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Image: Family stucture and marriage
 Photo: Liv Kjølseth
Photo: Liv Kjølseth

Family stucture and marriage

The Afghan society is dominated by a reactionary view on women’s roles and rights. While some urban women enjoy some rights and even work outside the home, more traditional views still reign strong in the countryside. Although the state has ratified international agreements and a national action plan for women’s rights, there is a chasm between these agreements and the reality Afghan women face.

The Afghan family is a patriarchal entity, as it is in other countries in the region. That means that as a general rule, a male family member decides over a women’s life, whether it is her father, brother, husband Many women in Afghanistan never leave the house without a burqa. Although the dress code in the cities is more liberal, a head scarf is a minimum. Photo: World Bank Photo Collection under CC license on Flickror brother-in-law. The male head of the household will, at least nominally, take all major decisions regarding the woman’s life: whether she gets to go to school as a girl, whom she marries and even whether or not a pregnant woman is allowed to seek professional medical help.

Not as bleak as the stereotypical picture

Western media often paints an excessively negative picture of family structure in Afghanistan. Were one to believe the most negative descriptions, one might think that a majority of Afghan girls get married off before reaching puberty, to men who are many years their senior, and often as a second, third or fourth wife. In fact, child marriage is a decreasing trend and polygamy does not seem to be very common either. The more education a woman has, the less likely she is to get married off as a child or to fight for her position among several wives in the same household. Marrying age is considerably lower in the West and the Central highlands than in other areas. Surprisingly, marrying a man who is more than 10 years older is more common in cities and among women with secondary education or more. 

Wide acceptance for domestic violence

On the other hand, surveys do confirm that it is generally accepted among Afghans that a husband can beat his wife if she has challenged his authority or otherwise failed in one of her domestic duties. Over 90% of women accept as a principle that a husband has the right to use physical violence against his wife if she does one of the following: leaves the house without telling him, argues with him, neglects the children, refuses to have sex with him or burns the food (in the order of the most support to the least). There is not a big difference between the older women and the younger. Even among women with secondary education or more, as many as 77% think that domestic violence can be justified. 

Arranged marriages

Traditional bridal jewellery from the Kabul region. In Afghanistan, most marriages are arranged by the families of the marrying couple, rather than as a result of a relationship initiated by the man and the woman themselves. Although a man and a woman often don’t know each other before they become husband and wife, their union may nevertheless become happy and harmonious. Unfortunately, in some cases a poor family may be forced to marry off a daughter to settle debts or conflicts, rather than finding the most suitable man for her. Although this is a well known pattern, it is difficult to estimate how common it is.


Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2010-2011: Final Report, by the Central Statistics Organisation (CSO) [Afghanistan] and UNICEF.

Norwegian Afghanistan Committee
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