Chapter 11

Dancing with Darkness: 

The Role of Women in Afghan Society

By Dr Magsie Hamilton Little

Since the US and British armies arrived in Afghanistan ten years ago, it is fair to say that Afghan women have benefited from various positive changes in the rights attributed to them under the Afghan constitution, and in some ways they are gradually being accorded justice. 

There are now almost three million girls in full-time education (although many more do not have access to schooling at all). Currently 69 female Members of Parliament sit in the Afghan Assembly, and many more are members of development councils. Some 50 percent of Afghans working in the medical profession are women; they treat other women. In television and the media, women work as directors as well as presenters, and the Afghan National Police has a number of female officers. Childcare is rare, however, and all working Afghan women must somehow juggle work with their role as homemakers within families. 

It remains a fact, that Afghanistan is a very hard place to live in as a woman. A new code of conduct established by President Hamid Karzai in March 2012 stipulated that Afghan women should not travel without a male companion, and even then should not mingle with strange men in places such as markets, offices and schools. These rules, President Karzai argued, were consistent with the laws of Islam. So women in Afghanistan are still not allowed to venture far afield, meet a man or take part in various activities, without the permission of the male head of the house, whether husband, father or brother. 

Since there is massive unemployment and poverty, many women cannot find work at all; when they do so, most work from home. Tailoring is the most popular occupation, or farming, where they earn far less than men. Oppression is still rife, particularly in the south. Some 87 percent of women suffer violence at home, and medical care is so poor that one woman dies every half-hour in childbirth. Only 13 percent of women are literate, compared with almost 33 percent of men. 

Although educational opportunities have improved in some areas, in other, mainly rural, parts of the country, girls attending school have been attacked and their classrooms burnt to the ground. So opposed to the education and rights of women are certain sections of Afghan society that charities and aid organisations working in Afghanistan must keep the details and whereabouts of their projects secret for fear of reprisals. Women holding prominent public positions live in constant fear of their lives, and some, such as the journalist Zakia Zaki, and the councillor Sitara Achakzai, have been murdered. 

Most Western Muslim scholars argue that Islam is not to blame for the cultural inequalities and injustices suffered by women in Afghanistan. The Qur’an, they insist, actually makes women and men equal partners before God. Women are not inferior, but created from the same soul. Every instruction given to Muslims in the Qur’an refers to male and female believers alike. Both sexes are judged by the same standards, and both have the same religious obligations. 

Moderate Muslims living in the West also argue that women’s issues in Afghanistan stem from a misinterpretation of Islam’s view of men and women. Crucially, they say, according to Islam each of the sexes has differing duties and responsibilities in life, and in the society in which they dwell. This is exemplified by the Islamic view of a married couple, a view based on complementary harmony of the sexes whose dichotomy is carefully marked out before God. 

Unity and harmony in the world can be achieved only if there is harmony between the sexes; and the best way of realising that harmony is for a man to be masculine and for a woman to be feminine. There should be no guilt or denial about the differences between the sexes - these are the very things that make them available and desirable to one another and this dialogue between the sexes should be carried out in an atmosphere of mutual respect. 

It is a division of labour between men and women that has been codified in Islamic law, and in many ways it might be argued that it ought to favour the lot of the woman, in that the man has to keep her and protect her. The reality in Afghanistan, as in many Islamic societies, is very different. Ideals from the Qur’an are a far cry from the life of many women.

Afghan women like to stress that the history of their country tells a very different story from the one we read about in the Western press. They remind us of an ancient cultural tradition of Afghan women who took up arms to outshine their men in bravery – an alternative model of Afghan womanhood, far from the images of burka-covered, oppressed women presented in our media today. They talk proudly of the Afghan historical works littered with such women - of Shah Bori, the great Afghan warrior woman, who died fighting the Emperor Babur in the 16th century. 

They tell of Nazoana, who two centuries later reputedly protected the fortress of Zabul with her sword; and of Malalay of Maiwand, who just 100 years after that in 1880, led a successful rebellion against the British in the second Anglo-Afghan war, using her veil as a banner. “Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, by God someone is saving you as a token of shame,” she was said to have cried out. And her words spurred on the men, resulting in victory for the Afghans. Malalay lost her life in the fight, and to this day there are schools and hospitals named after her all over Afghanistan.

