Laila came to visit us yesterday. She lives in in a remote district in Bamyan province, Afghanistan.
She is one of the many ordinary women whose story captures the transformation of Afghanistan in the past 16 years.
Laila is 42 years old – although this may not be her exact age as, like most Afghans of her generation, she doesn’t know her date of birth. She was married off when she was 10 years old. She never went to school, or learned to read and write. She has struggled with a life of hardship and poverty.
Because of this, Laila sent her children to school at the first opportunity. Her 24-year-old daughter now works for an NGO in Bamyan and regularly travels to Kabul on her own. Her two younger daughters go to university in Kabul and live alone in the big, crowded and unsafe capital so they can pursue a quality education.
They all count on Laila’s support in the face of immense social pressure from their extended family, who believe that women need to marry young and should not work in environments where they have male colleagues.
Laila faces disapproval from many around her who firmly believe that women should marry young, live with their parents before marriage, and should not work where there will be male colleagues.
Laila’s story is far from unique. Many women across the country are changing their aspirations and dreams, and their struggle to realize them. The backdrop to these stories are the changes that have impacted women’s lives since 2001.
In those 16 years, the country’s legal framework has improved to better protect women from violence and harassment. Millions of Afghan girls go to school, women’s access to healthcare services has increased, women have some level of political representation, and young women are joining the military.
Afghan women’s footprint is growing in almost every sector, despite insecurity, targeted attacks on them and an entrenched culture of patriarchy. There are countless examples of Afghan women taking incredible risks to break taboos and change social norms.
Women bike, practice martial arts, run marathons, join the army, sing, fly airplanes, join the municipality to clean the streets, run for political office, design and construct buildings, set up and run businesses, become actresses, report from terrorist attack sites, write PhD dissertations and run for president. All unthinkable just a short time ago.
In pre-war Afghanistan, only a small group of urban-elite women challenged established social norms.
Nowadays, many women and girls from rural areas and with illiterate parents are also at the vanguard of social change in the country.
Redefining gender roles
Afghan women’s battle for rights and recognition is also happening in the intellectual and theoretical sphere; and women’s rights discourse is not merely an import from the West.
Women are redefining femininity and masculinity through speaking, writing, creating art, and singing about women’s struggle against patriarchy; they are taking ownership of their bodies, examining religion, redefining women’s roles in the family and discussing feminism.
Concepts such as virginity and other double standards imposed on Afghan women, along with a wide range of other social, cultural, religious and political issues surrounding women and gender are now to the fore.
The views are divergent and some of the intellectual battles among women’s rights activists and thinkers are bitter and defensive; but Afghan women will no longer wait for men to define femininity, ascribe roles to women, or draw boundaries for women’s social and political participation.
Targets of violence
Efforts to improve the lives of Afghan women face many challenges and Afghanistan remains one of the most difficult countries for women.
Hardly a week goes by without news of another violent incident targeting women or girls.
Women with political profiles suffer threats and intimidation and women in the military face harassment from colleagues.
As insecurity grows and the government territory shrinks, more and more women are confined to their homes, losing basic rights to education and healthcare they had gained in the past few years.
While young women in Kabul fight street harassment and social taboos around women’s participation in sport, women in conflict-affected areas lack access to education and face stoning for “moral crimes”.
Diversity of opinions
Looking at this uneven picture of women’s rights in Afghanistan, several things are certain: women, everywhere in the country have embraced the spirit of change to varying degrees in the past 16 years and are fighting for more dignified lives.
The uneven pace of change and the deprivation of women living in areas affected by violence and conflict is a serious threat and a cause for alarm for the future of the country.
The women’s rights discourse that was initiated, developed and led by Afghan women’s rights activists and feminists, both female and male, inside and outside Afghanistan, is expansive and vibrant; but it is also full of contradictions that reflect the diversity of opinions, experiences and backgrounds in the country.
As Afghanistan continues its transition, one of the key barriers to women accessing their rights remains the on-going, brutal conflict.
In a period of uncertainty for Afghan women, when many of us are wary of a backlash, Laila and women like her continue to inspire me and give me courage.
A better future is possible because all Afghan women know they deserve better and are willing to fight for it.