The Silent Screams of the Veiled Women (A Research Paper on the Afghan Women of Then and Now)
Afghanistan, located in Central Asia, is a culturally-mixed nation that houses a diversity of ethnolinguistic groups, religions, races and traditions. However, vast majority of its population practices the religion Islam, which actually binds the people together. Being an Islamic country, Mohammed’s teaching is incredibly strong that it has been, and still is, part of the Afghan’s everyday living. But misconceptions arose from the teachings of Quran and among those who suffered from such are the Afghan women, who for years, had their undying efforts and struggle in pursuit of the goal they are longing for – freedom, rights and equality.
Islam, for more than 1400 years, instilled that men and women be equal before Allah. It gave women a number of privileges same as those given to men, including the right to vote, right to work, right to inheritance, even as much as right to choose their life-long partners. But numerous misconceptions about the status of women in Islam emerged, particularly in the concept of “submission. ” Many countries practice what they called “Islamic” or “Quranic” teachings in which women are traditionally subdued and oppressed, thus, these are very unforgiving acts.
In the case of Afghanistan, such rights and privileges are denied of the Afghan women, making their life under a very Islamic country, rather miserable, if not devastating. One misconception in Islamic teachings that affected Afghan women (especially under Taliban rule which will be discussed later) is the strict instruction that they ought to wear veil, or hijab, wherever and whenever. They are forbidden to be seen in public unveiled but the truth is that the Quran does not oblige them or even mention of wearing such garment, as the wearing of hijab is traditional, rather than religious.
What the Quran imposed is that women must (1) wear the best garment – the garment of righteousness; (2) cover their bosoms and; (3) lengthen their garments. Nothing more, nothing less. Years of government instability, in terms of economic and political aspects, have continuously affecting the status of women in Afghanistan as well. Before Afghanistan fall under Soviet power, women are revered equally, if not highly by the society, having significant rights and massive opportunities.
But at the peak of Soviet occupation, women took a rather rougher road . Women at this period, began enjoying the bitter fruits of the teachings of Islam, and foreign invasion. Such denial of privileges may have been enforced by the government through special decrees, or by their own family (particularly their father, husband and brother). Afghan women were forbidden to have an occupation, to wander in their city unaccompanied by a male, to be seen unveiled, and even seek medical attention from a male medical practitioner.
Much more discriminations and restrictions were experienced by Afghan women during the reign of the Taliban, or the “Students of Islamic Knowledge Movement – a Sunni Islamist and Pashtun nationalist movement who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, during the country’s long civil war. A decade before the rule of the Taliban, 50% of government workers were professional Afghan women; 70% of teacher population were as well women; and 40% practiced medical careers. As early as the 1920s, women were acknowledged to vote, while in 1960s, equality for women was imposed by the Afghan Constitution.
Moreover, they took important contributions to national development. During the rule of Taliban, women with professional careers, including medical doctors and those in the academe, were forced to put their careers to a sudden end and become beggar regardless of the opportunities they may have outside Afghanistan. Universities for women where forcibly closed which ended a brighter future for the young Afghan girls. They were restricted to migrate to other cities (moreover, other countries) in search for a better environment and were prohibited to enjoy life.
There was an inadequate medical attention to women which contributed to their high mortality rates. At this p of time, 16% of pregnant Afghan women died annually due to unsuccessful child delivery caused by lack of obstetric facilities. It was recorded by the United Nations that during the 5-year reign of the Taliban, Afghanistan experienced one of the worst human rights violation in the world that even the most basic individual rights were denied of the people which include the flying of kites, singing jolly songs, and the like. They became objects of domestic violence including rape.
To sum this up, women were deprived of all forms of public life – Taliban treat women worse than the way they treat animals. Having such miserable life, impoverished Afghan women seek escape by self-immolation which either kill or disfigure them. Reliable sources even accounted women bringing themselves to inferno in some secluded areas in Afghanistan. This happened because such women were either abandoned by their family or banished by their society caused by the “crime” that they had allegedly committed. Others do their own thing in secrecy.