Afghan women remind us of the great King Amanullah Khan, the first modern ruler of the country, who won independence from the British in 1919, and who formed a constitution that laid out equal freedoms and rights for women. Laws were introduced abolishing forced marriage and child marriage; controls were enforced on polygamy; and a new legal age for marriage was established at 18. Tribal customs, such as that of forcing a widow to marry her deceased husband’s brother, were abandoned, and for the first time women were able to inherit property and were granted rights in divorce. 

His wife, Queen Soraya, played a vital role in his policies regarding women. In 1920, she made a speech outlining the benefits of women’s rights, which won the support of many and which spawned a number of women’s-rights groups. Just a year later, the first women’s magazine, founded by the Queen, Ershad-e Niswan (Guidance for Women) was published. Women began working in factories; the first women’s hospital was built in Kabul; and, for the first time, women entered government. Education became compulsory for every Afghan and in 1924 the first girls’ school was established. When a group of girls was sent to Turkey to continue with higher education, all were unveiled and not one was accompanied by a male relative. Later, hundreds more went to study abroad. 

Since then women’s rights in the country have been destined to fight a war of their own. When King Khan’s reforms went a step too far, as he fined women for choosing to wear the burka rather than renouncing it, he lost the support of the people and fell foul of religious fundamentalists who longed to see him fall from grace. His successor, Habibullah Kalakani, did little to further the women’s cause and many of the reforms were subsequently reversed by his successor, Mohammad Nadir Shah. 

During the turbulent period of Afghanistan’s history that followed, women’s rights gradually saw an upturn, and by the middle of the 20th century Afghan women were actively encouraged to work in many professions. By the end of the 1950s, they were putting on demonstrations in Kabul to assert their rights. Laws were passed to ban the burka and legalise short skirts.

The freedoms earned then were not necessarily due to Western influence, but were the result of progress made within Afghan society and the struggle of democratic forces in which individuals risked death for the common good. In 1979, it was a group of women, rather than men, who first resisted the Soviet puppet regime by staging a demonstration in Kabul; and a few, including Wajeha and Nahid Sahid, lost their lives as a result. 

Their sacrifice, and that of others, gave rise to RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan, established by Meena and other intellectuals. Still, attempts by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the 1970s and 1980s to promote education for women, and to modernise marriage and health, benefited the status of the fortunate minority, who were able to become doctors, teachers, scientists and civil servants. 

Despite this, the majority of Afghan women have remained constrained in many respects, living in poverty and under the rule of their male relatives. In most tribal communities men have complete control over the marriage of young girls, demanding and issuing high bride prices, or walwar, for the bride’s father and ordering the frequent honour killings of women for sexual misconduct. 

In the largely Pashtun areas of the south and east, it is generally accepted that the lives of women are governed first and foremost by pashtunwali, the law of the Pashtun. Among the large Pashtun landowner class, or zamindar, the urban Pashtun, and the pastoral, rural Pashtun, community, total seclusion of women is universal, and the burka, or chaderi or boghra, is worn when a woman leaves home. 

So consumed by the laws of pashtunwali are Pashtun women that it is sometimes hard to understand why, when their rights are discussed, the women themselves resist any advances to their welfare, even those associated with healthcare and education. The only exceptions to this rule are those Pashtuns from nomadic tribes such as the Kuchi. Kuchi women are known to take matters into their own hands and cope well without their men.

The low social status of so many women living in Afghanistan today is deep-rooted. It stems from practices that have predominated for centuries, traditions and values so embedded in society that they pre-date Islam itself. So fundamental are these customs that it is easy to see why many reforms aimed at modernising attitudes towards women have so far failed. Scholars refer us to the context of society during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, when the social status of woman throughout what is now the Middle East was – as in the West – exceedingly low.

Despite the elaborate rhapsodies to women in the songs and music of the Arabian lands at this time, the adoration of women was more inspired by lust and feelings of ownership than a true understanding of their potential, their dignity or their humanity. Society was patriarchal. Women at that time were often accorded treatment little better than that lavished upon a favourite horse. Polygamy, a commonly observed characteristic of primitive human society, was commonplace.

The only restriction was the one imposed by the size of the man’s fortune, or lack of it. Prostitution was a recognised profession – captive women, kept as handmaids, were forced to make money for their masters, who were also their pimps. Husbands were more interested in the continuation of the family than in having exclusive sexual rights to their wives. Married women who had not conceived were allowed by their husbands to conjugate with others, so as to improve their chances of becoming pregnant. This practice, known in the Islamic world as istibdza, was also known to operate at one time or another in many other societies. 

