Afghan society is consistent in its attitudes toward the underlying principles of gender. It is the application of these principles that varies from group to group; and there is a wide range of standards set for accepted female behavior, as well as differences in male attitudes toward correct treatment of women. Contradictions arise between traditional customary practices, many of which impinge on the rights of women and are alien to the spirit of Islam, the other functioning canon which emphasizes equality, justice, education and community service for both men and women. Further, the dictates of Islam are themselves subject to diverse interpretation among reformists, Islamists and ultraconservatives. Debates between these groups can be highly volatile.
Gender reform was central to the contentious issues which brought about the fall of King Amanullah in 1929. In 1959, the male-oriented government of Prime Minister Daud Khan supported the voluntary removal of the veil and the end of seclusion for women. The 1964 Constitution automatically enfranchised women and guaranteed them the right to education and freedom to work.
For thirty years after 1959 growing numbers of women, most from urban backgrounds, functioned in the public arena with poise and dignity, with no loss of honor to themselves or to their families, and with much credit to the nation. Nevertheless, family pressures, traditional attitudes and religious opposition continued to impose constraints which limited the degree to which women could find self-expression and control their lives.
Except in Kabul where women under the PDPA were encouraged to assume more assertive public roles, this evolutionary movement came to a halt in 1978. Conservative mujahidin leaders waging a jihad (struggle) against foreign encroachment, both military and ideological, were imbued with the belief that sexual anarchy would result if women continued to move freely in public; and that society would fall into ruin as a result. These attitudes have intensified under the Taliban. Mostly rural Pushtun from strongly patriarchal backgrounds, the Taliban project ultraconservative interpretations of Islam and apply customary practices as societal ideals. In 1996, gender issues are again at the center of heated debate.
All agree that differences between men and women exist and are best preserved through recognized standards of behavior. None dispute the centrality of women in the society. Respect for women is a notable characteristic and few wish to destroy this esteemed status, nor deny what Islam enjoins or Afghan culture values. The argument rages over definitions of precisely what constitutes honorable behavior for women in terms of modern realities, especially in the light of today's monumental reconstruction needs which demand full participation from every Afghan citizen.
The current zealous need to protect women's morality stems from the fact that Afghan society regards women as the perpetuators of the ideals of the society. As such they symbolize honor -- of family, community and nation -- and must be controlled as well as protected so as to maintain moral purity. By imposing strict restraints directly on women, the society's most sensitive component symbolizing male honor, authorities convey their intent to subordinate personal autonomy and thereby strengthen the impression that they are capable of exercising control over all aspects of social behavior, male and female.
The practice of purdah, seclusion, (Persian, literally meaning curtain), including veiling, is the most visible manifestation of this attitude. This concept includes an insistence on separate spaces for men and women and proscriptions against interactions between the sexes outside the mahrammat (acceptable male guardians such as father, brother son and any other male with whom a women may not marry). These restrictions severely limit women's activities, including access to education and employment outside the home. Many are largely confined to their homes.
Such restrictions are deemed necessary by conservative males because they consider women socially immature, with less moral control and physical restraint; women's hypersexuality precludes responsible behavior. Consequently, women are untrustworthy and must be kept behind the curtain so as not to disrupt the social order. The need for their isolation therefore is paramount.
Afghan women view their sexuality more positively and question male maturity and self-control. In reality the differences between private and public behavior are significant. In private, there is a noticeable sharing of ideas and responsibilities and in many households individual charisma and strength of character surmounts conventional subordinate roles. Even moral misconduct can be largely overlooked until it becomes a matter of public knowledge. Then punishment must be severe for male and family honor must be vindicated. It is the public image that counts.As a result, urban women are models of reticence in public and rural women appear properly submissive.
That a family's social position depends on the public behavior of its female members is a guiding reality. Stepping outside prescribed roles and behavioral norms in public results in moral condemnation and social ostracism. It is the dictates of society that place a burden on both men and women to conform.
Under such circumstances gender roles necessarily follow defined paths. Male prerogatives reside in family economic welfare, politics, and relationships with outsiders; within the family they are expected to be disciplinarians and providers for aged parents. Female roles stress motherhood, child socialization and family nurturing. Even among professional career women, family responsibilities remain a top priority. Thus women's self-perception of their roles, among the majority, urban and rural, contributes to the perpetuation of patriarchal values.
Within the vast store of Afghan folktales covering religion, history and moral values, many reinforce the values governing male and female behavior. They illustrate what can or cannot be done, describe rewards and punishments, and define ideal personality types. Thus they serve to perpetuate the existing gender order and through example make it psychologically satisfying.
The status and power of a girl increases as she moves from child to bride to mother to grandmother. A successful marriage with many sons is the principal goal of Afghan women, wholeheartedly shared by Afghan men. Women's nurturing roles are also crucial. This does not mean that women are confined to domestic roles. The stereotyping of Afghan women as chattel living lives of unremitting labor, valued by men solely for sexual pleasure and reproductive services is patently false.
Women's work varies from group to group. Among most settled rural families, women participate in agricultural work only during light harvesting periods, and are responsible for the production of milk products. Some specialize in handicrafts such as carpet and felt making. In contrast, Nuristani women plow the fields while the men herd the flocks and process the dairy products. Nomadic women care for young lambs and kids and make a wide variety of dairy products, for sale as well as family use. They spin the wool sheered by men and weave the fabric from which their tents are made. Felt-making for yurt coverings and household rugs ia also a female activity. When on the move, it is the women who put up and take down the tents. The variations are endless.
Although statistics indicate that by 1978 women were joining the workforce in increasing numbers, only about eight percent of the female population received an income. Most of these women lived in urban centers, and the majority were professionals, technicians and administrators employed by the government which continued its strong support. A majority worked in health and education, the two sectors considered most appropriate for women as they are extensions of traditional women's roles. Others worked in the police, the army, and with the airlines; in government textile, ceramic, food processing and prefab construction factories. A few worked in private industry; a few were self-employed.
The current revival of conservative attitudes toward appropriate extradomestic roles for women and the criticism of women's visibility in public has largely impacted these professional women. Islamic texts do not delineate roles for women. What they imply is open to interpretation. What they command is equality and justice guaranteeing that women be treated as in no way lesser than men. Educated Afghan women are standing fast in their determination to find ways in which they may participate in the nation's reconstruction according to their interpretations of Islam's tenets. This is a powerful challenge now facing the society.
However, the foreign aid community would do well to examine carefully their recent aggressive campaign to assure rights for Afghan women in education and employment. The Afghan community is already sharply divided over whether assistance to boys' education should be discontinued because there is a ban on education for girls. Family harmony must certainly be undermined when women are favored over men in a declining job market.