Beyond Burqas

Under the Taliban (1996-2001), women in Afghanistan suffered severe oppression and marginalization. They were prohibited from entering schools and places of work and completely excluded from political life. In public, Afghan women were required to wear the burqa, a full-body covering that also shrouds the face, with a screen panel over the eyes.The U.S. government adopted the politicized burqa, as a symbol of the suffering of Afghan women and the moral mandate to “liberate” them from the Taliban oppressors as a justification for military engagement in Afghanistan following 9/11. According to the political narrative of the time, defeat of the Taliban became deeply tied to women’s rights: the “War on Terror” became a war for Afghan women, and the removal of the burqa was symbolic of its success.The linking of U.S. military action in Afghanistan to the fate of Afghan women is seen in a State Department report entitled “Taliban’s War Against Women," released in November 2001. The report states that “…the Taliban regime has cruelly reduced women and girls to poverty, poor health, and illiteracy,” and “The United States Government, which has been the largest individual national donor to Afghan humanitarian assistance efforts, believes the Taliban's oppression of women must come to an end.” The report also includes a section on the Taliban’s burqa mandate entitled “Fettered by Restrictions on Movement.”On the same day as the release of the State Department report, U.S. First Lady Laura Bush delivered the President’s weekly radio address to “kick off a world-wide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Taliban.” In it, Mrs. Bush stated that “the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists…[and] The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”Images of amorphous figures clad in blue burqas became widespread in the lead up to and aftermath of the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan, with U.S. and U.K. media “play[ing] a critical role in imagining the liberation of Afghanistan as a liberation of women’s bodies from the Taliban and the burqa.”The world, particularly the West, it seemed, suddenly cared very much about the plight of the women of Afghanistan. But the problem with this sudden kindling of interest in the yoke of Afghan women was at least twofold.First, the fixation on the burqa failed to delve more deeply into the experiences of the women it sought to liberate.This oversimplification presented a two-sided coin: on the one side were oppressed Afghan women ensconced heavily in restrictive clothing due to the “backwards thinking” of the “terrorists,” and on the other were the liberated women of the Western world, free to wear as much or as little as they pleased. This polarized presentation provided obvious problems for Western and Middle Eastern feminists and scholars. Even more challenging though was the underlying assumption that equated liberation with the removal of a garment: veil lifted, freedom achieved.In the years following the declaration of victory by U.S. forces, “liberated” Afghan women, sans burqa, were paraded through official events and their stories covered in the press as evidence of the dual successes of the “war on terror,” and the war for women’s liberation. The critical challenges facing women after more than two decades of conflict, such as poverty and lack of adequate healthcare and education, could not be solved with a “new look.” Yet a number of reports and initiatives, including beauty parlors in downtown Kabul, highlighted the “freedom” of Afghan women to get their hair and nails done and wear makeup. Through the politicized burqa the real voices and experiences of women in Afghanistan remained unheard and unheeded.The second part of the problem of the politicized burqa was the failure of the U.S. government and media to provide an historically-accurate backdrop for understanding women’s experiences  under the Taliban. By focusing so heavily on the plight of women during the five years of Taliban rule, the burqa narrative led to the public assumption that before this time women in Afghanistan had lived, worked and gone to school freely. The above-mentioned State Department report claimed just that: “Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights in Afghan society.”The truth is less clearcut, and as scholar Lila Abu-Lughod notes “we need to be suspicious when neat cultural icons are plastered over messier historical and political narratives.”Afghanistan’s struggle with women’s rights dates back at least to the end of the 19th century, and the burqa is better understood within the historical development of the Afghan state.  In a UNRISD occasional paper on “The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan,” Deniz Kandiyoti notes “Issues surrounding women’s civic and citizenship rights need to be placed in the context of evolving state–society relations in Afghanistan, where the place of Islamic law and practice has become central to political contestation.”A third factor - that of external or imperial influence and interference - also played a major role, as  Afghanistan was sucked first into the “Great Game” face-off between the British and Russian empires during the nineteenth century, and later into the U.S.-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War.In Afghanistan, the century-long struggle between state and society took place against the backdrop of a shift in power from traditional, tribal rule toward a centralized state structure, which concentrated influence in the hands of a political elite. As elsewhere in the Middle East, local religious conservatives responded with growing opposition to the secular, modernizing reforms of the central government, and the conflicts and coups that followed were a result of this push-and-pull.The founding father of modern Afghanistan, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), first sought to replace localized, tribal rule with a centralized state system. History may remember him as a tyrant due to his persecution of his adversaries; however, the “Iron Amir” also pushed forward modernizing reforms, including property and divorce rights for women and a higher marriage age.Gains for women took root during the rule of his son, Amir Habibullah (1901-1919), as the “Young Afghan” movement, founded by Mahmud Tarzi, advocated for expanded social reforms, including girls’ education.Tarzi garnered such influence among Afghanistan’s elite that Amir Amanullah (1919-1929) married his daughter, Queen Soraya. Inspired by his contemporary in Turkey, Mustafa Ataturk, Amanullah adopted a program of reform which included a new Constitution with equal rights for men and women and the banning of traditional dress for men and women.A strong advocate for women’s rights, Queen Soraya made a great public display of removing her own veil, as did the wives of a number of government officials.However, the ban on traditional clothing and other reforms, including a prohibition against polygamy, stirred a backlash amongst conservatives sidelined in Afghanistan’s modernizing campaigns. The resulting political upheaval forced Amanullah from power, and the monarchy subsequently established by Nadir Shah instated Shariah law. Progress for women was rolled back, and for the next three decades veiling was mandatory.During his forty years in power (1933-1973), Nadir’s son Muhammad Zahir Shah gradually reintroduced reforms. In 1959, female members of the royal family appeared publicly unveiled, beginning a period of voluntary veiling. The 1964 Constitution included equal rights for women and universal suffrage. But women’s social and political progress was largely concentrated in urban centers. In Kabul, women worked outside of the home, went to school and college and became active in politics, while women in rural areas were still subject to tribal traditions, and more immediately, to the patriarchal rule of the family.The 1978 coup by the Afghan communist party, the PDPA, led to a short-lived push for greater reforms, but was met by widespread local rebellion. In the decade that followed, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 to the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, funds and weapons flowed into Afghanistan. The U.S. armed local mujahidin fighters against Soviet troops, fueling a devastating civil war. The result was massive poverty, human displacement and suffering.The political narrative of the burqa put forward by the U.S. government to support the “war on terror” is especially problematic in light of the fact that Afghan women faced severe repression, exploitation and restrictions on their dress and public mobility well before the Taliban came to power. Rape was prevalent during and after the U.S.-Soviet proxy war, and war widows were often reduced to begging and prostitution to survive. After the withdraw of Soviet forces, Afghanistan devolved further into conflict, this time between local tribes and the (still) U.S.-backed mujahidin. Under the mujahidin, women were required to veil, and abuse was widespread.The notion that the Taliban uniquely oppressed Afghan women is a myth. However, both local and foreign parties - the invading Soviet troops and the local mujahidin, the Taliban and the U.S. forces that removed them from power -  have sought to use the “liberation of women” to justify their military and political engagement in Afghanistan:

