s rights are seen as imposed by the West, the authors identify support for girls’ education and women’s employment as an opportunity to “[advance] both local and international goals for progress and emancipation towards women’s rights.” 

Key Insight for Informing Practice 

  • While there is no denying that Afghan women are subject to severely discriminatory law and practices, war fails to protect women or improve women’s rights. Instead, supporting women’s rights in Afghanistan starts with supporting everyday women and men, local activists, and local civil society organizations. 

Summary 

The 2004 Afghan Constitution, developed in the context of foreign military occupation with heavy influence from the international community, established many political, social, and economic rights for women. However, many of these rights have failed to be upheld in court or enacted. Embracing the complexity of studying gender, rights, and peace in Afghanistan, Pamina Firchow and Eliza Urwin analyze survey data collected from 18 villages and approximately 1,500 male and female participants in predominately rural, eastern Afghanistan. The survey data was collected through a research project with Everyday Peace Indicators, entailing a participatory research method “that provides insight into how everyday civilians in conflict zones conceptualize and measure peace and violence in their communities.” While this project was not initially conceived to analyze gender as an indicator of peace, the prominence of gender in the survey results prompted the authors to conduct a gender analysis of peacebuilding in Afghanistan. The results from the villages included in this study suggest an overall “flawed and fragmentary understanding of gendered power relations” underpinning western intervention and women’s rights programming in Afghanistan. 

Survey participants responded to the question, “What are the everyday signs you look for to understand whether your village is more or less at peace?” Responses were voted on by participants and curated into a list of 915 indicators. Gender indicators emerged as among the most prominent in participants’ conception of peace, particularly concerning girls’ access to education and women’s employment outside the home. In fact, all 18 villages voted on the statement “we see girls going to school” as a top indicator. 

The authors review what these findings could indicate about gender norms concerning women and girls in Afghanistan. “Everyday understandings of peace” were connected to girls’ education and women’s employment. This result was remarkably consistent across the villages included in the survey. However, notably absent from the gender indicators were women’s political rights, despite that being the central focus of international peacebuilding priorities. Additionally, the authors were surprised that women’s rights to property ownership did not appear in local villagers’ indicators of peace given the prominence of conflict over land in Afghanistan. Strong support for girls’ education and women’s employment with few mentions of women’s political rights “suggests a disconnect between the constitutional and legal protections for women [and] the rights that men and women equate with everyday peace.” 

There are numerous possible reasons why support for girls’ education and women’s employment resonate as indicators of peace to Afghans while political and property ownership rights do not. For one, political rights may appear less tangible than the day-to-day occurrence of going to school. International influence, especially in the form of humanitarian assistance and international development projects, may also play a role given that funding and programming for girls’ education was prioritized. Concerning property ownership, it could be that changing laws concerning women’s inclusion is “a perceived threat to local power dynamics, and by extension security.” 

Further, it is impossible to ignore how U.S. military intervention and foreign occupation in Afghanistan might have shaped local responses to women’s rights. The authors note that international intervention in Afghanistan was “decidedly imperious” and gave “little opportunity for social change from the bottom-up or space for real grassroots civil resistance movements to form.” The imposition of western values and norms related to women’s rights through military force is indicative of colonial feminism, creating a dynamic where Afghans opposed to the U.S. occupation hardened in their opposition to women’s rights—to the detriment of Afghan-led women’s movements (especially outside of Kabul)U.S. occupation reinforced the idea that women’s rights and gender equality are imposed western values, contributing to continued acts of misogyny and violence against women.

Colonial feminism: “the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of empire…it rests on the construction of a barbaric, misogynist ‘Muslim world’ that must be civilized by a liberal, enlightened West; a rhetoric also known as gendered Orientalism.” Also known as imperial feminism. 

Kumar, D. (2014, November 6). Imperialist feminism and liberalism. Open Democracy. Accessed October 1, 2021, from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/imperialist-feminism-and-liberalism/  


Failing to develop a deep understanding of gender power dynamics in Afghanistan, much of the foreign-funded gender programming on women in Afghanistan was based on “either the underestimation or overstatement of women’s agency”­ and was advanced through a binary framework that “painted women as either the secret matriarchs dominating home-life or as helpless and nameless victims.” The top-down process of bringing women’s political, social, and economic rights to Afghanistan led to a backlash—for instance, a national survey revealing that two-thirds of Afghan men believe women have too many rights, or a gender quota in parliament leading to a perception that female leaders are unqualified. Recognizing the perception that women’s rights are seen as imposed by the West, the authors identify support for girls’ education and women’s employment as an opportunity for progress from the bottom-up. For instance, local communities may be more receptive to “outsider” assistance for education and employment opportunities for women, presenting a strategy “for advancing both local and international goals for progress and emancipation towards women’s rights.”  

Informing Practice

All the eyes were turned to Afghanistan in August 2021 following the Biden Administration’s decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops. According to FAIR, that meant a sudden reemergence of interest in women’s rights in Afghanistan in the U.S. media.