Women in the region, in the days long before Islam, were treated as chattels. A woman was not entitled to inherit any share of the estate of her deceased husband, father or other relation. On the contrary, she herself was inherited as part of the property. The man who inherited her could, if he wished, marry her, but he might instead choose to lend or give her to someone else. On the death of his father, a son could even marry his stepmother. Like the sheep, camels and carpets, she was part of his inheritance. 

A man could repeatedly divorce his wife, then take her back again, provided it was within a prescribed period known as ’iddah. He could swear never to have sexual relations with the spurned woman again, but resume relations if the mood took him. He could declare that henceforth he would look upon her “as his mother”, so that for an unspecified time she had little idea of her future role. A woman’s life was devoid of security. 

Muslims stress that the advent of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet in fact brought about a positive change in the status of women in the tribal society of the ancient Arabian lands. Qur’anic injunctions against the abuse of women, and the provisions made in Islam for their protection, did for women what the Magna Carta in England did for government. The Qur’an gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, and the Prophet Muhammad taught men that the most favoured among them was he who treated his wife best. But to plant respect and regard for woman in a soil where unwanted female infants were frequently buried alive was no easy task. The birth of a daughter was no occasion for celebration in pre-Islamic times – and, some would argue, even now. 

Before Islam, the daughter would often have been disposed of to save her father’s face; it was seen as a mark of virility and power to father sons. Women generally had little say in the fate of their daughters – it was seen as their failure, too – and sometimes explicit agreement was given at the nuptial ceremony to the slaughter of female children. There were cases where the agreement went beyond this, and it would be the duty of the mother herself to perform the infanticide. In those cases where the infant was cast away, it would be thrown screaming into a pit in the desert and buried with sand or earth. 

Even if the Afghan cultural interpretation of, and obedience to, the Qur’an has so far failed to accord women the status accorded to them even by the Prophet, it has at least succeeded in outlawing the live burial of female children. Once Islam became firmly established, there were no further recorded instances of this cruelty. 

Muslims always stress that the cruelty and barbarity of such acts is a cultural matter, and against the spirit of Islam. It is said that Muhammad loved his daughters, and praised any Muslim men who raised fostered girls. The Prophet himself railed against the rejection of daughters – not only did he treat his own four surviving children, all girls, with tenderness and consideration, but he also harshly condemned infanticide. In Muhammad’s words: “Whoever hath a daughter and doth not bury her alive or scold her or prefer his male children to her, may God bring him into paradise.”

Prejudices against women that existed in early times have proved impossible to erase over the centuries. Afghanistan remains as much a patriarchal society today as it was in ancient times. It is a great tragedy that many modern Afghan women are forced to regard the birth of a daughter, rather than a son, as a shameful event. Stories abound of wives having given birth to a girl being driven out by their husbands, or of new mothers trying to leave behind their baby daughters at the hospitals where they gave birth. 

A baby girl may be deprived in a subtle, or sometimes none-too-subtle, way from the cradle onwards. Poor mothers, anxious to have another chance of bearing a son, tend to wean their girl babies early. These women are aware that once they stop breast-feeding they are more likely to become pregnant again, and the daughter pays for her mother’s ambitions by being underfed in the early months. 

Critics of Islam argue that such cruel practices have been exacerbated by values held by the Islamic faith. They say those wishing to reinforce the notion of the primacy of man have used the Qur’an to justify their views. Woman proceeds from man. Woman is chronologically secondary. She finds her fulfilment through man. She is made for his pleasure and his repose, and this primacy of the male seems to be exemplified by a much-debated verse. Surah 2:28 is often translated as: “Husbands have a degree (of right) over them (their wives).” Most Western Muslims, however, argue that the context of this statement relates to the question of rights of divorce between husbands and wives. Partly because of a misinterpretation of this verse, they say, very strict Muslims subsequently prohibited the appointment of female judges. 

Equally, some Muslim scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries have used various hadiths from the collections of Bukhari and Muslim to support the argument that women are intrinsically inferior to men – although one scholar, Riffat Hassan, has examined these claims in detail, and maintains that all such hadiths can be traced to a contemporary companion of Muhammad called Abu Hurairah. Such hadiths are commonly dismissed as unreliable, he says, and do not reflect the sayings or beliefs of the Prophet. They simply reflect the cultural prejudices that existed centuries ago – not only in Afghanistan, but wherever they had previously existed in pre-Islamic societies that subsequently adopted the religion. 

