Ten years after the birth of a new era in the history of Afghanistan, women and the girls remain the most vulnerable and oppressed section of Afghan society. There has been a marked improvement in the overall quality of life for the Afghan people in recent years. However, the gains made have not been translated into a better life for an overwhelming majority of Afghan women.
The age-old bonds and shackles of oppression and violence against the Afghan woman and girl have not been untied and for a majority of these women, hope is elusive. Self-immolation by Afghan women has been on the rise in recent years.
An Afghan woman willing to take the extreme step and immolates herself and her body is an indication of the extent of misery and injustice meted out to her. For the self-immolating woman, setting oneself ablaze, in addition to being a decision to end one's life, is also a strong expression of her sense of disgust and revulsion at the desperation and the excruciating pain she has been made to go through.
The self-immolating Afghan woman registers her revolt and rebellion against injustice given to her by engulfing herself in the flames of fire and painting her body and her life in the yellow and red colors of fire.
For many more Afghan women living in villages and rural communities throughout Afghanistan, putting up with the brutality and violence of married life is a constant, taught to them from the very childhood.
They are taught to be conformists to the status quo, to be obedient to the will of the men that own them and forgo themselves, their lives, their health and their whole existence in silence and in service of their male masters. The girl, much like the adult woman, goes through a cycle of violence and brutality.
Champions of women rights and feminists have not been scarce in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Their campaigns of pushing for greater reform of the society has paled in front of the enormity of the task and the social inertia of an Afghan society in which positive change has been hard to come by.
Feminism in post-Taliban Afghanistan, however, has been hostage to many social, economic and cultural factors that have held back the growth and consolidation of this movement. It is interesting to observe that as a new generation of post-Taliban young girls starts to graduate from high schools and universities, a new breath of life is being blown into the nascent feminist movement in Afghanistan.
Kabul, two months ago, was the scene of processions organized by young Afghan girls and women who had poured unto the streets to protest against rampant street harassment. Such occasions that see a new generation of Afghan women standing up for their rights are surely going to become more commonplace in the years to come.
A new breed of young, educated, financially-independent and self-confident Afghan women is now being born. In the coming years, the saga of Afghan women's quest for their rights will be largely re-defined as this new generation takes their rightful place in our society and in various public and private institutions.
A brief history of feminism in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, there has not been an organized and coherent feminist movement until the post-Taliban years in which we are now. It is only in the recent years in which we witness the formation and advancement of a feminist movement spearheaded by enlightened Afghan women and supported by diverse civil society institutions and the international community.
The earlier attempts at improving the condition of women, achieving fairer treatment of them and trying to emancipate them from the bonds of tradition that is wrongly understood as religion were gross failures.
King Amanullah and his wife Queen Soraya's failed attempts at promoting education for women and relaxing their strict dress code and exhorting women to do away with the face veil contributed to the king's early downfall.
Mohammad Daud Khan, during his prime minister-ship, supported removal of face veil by women and encouraged greater social and political participation by women. The 1964 constitution introduced by Zahir Shah for the first time granted suffrage or the right to vote to women of 22 years of age and above and allowed them liberty in pursuing education and work outside the confines of home.
This progressive transition continued in Kabul and major cities and Afghanistan's experiment with gradual education and liberation of women came to deliver a measure of promising results.
Afghanistan's march towards educating and emancipating its women, although limited in scope and reaching mainly the urban elites, was brought to a halt with the 'Saur Revolution' in 1978 and the ensuing conflict and instability that engulfed the country.
The demands and aims of Afghanistan's new wave of feminism in the post-Taliban era are a combination of what the first and second waves of western feminism of 19th and 20th centuries endeavored to accomplish.
The cornerstone of Afghan women's struggle has been reforming the strictly patriarchal inter-gender relations in a still deeply conservative society and untying many bonds of tradition which, through centuries, have been wrongly understood as religion.
Looking at the theoretical foundations of Afghan feminism, we see that, much like its counterparts in other Muslim societies, Afghan feminism does not strictly follow in the footsteps of Western feminism. Afghan feminism, although adopting and using many useful insights, concepts and experiences from western feminism, is predicated within a framework that has roots in Afghan society's Islamic and oriental tradition.
Western feminism stresses a religion-free liberation of women; it regards the woman as an individual and emphasizes the self as opposed to the wider units of family and society. Western feminism places self-gratification of woman ahead of service to society and community.
Afghan vision of feminism, on the other hand and much like other feminist movements in other Muslim countries, strives to challenge the ways in which religious authorities interpret religion and the holy texts to subdue and subjugate women. It struggles to define a new and honorable place for the woman, girls and the girl brides.