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Women in Afghanistan

The Afghan society is still dominated by a reactionary view on women’s role and status in society, especially 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.

A Brief Historical Perspective

Inspired by Turkey's secular rule under Ataturk, King Aminullah was the first Afghan ruler to take measures to strengthen women's situation vis-a-vis Afghanistan's patriarchal society. Opening up the education system to include girls, promoting the unveiling of women and adopting a more western style of dress were some examples of changes King Aminullah enforced in Afghanistan.  In 1921, he issued a law abolishing forced marriages, child marriages, bride price, and put restrictions on polygamy. Amanullah's reform policies, including his stance on women's rights, provoked the traditional powers in Afghan society and led to his toppling in 1929. For decades to come, reform attempts were much more subtle. However, in the new constitution of 1964, king Zahir Shah invited women to stand in parliamentary elections, resulting in a couple of female parliamentarians in the 1960s and -70s.

When the communists took the reigns of power in Kabul in 1978, they took immediate and drastic measures to try to reduce the grip of religion and traditional powers on Afghan society. This led to substantial progress for women in urban areas, increasing their freedom to work and partake in society outside the home. However, these reforms had little effect in the countryside, where a majority of Afghan women live, and they would soon become reversed as conflict escalated in Afghanistan. The 1990s were marred by violent civil war and the brutal Taliban rule. "This period represents one of the darkest chapters in the history of Afghan women” (UNAMA 2009).

The international effort since 2001 has brought some progress for Afghan women. However, the optimism of 2002 has faded in the more recent years, as it becomes clear that there is a wide gap between rhetoric in Kabul and the reality of Afghan women, especially in the countryside. Although the Afghan government has ratified international conventions and laws prohibiting violence against women, these have little effect on the ground. 

 Read more on women's political participation here

Violence and security

Although views on such topics as child marriage have been moving in the right direction, the general acceptance of domestic violence spans all classes and all age groups of Afghan society, among both women and men. Even among women with a secondary education or more, almost 80% agree that a man can physically punish his wife if she has broken the unwritten rules society imposes on women's behaviour or failed what is perceived as the duties of a wife. (See Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2010/2011.) 

Women who are active in politics or civil society put their life on the line and routinely receive threats or are subjected to violence. Although the law on the elimination of violence against women (EVAW) is increasingly applied by courts, its overall application remains low and faulty. Most men get light sentences if any at all. This is partly due to the burden of proof, that makes it very difficult for a woman to prove that she has been subjected to violence or rape. Many women are also discouraged by the stigma and shame that society attaches to women seeking justice before courts. In addition, the capacity and the integrity of the court system, police and prisons are also a barrier. 

Household structure and marriage

The Afghan family is a patriarchal structure, 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 or 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. 

In Afghanistan, most marriages are arranged by the families of the marrying couple, rather than as a result of a relationship by the man and the woman themselves. Although the two often don’t know each other before they become husband and wife, their union can nevertheless be 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. 

Read more about family structure and marriage here



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Sources and further reading:

  • UN Women: Multi-Province Project on Ending Violence against Women in Afghanistan, a news article, 20 October 2011– retrieved January 2013;
  • Wiebe, Todd, 2005: “Canada Doing its Part in Afghanistan,” Manitoban Newspaper Publications Corporation, Volume 93, Issue 12, 9 November 2005;
  • UNAMA: Still a Long Way to Go, Implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women in Afghanistan, a report – December 2012;
  • Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (AMICS) 2010-2011 – June 2012; (http://cso.gov.af/Content/files/AMICS-Jun24-2012-FINAL.pdf)
  • ReliefWeb report: Afghanistan: New data for Afghanistan show improvements for women, children in health, education and well-being – 27 June 2012; (http://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/new-data-afghanistan-show-improvements-women-children-health-education-and-well)
  • UNAMA: Silence is Violence, End the Abuse
of Women in Afghanistan, a Report – 8 July 2009;
  • Human Rights Watch (HRW): We Have the Promises of the World, Women’s Rights in Afghanistan, a report – 2009;
  • Senger, Emily, 2006: “A voice for Afghanistan: First female Afghan camerawoman speaks up for silenced women”, Gauntlet Publications Society, News Editor, 30 November 2006; and
  • UN Women: Multi-Province Project on Ending Violence against Women in Afghanistan, a news article, 20 October 2011– retrieved January 2013.
Norwegian Afghanistan Committee
Addresse:  Nawai Watt, Street # 03 •  Postal addresse:
work # 148 Shahr-i-Naw, KabulAfghanistan

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