For instance, an Afghan woman operated her own school in her house – it was such a risk! When the authority came to know about this, all the kids were beaten and the lady was heavily punished and imprisoned, threatening her that her family will be penalized as well. Those who had reserved courage and strength went to police stations and court, despite social stigma, just to practice their rights. After seven years, the Afghan government states that although there were increasing equality to public life, women are continuously experiencing domestic violence.
Some remain silent while others took the risk of getting the hinge of being empowered. The Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission documented 1,650 cases of violence against women in 2006, while the Ministry of Women’s Affairs recorded 2,000 cases of violence in the previous year, not to mention 500 or so unreported cases. The provinces of Kabul and Herat were said have the highest accounted violence. Today, many social movements are organized for the uplifting of the Afghan women’s image and status.
One of which is the RAWA or the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan which was established in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1977. It is an independent socio-political group that raises concerns regarding Afghan women, particularly the violence against them. It believes that freedom and democracy cannot be simply given or donated; it is acquired through combined efforts. The RAWA participates in many forums and conferences that discuss women’s rights and freedom all over the world. It, in one way, became the voice of the silent Afghan women, who in fear of being discriminated again, chose to remain speechless.
At the fall of the Taliban, the position of Afghan women in the Islamic society they lived in has substantially improved. With the adoption of the new Afghan constitution, men and women are stated to be treated equal before the law. It may sound good and almost perfect but one must consider that this law, like any other law, may mean differently to different people depending on how they interpret it. In the Quranic teaching of the Taliban, being “equal” before the law may mean that women ought to submit to their husbands, fathers or brothers, for doing so, they abide by the law.
Another milestone is the drafting of the Afghan Women’s Bill of Rights in 2003 through the initiatives of Afghan and Afghan American women, who for years had raised the issues of inequality and discrimination. The Bill demanded a mandatory education for girls, representation in the Congress (or loya jirga), penalizing and punishing people who perform sexual and domestic violence and obedience to the rules of Quran, particularly on women’s right to marry and divorce.
Despite assurance from government officials, it was declined because as the Islamic saying goes, “God has not given women equal rights with men because two women are counted as equal to men. ” Just recently, an Afghan parliamentarian by the name of Fatima Nazari, established the first political party in Afghanistan which is dedicated to women’s rights and issues. On 19 February 2008, the National Need Party was launched in Kabul. It was welcomed by most officials but not everyone was so optimistic about this. Let’s just wait and see. Women all over the world may have had similar experiences.
Such inequality may have been attributed to religion, or tradition. It may have occurred maybe due to misconceptions or misinterpretation of available laws, rules and doctrines. Women were persecuted believing that they practiced witchcraft . They were burnt to death with their dead husbands as imposed by the Hindu principle of “Sati” or “Suttee. ” Marrying women were obliged to pay dowry to their husband-to-be’s family. Women courting men is considered immoral. And women were regarded as temptations to men – as Eve tempted or teased Adam.
Whatever the story is, women were really part of the miserable part of world history. There are many misgivings on the role that women played in the society. Looking back to the civilizations in the world, women are always those left in the house to tend to household chores and take care of their children. But can’t we see that these women were the very being responsible for bearing lives in their tummy for nine months, struggling to keep the tiny life inside them healthy and alive? That these women were our first tutors who taught us not just how to read and write but how to be a responsible citizen as well?
Going through the melancholic and tragic episodes that Afghan women have had made me realize how lucky I am to have grown in a decent society. Now, I need not face social stigma, or be punished for enjoying my life. I need not ask for alms and beg for food since I can enter a university and have a profession ten years from now. Their infinite screams continue. If then, the sound was terrifying and agonizing, this time, these screams are screams of empowerment, of courage and of bravery. We never heard them in our historic past, and now, it is time to listen to their side of the story – HERstory.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (17 Novemeber 2001). Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women. Retrieved on 22 April 2008 at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/6185.htm
Mehta, Sumita. Women for Afghan Women:Shattering Myths and Claiming the Future. New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Najibullah, Farangis (20 February 2008). “New Party to Focus on Women’s Rights.” Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty. Retrieved on 22 April 2008 at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2008/02/b39afc45-c260-4a00-81da-04fbb584049f.html
Rostami-Povey, Elaheh. Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion. London: Zed Books, 2007.