In the 20th century, conditions for all women in Afghanistan deteriorated dramatically with the escalating political influence of groups that not only supported the old tribal ways, but adhered to an extremist interpretation of the Islamic shari'a. In 1992 Gulbuddin Hekmaytar’s Hezb-e Islami began to wage a Jihad against the Islamic state, born of a peace and power-sharing treaty known as the Peshawar Accord. 

During the violent years of civil war that ensued, many women were abducted, raped, and sold into prostitution and slavery. When Hekmaytar became prime minister in 1996, the hopes and dreams of all Afghan women were obliterated. Taliban leaders sharing Hekmaytar’s orthodox view of Islam forbade women to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male member of the family, and to do so only under full cover of the burka. Education was forbidden, girls’ schools were burned to the ground and daughters who dared to defy the rules were poisoned. 

Work, too, was banned, although a few women who served in the medical field were allowed to continue to treat other women. Women were still frowned upon for going to hospital, and those who did so were often beaten. During these dark days, Taliban officials would constantly argue that the brutal restrictions placed on women in Afghanistan were a way of protecting them. 

Extreme orthodox Muslims such as the Taliban have interpreted the Qur’an not only to suggest the primacy of man over woman, but to assert that all women should remain secluded in the house, effectively under house arrest. In modern Afghanistan, the majority of women go out only with their husbands or other male family members, and all believe that if they go to work or to school, the sexes there should be segregated. 

With this in mind, it is important to stress that the widespread seclusion or segregation of Muslim women is not an Islamic dictate and was never actually instructed by the Prophet. The Qur’an itself prescribes some degree of segregation for the wives, but there is nothing in it that requires their total seclusion in a separate part of the house. Such customs were adopted some three or four generations after the Prophet’s death; originally the seclusion of women had been an ancient cultural practice adopted as far back as the third century by the wealthier classes of society who wished to preserve their privacy. 

Islamic scholars point out that the practice of total seclusion, such as that advocated by Taliban extremists, is not just part of tribal law but has arisen over time from a disputed interpretation of the verses in the Qur’an that were addressed to the Prophet’s wives, in particular Surah 33.32-3: “O wives of the Prophet! You are not like ordinary women. If you fear Allah, do not be too casual in your speech, lest someone with an unsteadfast heart should be moved with desire . . . live quietly in your houses, and do not make a worldly display, as in the times of ignorance; establish regular prayer and give regular charity, and obey Allah and his apostle.” 

Extremist Muslims have interpreted this to mean they should always remain in their homes. Most people, however, believe they should not be forced to do so. Muhammad’s wives circulated freely, retreating to their houses for privacy when appropriate. They and the women of Medina went with the men to pray together at the mosque, took a full part in public life and even, according to Arab tradition, sometimes fought alongside men in battle. 

When the Taliban ordered all women to cover up under the full burka, or chaderi, as it is known locally, those refusing to wear it were flogged and beaten. Images of Afghan women covered from head to toe in blue shrouds still abound in the media today, although these days not all women wear the burka in Afghanistan, particularly in the country's capital city of Kabul. 

In the Pashtun rural areas of the south and east, however, many still have no choice but to submit to it, just as they submit to their husbands. Thousands are killed or injured every year in road accidents because the burka forces women to walk slowly since it restricts vision and movement. Women, invisible to the outside world, describe wearing it in almost paradoxical terms. Universally it constitutes a prison, but although they long to be released, it also offers a sense of safety.

Despite the many restrictions and injustices faced by Afghan women in society, they have always had a central part to play at the heart of family life as wives, mothers, sisters and aunts. While the father is the head of the family, the mother is seen to be the heart of it. Outside the home, a woman has no power at all, but inside she reigns supreme. She is the mediator where there are disagreements and the peacemaker when there are quarrels. It is often she who acts as the young people’s matchmaker, a role that should not be underestimated.