“Various governments and paramilitary groups have implemented the ‘saving women’ trope as a reason to legitimize military violence in Afghanistan’s recent nearly thirty years of conflict…For example, the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was riddled with discourses of ‘saving’ Afghan women from Afghanistan’s patriarchal social structures. Afghanistan’s mujahedin resistance groups, in response, were ‘protecting’ women from the military and ideological invasions of the Soviets, and the Taliban’s rise to power was also marked by the powerful discourse of saving women from the gang rapes and lawlessness associated with the mujahedin.”

The problem with the “saving women” narrative is that it “does little to assist the lives of women, empower them, recognize their agency, or understand the effects of violence and militarism on their everyday lives.”The Taliban’s own use of this narrative points to its flaws:

“One of the most credible and repeated stories for explaining the rise to power of [the recently confirmed deceased] Mullah Omar, a leader of the Taliban, concludes with this ability to save two young girls who were kidnapped and raped by a local warlord. The ‘saving’ of these young Afghan women has been identified as a key motivator for Afghan men to join the Taliban during the early days of its formation in southern Afghanistan”

In fact, after decades of U.S. and Soviet-designed conflict, the “Taliban’s claim to be restoring law and order through the imposition of a strict variant of Islamic law was welcomed in some quarters  because it rode on the back of excesses committed during the mujahidin regime.”The burqa too needs to be understood within its historical context - not as a uniquely-imposed Taliban creation, but as a cultural and religious identifier that has at times been used by political actors seeking to access and control power. According to  Abu-Lughod,

“…the Taliban did not invent the burqa, It was the local form of covering that Pashtun women in one region wore when they went out. The Pashtun are one of several ethnic groups in Afghanistan and the burqa was one of many forms of covering in the subcontinent and Southwest Asia that has developed as a convention for symbolizing women's modesty or respectability. The burqa, like some other forms of "cover" has, in many settings, marked the symbolic separation of men's and women's spheres, as part of the general association of women with family and home, not with public space where strangers mingled.”