There is no denying that the return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan brings with it a new level of threat to women’s freedom of choice, movement, and so much more. But, according to Media Matters, “while it is valid for mainstream media to express concern…ignoring the consequences that 20 years of U.S. occupation had on women and human rights in Afghanistan is neglectful reporting and fails to capture the full picture of the U.S. withdrawal.” Not only has the war in Afghanistan killed upwards of 71,000 civilians (hardly a win for women), but the U.S. played a “significant role” in perpetuating human rights violations by supporting violent local leaders and committing widespread torture. Moreover, as noted in this research, the strong perceived association between women’s rights and the U.S. occupation has created an additional hurdle for Afghan feminists in their own struggles for women’s rights. Even a 2021 Special Inspector General report on gender equality in Afghanistan admitted that “U.S. efforts to support women, girls, and gender equality in Afghanistan yielded mixed results.”   

To put it simply, war doesn’t protect women or improve women’s rights. It doesn’t protect women when they are subject to drone strikes, IEDs, random searches or seizures, or restricted access to food, water, sanitation, or healthcare when war demolishes those services. When women were largely excluded from formal peace talks with the Taliban, it is difficult to believe that women’s rights or representation was a priority at all to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.  

With the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan complete, how can women’s rights and the women’s movement in Afghanistan be supported without military involvement? As this research shows, the best point of departure is focusing efforts on everyday women and men, local activists, and other civil society organizations in Afghanistan—and truly, deeply listening to their needs and perspectives. It is crucial to recognize that Afghan women are not a monolith and that women’s rights are contested. Differences in opinion are often stratified by education, class, ethnic or tribal allegiance, and geographic location. For instance, an article in the New Yorker interviewed women in the Helmand Province (in southern Afghanistan) who professed more traditional beliefs about women’s roles, while noting women in Kabul tend to hold more progressive ideas about women’s rights. 

How can practitioners in the peacebuilding field engage on the question of women’s rights in Afghanistan in recognition of its complexity? For western feminists, it’s time for an honest reckoning with our own women’s movements—namely, their historical exclusions through the centering of white women and their complicity in shoring up existing power structures. Militarism is one such institution upheld by a continued belief that U.S. military operations are necessary for the realization of women’s rights, regardless of how many are killed, tortured, or forcibly displaced. This belief forces a false choice between supporting war to protect women or abandoning women by advocating for the war’s end. In reality, the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan existed prior to U.S. intervention and will continue even with the U.S. gone. As the research suggests, foreign support for women’s rights needs to start by understanding the views and priorities of local communities, with Afghan women leading the way. [KC]

Discussion Questions 

  • Is there a role for western practitioners in the peacebuilding field to engage on the question of women’s rights in Afghanistan in recognition of its complexity? 

Continued Reading 

Gopal, A. (2021, September 6). The other Afghan women. The New Yorker. Accessed October 1, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/13/the-other-afghan-women

Susskind, Y., & Duarte, D. (2021, September 8). On Afghanistan, Biden must listen to pro-peace feminists. Inkstick Media. Accessed October 5, 2021, from https://inkstickmedia.com/on-afghanistan-biden-must-listen-to-pro-peace-feminists/

Rahmaty, M. (2021, March 30). The exclusion of women’s voices from Afghan peace talks remains the norm. The Global Observatory. Accessed October 5, 2021, from https://theglobalobservatory.org/2021/03/exclusion-womens-voices-afghan-peace-talks-remains-norm/  

Ali, T. (2021, September 7). The War on Terror: 20 years of bloodshed and delusion. The Nation. Accessed October 1, 2021, from https://www.thenation.com/article/world/9-11-war-terror/

Hollar, J. (2021, August 23). Media rediscover Afghan women only when US leaves. FAIR. Accessed October 4, 2021, from https://fair.org/home/media-rediscover-afghan-women-only-when-us-leaves/

WNYC Studios. (2021, August 19). A critique on western media coverage of Afghan women. The Takeway (Podcast). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/critique-western-media-coverage-afghan-women

Simon, C., & Taaffe, G. (2021, August 3). Mainstream media spin the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to push for continued military occupation. Media Matters. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.mediamatters.org/war-afghanistan/mainstream-media-spins-us-withdrawal-afghanistan-push-continued-military-occupation

Zakaria, R. (2021). Against white feminism: Notes on disruption. Norton Professional Books. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://wwnorton.com/books/9781324006619

Peace Science Digest. (2020, August 8). Examining gender and race through the experience of female humanitarian workers in Afghanistan. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/examining-gender-and-race-through-the-experience-of-female-humanitarian-workers-in-afghanistan/

Gibbons-Neff, T., Faizi, F., & Rahim, N. (2021, April 18). Afghan women fear the worst, whether war or peace lies ahead. The New York Times. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/18/world/asia/women-afghanistan-withdrawal-us.html

Organizations 

Everyday Peace Indicators: https://www.everydaypeaceindicators.org

ICAN: https://icanpeacework.org

Feminist Peace Initiative: https://www.feministpeaceinitiative.org  

Muslim Girl: https://muslimgirl.com  

Key words:  Afghanistan, women’s rights, gender, war, militarism, peace, feminism 

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