Family is at the heart of Islamic life in Afghanistan. As Muslims see it, family forms the basic social structure that God intended for all human beings, and provides stability in a frequently unstable society. An extended family provides a vital support network for all members. Nephews know their uncles well, cousins are like brothers and the family is an entity that marches through life as one. Children, as anywhere, are regarded as a blessing from God to any married couple. Whereas between a father and his children, mutual respect is perhaps a more prominent feature of the dynamic than intimacy, an Afghan mother is the emotional pivot of the family. As in societies all over the world, she often acts as a buffer between father and children.

Since a good and devout home life is essential, making a good marriage is of the utmost importance. A good match is the first step towards a happy family life, and in a poor country such as Afghanistan it is also often a question of survival for women who would be destitute if left unmarried. Marriage in Afghanistan is not about meeting and falling in love, however. It is a serious business. It is not thought of as a match made in heaven between two perfectly suited people, but a practical arrangement that brings both rights and obligations, and which can only be successful when these are respected and upheld by both parties. 

Family flows from marriage and therefore any future wife is a potential mother, and any husband a father. In the West we may talk approvingly of how very much in love a young couple is, but to an Afghan family, the state of being in love is regarded as a dangerous obsession that may lead the young couple to make foolish decisions. 

Parents say it is important to have a clear head and understanding of the probable outcome of a union. Are the two young people likely to mature in a way that will lead to a happy, fruitful and lasting union? Idealised views of marriage belong in Bollywood, say most educated Afghans. They argue that marriage is about responsibility, duty, sacrifice and self-discipline, not about self-gratification and selfishness. It is a binding agreement between two consenting adults, in which both are ultimately answerable for their actions. 

In this contract, rights are allocated to man and woman, and the two separate roles of husband and wife are clearly defined. The concept of the husband as protector and provider for his family is paramount in both culture and religion. According to Islam, husbands have a duty to look after their wives, to protect and care for them. As the Qur’an says: “Husbands should take full care of their wives (with the bounties) God has given to some more than to others and with what they spend out of their own money.” 

Meanness within a marriage is as unacceptable to an Islamic household as authoritarianism underpinned with violence would be in any marriage. But there are just as many stipulations for how a wife should behave in the Qur’an and Sunnah as there are in the ancient tribal laws. Afghan men take these very seriously. A wife, it is said, should endear herself to her husband and be keen to please him, never disclose his secrets, stand by him and offer advice, treat his family with kindness and respect, help him to obey God, encourage him to give charitably, make herself beautiful for him, be cheerful and grateful when she meets him, never look at another man, share his joys and his sorrows, be tolerant and forgiving, try to create an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity for him and, after all this, she should also be tolerant and wise. 

Above all, a wife is chosen according to her likely abilities as parent. It is to be expected that she would want to have children, as it is in that role that a woman is regarded as most important. As such, she is responsible for setting the benchmark for manners, morality and seeing the children are brought up under the guiding principles of Islam. 

Of all the virtues that the ideal wife should possess, perhaps the most contentious is her obedience to her husband, which is equally a dictate of the ancient tribal law and of Islamic shari'a. If a wife lives up to all this, it is said she is the greatest blessing that God can bestow upon a man and an incomparable joy in his life. No wonder it is so hard to be a woman in Afghanistan. 

An Afghan family would be horrified if they thought that their sons and daughters were finding their future partners on the internet, as happens in the modern secular West, and at the thought that the honour and future of the entire family depended on such a chance encounter. It is the older generation, in particular the women, that discuss the potential of their children, relations and younger friends, and their likely compatibility. In many cases, the conclave – composed of members of the family – selects a partner from among its own members, and most usually, although not always, from its own tribe. 

Different tribes adopt different rituals and in many, first-cousin marriage is common. In the search for a suitable partner, initial discreet introductions are made over tea. In theory, according to the laws of pashtunwali as those of Islam, young people have the right to refuse their proposed mates, yet in practice this rarely is allowed to happen.

Negotiations ensue regarding the mahr, the settlement given by the groom in the case of divorce, which usually takes the form of livestock, property or money, and the jehz, the dowry, payable by men directly to each of his future wives, not to their families. Once an Afghan girl has married into a family, she thereby has her own wealth. In Islam, this practice arose out of an interpretation of a Qur’anic verse that requires husbands to take financial care of their wives: “And give the women a free gift, but if they of their own good pleasure remit any part of it to, you take it and enjoy it with good cheer,” states verse 4. There are normally two separate ceremonies - the nikhah, the official ceremony for signing the contracts, and then the arusi to which guests are invited.