Abu-Lughod explains further: “What had happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban is that one regional style of covering or veiling, associated with a certain respectable but not elite class, was imposed on everyone as "religiously" appropriate, even though previously there had been many different styles, popular or traditional with different groups and classes—different ways to mark women's propriety, or, in more recent times, religious piety.”The politicization of the burqa sought to focus attention on the plight of Afghan women under Taliban rule as a justification for the “war on terror.” In so doing, women’s real experiences and needs were oversimplified, and the historical roots of the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan were overlooked.Since the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban, burqa sales have indeed dropped, particularly in Afghanistan’s urban centers.Yet the expectation that “it only required an invasion for women to spontaneously rise up and throw off their burqas” has proven false.Important progress has been made. Success stories tout the 4 million girls who have enrolled in schools since 2001, and the measures taken to integrate women into the police force. In urban areas, women have returned to work as doctors, lawyers and businesspeople, and steps to enshrine women’s rights in law, while incomplete, have been significant.However, these gains remain fragile, and some appear to exist only on paper. According to a 2014 Council on Foreign Relations report:

“Progress in securing women’s legal rights since 2001 has been dramatic on paper, but implementation of gender equality has been uneven in practice. Although the number of female judges and lawyers has grown, there are no women represented on the nine-member Supreme Court, which has become increasingly stacked with conservatives. Women are also significantly underrepresented in the Afghan National Police (estimated at just over 1 percent) and the Afghan National Army (estimated at less than 0.5 percent).14 Besides rarely being put in positions of authority, women police officers are also harassed and sexually assaulted by male colleagues.There have also been concerted efforts by conservative forces to roll back certain legal rights for women in areas ranging from political participation to gender-based violence.”

Political progress on the protection of women’s rights has also faced resistance, as seen in the 2013 rejection by the Afghan parliament of the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The bill, which seeks to encode in law prohibitions on child marriage, spousal abuse and punishment of raped women - all of which are still common practices in Afghanistan - was enacted by presidential decree in 2009. Yet prosecution of violators has been inconsistent in a political climate of push and pull between advancing and retracting women’s rights.According to the CFR report, “Only a small handful of gender-based violence cases proceed to court, as claims are often decided by predominantly male local councils. Therefore, instead of finding support from police, judicial institutions, and government officials, women who try to flee abusive situations often face indifference or criminal sanctions for committing moral crimes.”The precarious progress for Afghan women both inspires hope for greater gains  and fear that a return to previous conditions is an imminent possibility. As U.S. forces continue to withdraw from Afghanistan, Afghan women have voiced concern of a rollback of their rights.The need to protect and forward women’s rights has also come to the fore as the Afghan government engages in peace talks with the Taliban - which continues to hold influence and stage attacks in southern and eastern areas of the country. According to Human Rights Watch, the importance of women’s participation cannot be underestimated: “If peace talks in Afghanistan move forward, all parties should ensure that women have a meaningful presence on the negotiating teams.” Why? Because the inclusion of women in peace processes has been shown not only to increase the likelihood that women’s rights will be safeguarded through the process but also to raise the possibility of achieving lasting peace.While cliché, it remains true that change takes time. Achieved through small steps of consolidated progress, lasting gains must address the historical roots of a problem, rather than seek out quick fixes to deal with the symptoms that appear on the surface. The political narrative of the burqa - claimed both as the source of Afghan women’s oppression under the Taliban, and also of their liberation through foreign military intervention - fell short of unearthing the deeper issues of women’s rights in Afghanistan. After nearly a decade-and-a-half of military involvement, it is clear that progress for women requires much more than the lifting of a garment.A bright spot in the movement for women’s rights and empowerment has come through Afghanistan’s current President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani who, already during his first year in office, has expressed support for women’s development and inclusion and has followed through on his promise to appoint qualified women to positions in the Afghan government.  First Lady Rula Ghani, a Lebanese Christian, has also taken an active role in advocating for women’s rights, and in so doing has become an outspoken role model and champion for women across Afghanistan.