Originally posted December 2009

Often, policy debates on the empowerment of women in Afghanistan are impaired by the historic backlashes against radical top-down reforms and women’s emancipation (e.g., unseating kings) or by the assumption that the male-dominated culture makes it nearly impossible to create space for the advancement of women’s rights. As a result, the effort to develop a cohesive strategy for enhancing women’s participation in the reconstruction agenda is hampered.

It important to learn the historic lessons of elite-induced changes for women’s rights, such as policies by Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya (r. 1919-1928),[1] Zahir Shah (r. 1933-1973), and the Communist government under the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA; 1978-1992). However, it is equally, if not more crucial, to pay attention to the emerging “empowerment[2] of women, which is based on their own experiences and shared stories of forming, leading, and participating in women’s groups and organizations. Through the latter, women have been able to navigate around cultural barriers and pave the way for addressing their longstanding unequal status in society.

Pre-Bonn Agreement: The Emergence of the Women Groups

The Afghan wars of the past three decades had many tragic consequences, but they also were an empowering experience for some women. As in many conflict environments, especially when traditional support networks are exhausted, state services are fractured, and a society becomes fragmented, new opportunities for women arose in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that in refugee camps space for women was limited due to the magnification of cultural conservatism and religious radicalism, women slowly began to develop special coping strategies to work in this environment. Throughout the years of conflict, women’s social seclusion became part of the resistance movement, and women started to develop new strategies of creating an alternative space for them, and to support the wider community.

In many ways, the history of independent women’s groups in Afghanistan runs parallel with the history of conflict. Female leaders acknowledge that they were able to learn skills in exile to which they previously may not have been exposed and acquired self-confidence by working with other women in close-knit communities and the semi-urban refugee camp environments. According to former State Minister of Women’s Affairs Mahbooba Hoqoomal, “War has been an awakening for many women. Women’s awareness about their rights has increased more than any time; they started their own projects from education, health, and politics.”

Most women’s organizations in Afghanistan began by working on the practical needs of women focusing on their quality of life, mainly by improving health care, education, and income generation (i.e., handicrafts), and only later began to focus on addressing the strategic needs of women which lead to their empowerment (i.e., leadership skills). Given the limiting environment under the mujahidin parties in Pakistan’s refugee camps in the late 1980s, the groups established by women initially were in the form of community schools, small charities, the teaching of the Qur’an, and other less controversial activities.

These emerging community organizations slowly evolved into non-governmental organizations (NGOs), where women applied their newly learned skills through work in international NGOs or adapted their prior knowledge to the new context. Currently, many women who previously had been preoccupied by the need to generate income or acquire literacy are also working on women’s rights awareness and women’s political participation.

Working with other women also has helped to develop women’s self-confidence and self-worth, enabling them to compete for jobs outside the family environment, something previously denied in Afghanistan’s male-dominated society. By working in relief programs, women also started to learn how to negotiate a space for their work and survival. Only through their powerful negotiation skills have they been able to secure their position in the work place. This continued even under the medieval system of Taliban rule, which banned women from studying and working outside the home; women simply developed new strategies (e.g., home schooling) to help educate girls.

In this process, however, Afghan women had to make compromises on the personal level (e.g., choice of clothing). In Peshawar,[3] for example, many women wore a chador (head scarf) or the full black hijab (the veil mostly worn by women in Arab countries) in order to gain access to education or work outside the home.

The Post-Bonn Agreement Era: The Change Makers

The post-Bonn period resulted in the opening of a wide space for women due to the new government’s restoration of women’s rights and the international community’s recognition of the need to continue to work on women’s rights. After Bonn, women, who previously had been able to work only in the non-governmental sector, were able to enter government. Prominent examples are Dr. Sima Samar, a former Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Interim Administration of Afghanistan and the current Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission; and Dr. Habiba Sarabi of Bamyan, who also had served as Minister of Women’s Affairs (2003-2004), and is currently the country’s only female governor (of Bamiyan). Other examples can be found in the Parliament. According to Minister of Parliament Shinkai Karokhail, only in organizations headed by women was she able to boost her confidence and compete with organizations led by males; moreover, the NGOs’ work with communities created a situation where even the male members of those communities told her that she should run for elective office.

Women with a civil society background also were able to make huge changes in the constitution-making process in 2003 by increasing awareness about women’s rights through their training of women’s groups. Female participants at the Constitutional Loya Jirga were able to fight for a constitutional right of a 25% quota for women seats in Parliament. In the 2004 presidential elections, women’s voter registrations outnumbered those of men in some provinces (showing women’s eagerness to participate), and one woman was a candidate for office. During the 2005 parliamentary elections, the number of women who won seats exceeded the constitutional quotas.

As we move further away from Bonn Agreement, however, the audacious steps taken in the direction of women’s empowerment, especially by international actors have begun to slow down. The initial three ministerial seats for women in the first cabinet (Interim Government) has now been reduced to one in the elected cabinet (2004-2009). The endorsement of a controversial bill for the Shi‘a minority infringing on women’s rights is another example of a backward process. What is important to emphasize, however, is that women now have created agency, and have been engaged actively in protesting infringements of their rights, such as demonstrating bravely against the “Shi‘ite Personal Law.[4] Women are in the process of creating a vibrant civil society by organizing peaceful demonstrations and lobbying presidential candidates through organized campaigns aimed at increasing female political participation. In the 2009 election, women organized two important national campaigns regarding women’s rights’ insecurity in the formation of the upcoming government’s strucuture and programs.


In a traditional society such as Afghanistan, it is important to focus on a bottom-up approach when trying to empower women. Seldom are the role of female agency and the efforts of women’s organizations that focus on the practical needs of the rural majority given the credit they deserve for producing long-term changes. There is ample opportunity to build upon the experience of women’s organizations and the small, but critical, mass of women who have emerged through such organizations, despite cultural and social constraints. This rich experience can, and should be used to inspire, enlist, and support other women. This will facilitate the slow but steady bottom-up empowerment of female Afghans, enabling them to become equal partners for change — driving the reconstruction and development agenda.


[1]. Soraya was the daughter of Mahmud Beg Tarzi, a returned exile (considered the father of Afghan journalism) who zealously wanted to see a “backward” Afghanistan brought into the 20th century and had influence over the King. Queen Soraya also was instrumental in introducing and living change.


[2]. See Jo Rowlands, “A Word of Times, but What Does it Mean? Empowerment in the Discourse and Practice of Development,” in Afshar Halleh, ed., Women and Empowerment: Ilustrations from the Third World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pp. 11- 34.


[3]. The central city of the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.


[4]. In March 2009 Afghan president enforced a bill with many discriminatory articles towards women’s rights, including the sexual obligation of the wife in marriage, divorce, and polygamy, which has been denounced strongly by international governments and the active women’s lobby on the ground.