All weddings, whatever variances in tribal customs, are a display to family and friends. The wedding is an event that makes the marriage a public affair. If the actual wedding is low-key, the party that follows it rarely is. The Islamic prohibition against displays of ostentation is temporarily forgotten and a wedding party can last for days. Although many families live in dire poverty, small fortunes are saved up long ahead for the big day. It is said that the splendour of the occasion ensures that the marriage between the couple is widely known and accepted. They have joined the social hierarchy, have become part of the local establishment, and this is to be celebrated.

Despite King Amanullah’s heroic efforts to raise the age of marriage for women in the country, most Afghans today, particularly those living in the rural areas of Afghanistan, still believe it is part of their culture to marry a girl before she is 18 years old. According to a recent report by the United Nations, between 60 and 80 percent of marriages in Afghanistan are forced. Most young girls are married between the ages of seven and 11 years, and it is rare that a girl reaches sixteen years still unmarried. 

In such instances, it is the father who decides - the girl herself does not have a choice. Child marriages and forced marriages often lead to severe distress for the young bride, psychological and physical abuse and in some cases, suicide and even murder. Often girls are compelled to marry for reasons that are nothing to do with them – for repayment of family debts, or solving disputes. In some tribes a girl will be told to marry her brother-in-law to secure financial support for the children of her sister, and some sisters are even forced to pay for the crime of their brothers by marrying the brother’s victim. 

All these instances constitute breaches of human rights that are contrary to Islamic law. Under Islam, if it becomes apparent that undue pressure in any form was put upon the bride or bridegroom, the marriage can be dissolved as if it had never taken place. However, the reality is that securing such an annulment is almost universally impossible. Although Islam provides fair rights for women in situations of divorce, in Afghanistan it is extremely hard to secure these, and extremely rare.

Marriage is directly linked to a variety of other human rights issues in Afghanistan. Most are caused by cultural problems and by the interpretation of religious law. Stories abound of wives being beaten by husbands. A sanction stated specifically in the Qur’an, Surah 3.24, remains one of the most, if not the most, controversial in the Qur’an: “If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them (of the teachings of God), then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit (or overcome) them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them.” 

Muslims defend this verse by saying we should refer to the sayings of Muhammad in order to put it into context. They argue that Muhammad himself never hit any woman, just as he did not beat a child, an old person or a slave. What he did say was that a husband could not hit his wife and then expect her to share his bed that night. The blameless husband was one who discovered that his wife was conducting herself badly, and in such a way as brought shame on both of them, for as the head of the household it was his duty to do something about it. Moderate Muslims argue that there is no proposal that a husband should hit his wife out of anger or disappointment. According to Islamic law, if a husband bruised his wife he could be sued. 

One Islamic scholar, Dr Ahmad Shafaat, writes that, “A wife has no religious obligation to take a beating. She can ask for or get a divorce at any time. If the husband beats a wife without respecting the limits set down by the Qur’an, she can take him to court, and if ruled in favour has the right to apply for the law of retaliation, and may have the husband beaten as he beat her.” Muslims also argue that Muhammad himself was the first to despise any kind of abuse towards those who could not defend themselves. Despite all this, the fact remains that many wives in Afghanistan suffer beatings and other forms of physical violence at the hand of their husbands, on the premise that it is in accordance with the laws of Islam and their cultural ways.

Human rights abuses against women are often thought to stem from the practice of polygamy in the region. Regarded with distrust by those brought up in non-polygamous societies, the practice in countries such as Afghanistan is often thought to have no purpose other than to satisfy a man’s greater libido. It is, however, a cultural norm that dates back to pre-Islamic Arabia. Long before the Prophet Muhammad was born, the region’s people had been polygamous, and the custom’s acceptance into Islam was, in fact, a result of kindness and compassion towards women. Women were frequently left widowed due to the wars during the expansion of the Islamic Empire, or of early death from then-endemic diseases. Remarriage provided a better and more protected life for the widow, as well as financial security. 

Although those women who did not immediately re-marry after divorce or widowhood could return to their paternal homes, there was often the expectation that re-marriage, even if polygamous, was a possibility and that the family would not have to bear any financial burden for too long. If the woman was still of childbearing age, she had a much greater likelihood of finding another husband in a society that encouraged polygamy. 

