The Rise and Fall of Civil Liberties in Afghanistan
by Susan Farooqi, Jurist
When we think of women in Afghanistan, we often assume that they are oppressed, and recall images of women in burqas and stories of women being brutalized. Although there is a lot of truth to these perceptions, the situation has been different in the past, and could be different in the future. Efforts to improve women's rights do not need to resist centuries of tradition; they need to merely reverse recent developments, which are themselves ahistorical.
Although women in Afghanistan were indeed historically oppressed by patriarchy, just as women in medieval Europe were often treated more as property than as individuals, this process began to change during the nineteenth century, as liberalism became an increasingly global philosophy. In particular, during the 1920s, just as women in the United States experienced new freedoms, including the right of suffrage, women in Afghanistan were also able to extend their rights and achieve what was essentially a modern status. It was not until the 1980s that this trend was reversed.
Today, even though the 2004 Afghan Constitution (PDF) calls for equal rights for women in compliance with international human rights law, gender inequality pervades all aspects of life for Afghan women. Therefore, implementing real change will require the constitutional guarantee of equal rights to have the force of law. To do so and reverse recent developments, Afghanistan should implement a Civil Rights Act, similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States. A Civil Rights Act in Afghanistan would go beyond the Constitution's mere assertion of equal rights for women, and would help to ensure that in practice, those rights are respected and upheld. Specifically, a Civil Rights Act in Afghanistan would hinder discriminatory policies that restrict women's free movement and access to employment, education, healthcare, and freedom of expression.
Increasing the number of women in the workforce, combined with improving educational opportunities for women, would have a spillover effect into the political sphere. The more independent and educated women there are in Afghanistan, the more active women can become in changing the political landscape. This is exactly what happened in the United States. As women became important fixtures in the workforce, they began to rise up in industries and became decision makers. Consequently, the United States started to have a culture that was much more favorable to women. Similar outcomes could happen in Afghanistan with a Civil Rights Act that prohibits employers from discriminating, making it easier for women to join the workforce.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of written records, we know little about the early feminists in Afghanistan who must have struggled to obtain respect. However, we do know that Emir Amanullah Khan made genuine strides to establish gender equality. Following the First World War, Amanullah consolidated his power by resisting British imperialism, and after a lengthy stalemate managed to achieve the independence for his nation that even India would not obtain for thirty more years.
Certainly something inspired Amanullah to grant greater status to women in the newly independent nation. We know that he was strongly influenced by Mahmud Tarzi, often described as the father of Afghan journalism. Tarzi had become familiar with western liberalism after prolonged visits to Turkey, France, and India, and in his newspaper, Seraj-al-Akhbar, often wrote that Afghanistan needed to create a modern civilization that accorded women the same rights and equality seen in developed nations.
Although Tarzi served Emir Amanullah as foreign minister, he played an important role in the formulation of domestic policy, criticizing the medieval madrasah and demanding that women be given full access to schools and that dress and clothing restrictions be lifted. These demands were met, and consequently women of the 1920s in Afghanistan were often indistinguishable in attire from their European and American counterparts. As seen in pictures from the time, they were allowed to wear dresses and even relatively short skirts, revealing their faces and lower legs even while in public.
Of course, the story of this development cannot and should not be focused solely on men granting rights to women. Fortunately, we do know of at least one woman who also participated in this social revolution. Tarzi's daughter, Soraya, appears to be the central figure in this story; she married Amanullah. Consequently, it appears likely that the Emir was swayed by his love for the daughter of a liberal philosopher, and she used her status as "queen" of Afghanistan to openly advocate for women's rights.
As Amanullah established a new constitutional framework for Afghanistan, polygamy was abolished (or at least strongly discouraged), women were allowed to attend schools even in rural areas, and they were no longer required to hide their faces in public. As Amanullah announced these reforms before a crowd in Kabul, Soraya dramatically tore off her veil as the crowd cheered. Afterward, she oversaw a program to finance scholarships for young women to attend universities in Turkey, and she also established the nation's first magazine for women: Ershad-I-Niswan.
Unfortunately, after the royal family visited Europe during 1928, during which Soraya was granted an honorary degree from Oxford University, they returned to Afghanistan only to find that fundamentalist Muslims were outraged by images of Soraya that had been disseminated by European media. These images had been spread widely throughout Afghanistan, showing the Empress dining with young men, dressing in a modern fashion, and even allowing her hand to be kissed by the leaders of England and Germany. Facing revolt, Amanullah was forced to abdicate, and the royal family fled to Switzerland, leaving much of their legacy to be undone.
We must realize that when we speak of the need today for women to have civil rights and access to education in Afghanistan, we are not proposing some new idea that must replace centuries of fundamentalist Islamic thought. Instead, we are simply asking that the people of Afghanistan be allowed to return to the liberties they enjoyed during the reign of Amanullah and Soraya. For most of the twentieth century, women in Afghanistan were not oppressed by Islamic radicalism, and we should denounce the oppression of the Taliban as a new phenomenon, which should not be considered to represent the historical sentiments of the Afghan people.
Susan Farooqi is a recent graduate of St. John's University School of Law. Born in New York, Ms. Farooqi is a first-generation Afghan-American. Following an extensive period of Soviet invasion in Kabul, Ms. Farooqi's parents were forced to seek asylum in the United States and have resided in New York for over 30 years. Ms. Farooqi currently has an editorial position with the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Reprinted by CounterVortex, Nov. 20, 2017