The right to divorce. The right to make your own reproductive decisions. The right to an abuse-free marriage. As women in Western nations, we take these rights for granted — but it’s taken centuries of activism to get to this point. Many women in developing nations around the world are still fighting for something far more basic: the right to exist.
Though the Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001, its misogynist legacy is still deeply embedded in the country's civil society, and impedes women from seeking jobs and education. In 2011, Thomson Reuters found it to be the most dangerous country for women, despite the fact that, proportionally, there are more women who hold political office in Afghanistan than in the United States. The problem isn’t so much political as it is cultural. “I am so scared [for my life] every day,” says 20-year-old musician Negin Khpalwak, one of the four women Refinery29 profiled to examine the current state of feminism in Afghanistan. “When we have a concert, on the way in, we are scared someone will come and attack us.”
For a generation of Afghani women, just having a job and pursuing a hobby can be a life-or-death act.
According to A.H. Monjurul Kabir, the senior program advisor at U.N. Women, gender equality is one of the critical challenges in Afghanistan today. “The government does not deny this. But in any society, you have to have a socio-cultural movement happening simultaneously or parallel to political and institutional ones.” That means influencing the hearts and minds of its citizens while expanding institutions like social protection, education, and healthcare. “A woman who wants to work may not always be threatened physically or with violence,” points out journalist Khaleda Khorsand, who today focuses on women’s issues and human rights in her writing . “Women are under enormous psychological pressure from their families.” These cultural stigmas can further exacerbate an already bleak situation: “When your economic independence is taken away, you are treated like a thing which is only there to be used,” says Khorsand.
During the Taliban’s rule, violence against women was rampant, access to healthcare was limited, and nearly all personal freedoms were taken away.
From 1994 to 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan with an authoritarian grip, and imposed an incredibly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on its citizenry. Men and women were subject to draconian laws that restricted access to music, TV, and non-religious books. They established severe guidelines about how people should appear in public; women were required to wear a full head-to-toe blue burqa, and even then, had to be escorted by a male family member. This forced many women (especially those who were widowed, unmarried, elderly, or from small families) into virtual house arrest. The punishments for disobeying were severe: You could be whipped for not covering your ankles, and stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage. A 1998 Physicians for Human Rights study found that among the 160 Afghani women surveyed, 97% suffered from depression, 71% reported a decline in physical health, 81% reported declines in their mental condition, and 100% reported that they had become unemployed.
“I cannot believe we spent a period like that under the Taliban,” says Roya Sadat, who returned to work in cinema after the Taliban lost power, and is recognized as the first modern female filmmaker in Afghanistan. “It was like a dream. In general, it was very bad, but especially for women.” During the Taliban regime, Sadat worked at a women’s hospital, the only vocation available to women at the time, and held secret theater performances of her scripts. In 2003, she founded the first independent Afghan film company with her sister, where she today produces TV shows and movies that tackle the long-lasting effects of under-education and religious extremism, especially on women. “Some things have changed for women — we have women active in politics and society. But, the Taliban and fundamentalism is still a part of society. I still fear for my life. The basic right I’m fighting for is the right to exist. We exist, and I’m using cinema and film to send a message to the world that we exist as human beings.”
Khorsand was one of the few women who worked while the Taliban was still in power. Her reporting on the sexual abuse of a young woman by a local religious leader made international news, but led to threats and harassment. After she participated in a debate about secularism, Khorsand was followed home by a stalker who harassed her for days. In 2005, Khorsand’s friend and colleague poet Nadia Anjuman was killed by her husband after they fought about whether she could leave the house to visit her sister. He was released from jail after one month. “As a woman who works in broadcast media and as someone who drives, every time I leave my house, I realize I may not come home,” says Khorsand.
That fear of violence and imprisonment is enough to prevent many women from ever entering the workforce (not to mention that a decade without public education and work opportunities left a generation of women underqualified and undereducated for careers today). But in more conservative communities, family pressures can be the first, and most impervious roadblock — and the decision to pursue a career reframed as selfish and improper. “Sometimes I ask myself why I’m like this,” says 20-year-old Khpalwak, who moved from Kunar in eastern Afghanistan to Kabul to study music, against her family’s wishes. “I chose to study music and because of that, I am 'bad.' I’m not bad. Music is my life. Music shows people the good things in life."
For certain members of Khpalwak’s family, the decision to pursue her creative outlet was unacceptable and enough to break ties. “Just my father supports me. My uncles told my father to not let me go to Kabul and study. But my father said, 'It's Negin's life. Negin's wish is to play music.’ So my father and I are done talking with our uncles." Negin studies in a girl’s school operated by the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO), and is the conductor of Afghanistan’s only all-woman orchestra, Zohra. Just last year, suicide bombers attacked a concert hall where her classmates playing in Kabul. No one was injured, but the threat from religious fundamentalist opposed to women playing music is constant and real.
For Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team soccer player Pashtana Rasoul, targeted acts of violence are also a very real threat. “I can’t go back to my home province [Jalalabad] because of the Taliban. They will attack me because I’m studying outside of my province.” During the Taliban’s regime, women were strictly forbidden to play sports, and the Ghazi National Olympic Stadium was used as a base for public executions and stonings. Today, Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team plays there.
Rasoul is currently the executive director at AFCECO, which provides her with the facilities, transportation, and security to coach a group of girls. Rasoul’s livelihood would have been impossible just fifteen years ago as an unmarried woman without a male member of her family to escort her in public. (Her father was imprisoned by a Jehadi war faction during the Soviet-Russian war.) She would not have been able to leave her hometown, get an education, have a job, appear without a burka, or play sports. She would not have been able to choose who and when she wants to marry. Even today, 60% of Afghani girls are married by 16. Her life is a rejection of the status quo, and seen as radical — and thus dangerous — today.
Rasoul, Khorsand, Khpalwak, and Sadat are among some of the most prominent female professionals in Afghanistan, appearing in international news outlets, posting about their career successes on social media, and speaking out about the role they believe women should have in public. “If women are more visible in public and wider policy making, then the whole power dynamic will start changing,” Kabir points out. All this exposure has only increased the risks. Even though it is no longer illegal to attend school or hold a job, the immense social pressures imposed by families, community patriarchs, and vigilantes make it incredibly perilous to do so. But despite their circumstances, Afghani women like Rasoul are committed to living and defending the life they’ve chosen.
“Women and girls should be free. They should be able to work as equals to men. They should never lose hope even in a country like Afghanistan where men have all the power,” demands Rasoul. Like thousands of other women across Afghanistan who have to risk their lives in order to live their lives, she is confident that she’s on the right side of history.
"I never think about the boys because I have a lot of jobs to do," says Rasoul. She pauses as if to consider what that means. "I have a lot of hope for my future.”
We've partnered with executive producer, America Ferrera, to tell the stories from immigrants, refugees, and women who saw their basic rights stripped away — and how they overcame. Broaden your perspective by watching Behind the Headlines.