On other occasions, an older woman would often re-marry, not only to avoid loneliness, but because either her wealth or connections were advantageous to the man. Sometimes, being a second or third wife enabled the woman to live her own life without the restrictions of being a man’s only companion – thus, she might pursue a career as she desired. 

Muslims argue that, on the contrary, the human rights abuses that exist in Afghanistan have nothing to do with the “true” Islam. Islam itself has always used marriage as a means of protecting a single woman alone in society, they say, and this dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. During his lifetime, Muhammad instructed that it was the duty of a man to protect widows and older women without a family of their own. 

In many cases, the only way in which a man who had no sound financial background was able to establish his own harem was to obey the Prophet’s instruction, and find a rich, older woman whose money would support younger wives. The older wife then assumed a quasi-maternal role to the young wives, while being a “sugar-mummy” to the man of the house.

Polygamy, one way or another, was a cultural device that kept the number of single women in society to a minimum. Although in our Western secular society it is hard to find comparisons to this scenario, we know that in times gone by an unmarried sister, who later became the valued aunt, was an important part of family life. 

Few families were without single women, who spanned the generations and became beloved figures in many households. It is still not unusual for women to remain single, but now, rather than devoting their lives to other people’s children, they have made careers for themselves in the professions. Women run their own lives, make their own domestic as well as professional decisions, and may or may not choose to marry.

Strictly speaking, according to Islam, there are rules for taking on more than one wife, although in fact comparatively few abide by them in most Afghan tribal groups. Officially, the eldest and first wife has to approve any new addition to the family. As each new wife is added, those who are already ensconced are supposed to give their approval, and the new wife’s behaviour is monitored so that it will not cause disruption. Islam dictates that the wives have to be fairly and equally treated.

It is a Western myth that the husband has to sleep with each of the wives equally often. No law can control his sexual desires, especially as he grows older. It is laid down, however, that the man of the house shall spend equal time with the different wives, including an equal number of nights but how they pass the time when together is not, and cannot be, stipulated. Financially, wives are all supposed to be treated equally, just as a good British parent soon learns that if one of the family is given a present, each member must be similarly treated. 

All these points justify the practice of polygamy, but the reality in countries such as Afghanistan is often very different. Although the intention is that the wives should live together as a happy band of sisters, this is clearly not always the case. Polygamy can be, and often is, a recipe for discord and disaster. The first, and usually oldest, wife often resents her husband bringing another woman into the house, and younger women can become jealous if one of their number seems to be acquiring the status of sexual favourite. 

Still today in Afghanistan there remains little respect for single women, who are often those widowed in the many wars and tribal battles over the past few decades. The Qur’an may affirm that “wealth and children are not essential to earthly life”, but the truth is that an Afghan woman who has not had children approaches old age with trepidation. A woman is regarded as a future wife until she is obviously past child bearing. 

If widowed, and too old for remarriage, she is revered for the sake of her dead husband. Cultural customs normally predominate. Among Pashtun tribes, a widow will always marry the brother of her deceased husband. If a widow resists the pressure to marry, or is unable to marry within the family, she must live a life with little status – even if family honour requires her men-folk to protect her. Marriage and the family are taken extremely seriously in Islam as well as in tribal law. Honour is of the utmost importance. Recent occurrences of stonings and shootings by Taliban extremists are a tragic reminder that adultery is still considered such a heinous crime that the just punishment for it is death. 

The news that US and Afghan officials are holding peace talks with Taliban leaders in Saudi Arabia fills the women of Afghanistan with dread at what those discussions might herald for them and their families. There are just nine women out of 70 members of the High Peace Council, which is designated to spearhead the peace discussions. Many men on the Council themselves dismiss the presence of those women, arguing that they are there only to keep up appearances. If the talks take a Taliban-sympathetic line, tiny free expressions of femininity will be sure to disappear once again, and a husband will recognise his wife – because he buys her shoes for her. 

A report by Action Aid found that 86 percent of women questioned were deeply concerned about the prospect of a new Taliban-influenced government. And in the urban areas, that figure increased to 92 percent. Women in Afghanistan are concerned lest peace be sought at any price. If that means kow-towing to the Taliban on women’s rights, then the entire country will take a huge step backwards. To ensure effective progress is made on all fronts, Afghan and US leaders must ensure that women are actively involved in a settlement for the future that protects the rights accorded to women in recent years. It is a future that, for the women of Afghanistan, now more than ever hangs in the balance.


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